Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey testifies June 4 on Capitol Hill before the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on pending legislation regarding sexual assaults in the military. At the witness table, from left, are Judge Advocate General of the Coast Guard Rear Adm. Frederick J. Kenney Jr.; Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Robert J. Papp Jr.; Staff Judge Advocate to the Marine Corps Commandant Maj. Gen. Vaughn A. Ary; Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James F. Amos; Judge Advocate General of the Army Lt. Gen. Dana K. Chipman; Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno; Dempsey; legal counsel to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Brig. Gen. Richard C. Gross; Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan W. Greenert; Judge Advocate General of the Navy Vice Adm. Nanette M. DeRenzi; Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III; and Judge Advocate General of the Air Force Lt. Gen. Richard C. Harding. (Susan Walsh / AP)
WASHINGTON — Commanders need to remain involved in military justice system decisions involving rape and sexual assault to leave no doubt about who is in charge, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh III said Tuesday.
Testifying along with the other Joint Chiefs before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Welsh was not alone in raising concerns about legislation that would strip military commanders of authority over decisions about investigations, prosecution and sentencing of those charged with rape and sexual assault offenses, saying that would undermine discipline and accountability.
“Airmen should have no doubt about who will hold them accountable for mission performance and adherence to standards,” Welsh said. “Airmen expect their commander to define the mission, ensure readiness and hold accountable other airmen who fail to meet their responsibilities to live up to our standards of conduct.
“Commanders having the authority to hold airmen criminally accountable for misconduct in-garrison is crucial to building combat-ready, disciplined units,” Welsh said.
Welsh said he is trying to instill a culture on sexual assault that clearly shows airmen whether “you are either part of the solution or part of the problem. There is no neutral position.”
“Nothing saddens me more than knowing this cancer exists in our ranks, and that victimized airmen, on possibly the worst day of their lives, sometimes feel they cannot receive compassionate, capable support from our Air Force.”
Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said 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.”
But 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 is 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.