No less than three bills have been introduced in Congress to address the Defense Department's 2012 Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military, which was released a month ago.
The report sent "shock waves" through Washington when it estimated that last year, 26,000 service members experienced "unwanted sexual contact" from within the ranks.
The report came on the heels of a controversial case in Aviano, Italy, where a U.S. base commander overruled a guilty verdict in an officer's rape trial rendered by a U.S. military court.
While the Pentagon report isn't perfect — "unwanted sexual contact" is not the same as "sexual assault" — it is a call to reasonable action for a problem that has simmered below the surface much too long.
We find it totally unacceptable that only a small percentage of the thousands of sexual-misconduct cases reported annually actually get a judicial response. In 2012, for instance, the Pentagon took in more than 19,000 complaints, yet just 1,108 were investigated, 575 were "processed" for legal action, and 96 sent to a court-martial.
How the U.S. military's response compares to that of U.S. civilian courts is anyone's guess. No data is available although that will change. Last year's National Defense Authorization Act asked the Pentagon to undertake a major study to find the answers — and that task begins this summer.
But that's too long to wait for a remedy. The bipartisan bill recently filed by U.S. Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri) and Susan Collins (R-Maine), and U.S. Reps. Mike Turner (R-Ohio) and Niki Tsongas (D-Massachusetts) has caught our attention for its comprehensiveness. It sets in motion a new chain of command culture in which sexual misconduct is no longer tolerated. Perpetrators are dealt with harshly; victims are given protective rights.
The most controversial aspect of the bill would eliminate a commander's authority to change or dismiss a court-martial conviction for any charge other than a minor offense. In addition, a person found guilty of rape, sexual assault, forcible sodomy, or an attempt to commit any of those offenses would receive a punishment that includes, at minimum, a dismissal or dishonorable discharge.
As Tsongas points out, U.S. servicemen and women who are victims of sexual assault should no longer fear the possibility of being betrayed by their superiors. "The people who commit these crimes must be held accountable, not let off the hook," Tsongas said.