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Pentagon leaders wary of big military justice changes

Jun. 4, 2013 - 11:15AM   |  
Martin Dempsey
Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey arrives June 4 on Capitol Hill to testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on pending legislation regarding sexual assaults in the military. (Susan Walsh / AP)
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Senior military leaders made clear Tuesday that they want to eliminate the scourge of rape and sexual assault from the ranks but are unwilling to take such a dramatic step as removing the chain of command from the courts-martial process.

“The risks inherent to military service should never include the risk of sexual assault,” said Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs. “Sexual assault is a crime that demands accountability and consequences. It betrays the very trust on which our profession is founded.

“We can and must do more,” Dempsey told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “We must be open to every idea and option to accelerate meaningful, institutional change.”

That does not mean accepting every idea being floated, however. Military leaders are concerned that one bill pending before the committee, the Military Justice Improvement Act, would go too far by stripping the chain of command from responsibility for deciding when to bring criminal charges against an accused member and reviewing and potentially modifying a verdict or sentence.

While poor handling of rape and sexual assault cases are the primary reason for the rash of legislation, this bill, S 871, sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., would apply to all serious offenses not directly related to maintaining good order and discipline.

Dempsey said the military “must be open to every idea and option,” but added that “reducing command responsibility could adversely affect the ability of the commander to enforce professional standards and ultimately to accomplish the mission.”

“Of course, commanders and leaders of every rank must earn trust to engender trust in their units,” Dempsey said. “Most do. Most do not allow unit cohesion to mask an undercurrent of betrayal.”

Congress will act. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the armed services committee chairman, said every committee member “wants to drive sexual assault out of the military.”

“Even one case of sexual assault in the military is one too many,” he said. “Nobody who volunteers to serve our country should be subject to this kind of treatment by those with whom they serve.”

Levin said he understands the military’s concerns, but “we cannot successfully address this problem without a culture change throughout the military.”

“Discipline is at the heart of the military culture, and trust is its soul. The plague of sexual assault erodes both the heart and the soul,” Levin said.

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