Commentary Violence

Military Sexual Assault Hearing: Chambliss Slut-Shames, Gillibrand Schools Joint Chiefs

Adele M. Stan

The Joint Chiefs of Staff flatly rejected removal of sex-crimes prosecution from the chain of command; Sen. Gillibrand took them to school. Meanwhile, Saxby Chambliss claimed that “the hormone level created by nature sets in place the possibility for these types of things to occur."

If Tuesday’s Senate Armed Services hearing on military sexual assault had any meaningful purpose, it was to draw the battle lines between those actually committed to fixing the problem with a meaningful solution, and those who oppose any change that would cede the smallest drop of power to anyone other than a commander.

On the fix-it side stood the committee’s women, both Republican and Democrat. The power-hoarding side was represented by all members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, several other military officers, and most of the committee’s Republican men. In the middle, offering half-measures, were several male senators, mostly Democrats.

That would appear to mean that meaningful change in the way that sexual assaults in the military are reported and prosecuted is unlikely to happen anytime soon, despite near-constant news of assault scandals, and the fact that the Pentagon itself estimated that 2012 yielded some 26,000 sexual assaults by members of the military against their comrades, only 3,300 of which were reported.

Despite having made noises that they were “open” to considering all legislative options, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey and Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, the Air Force chief of staff, joined their fellow chiefs in rejecting Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s call for taking the reporting and prosecution of sexual assaults in the military out of the chain of command, where those who dare to report assaults and rapes have often fared badly, subjected to retaliation and ostracized by others in their units. Gillibrand is currently sponsoring a bill, the Military Justice Improvement Act, that would do just that.

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Gillibrand flatly told the chiefs, “You have lost the trust of the men and women who rely on you.”

She went on to explain her belief in the need for the adjudication of such crimes to be removed from the chain of command—as has been done by the militaries of such U.S. allies as the UK, Canada, Israel, and Australia—because, she said, not all commanders are keen to have women in the military, and others conflate assault with horseplay.

“Not every single commander can distinguish between a slap on the ass and a rape,” Gillibrand said. (Talking Points Memo has the clip.)

Winning the prize for unintentional hilarity—or, in Twitter parlance, a LOLsob—was Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), who began his questioning of the chiefs with the the 1991 story of a Navy ship that arrive at port carrying 36 pregnant sailors. Chambliss wanted to know if those pregnancies had been investigated to determine whether or not they were the result of assault—an apparent attempt to slut-shame women soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen. (Yes, they’re called “airmen,” regardless of gender.)

“The young folks coming in to each of your services are anywhere from 17 to 22 or 23. Gee wiz,” Chambliss said. “The hormone level created by nature sets in place the possibility for these types of things to occur. So, we’ve got to be very careful on our side.”

That must have felt like a moment of vindication for the Air Force’s Welsh, who took a lot of criticism after a hearing earlier this month for blaming the military’s rape culture on a “civilian hook-up mentality.” When commanders such as Welsh—the top man in his branch of the armed services—conflate rape with sex, it’s hard to see a rape survivor in the military getting much by way of justice so long as the crime is handled within the command chain.

Rewire will have a full report on the hearing tomorrow.

News Law and Policy

Pentagon to Lift Ban on Openly Transgender Military Service Members

Emily Crockett

Calling the current ban on transgender military service members "outdated," Secretary of Defense Ash Carter announced Monday that the Department of Defense will start the process of lifting the ban and allowing transgender people to serve openly.

Calling the current ban on transgender military service members “outdated,” Secretary of Defense Ash Carter announced Monday that the Department of Defense will start the process of lifting the ban and allowing transgender people to serve openly.

“Openly” is the key—research estimates that roughly 15,500 transgender people already serve in the military even though there are rules against it.

“At a time when our troops have learned from experience that the most important qualification for service members should be whether they’re able and willing to do their job, our officers and enlisted personnel are faced with certain rules that tell them the opposite,” Carter said in a statement. “Moreover, we have transgender soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines—real, patriotic Americans—who I know are being hurt by an outdated, confusing, inconsistent approach that’s contrary to our value of service and individual merit.”

The Department of Defense, Carter said, will create a six-month working group to study the policy implications and work out the details.

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The group likely won’t try to determine whether transgender people can serve, but rather how best to change policies in order to integrate them.

“At my direction, the working group will start with the presumption that transgender persons can serve openly without adverse impact on military effectiveness and readiness, unless and except where objective, practical impediments are identified,” Carter said.

This review period is necessary, advocates say, because there are medical and other issues that didn’t come into play with the 2011 repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, which allowed gay and lesbian individuals to serve openly.

“Every administrative policy needs to be discussed from grooming styles to uniforms. You don’t need to do a lot, but you do need to sit down and take a look,” Aaron Belkin, executive director of the Palm Center, a think tank that promotes the study of LGBT people in the armed forces, told TIME.

Other issues that may need to be addressed include whether the military will pay for the medical costs of gender transition, as well as which physical training standards will have to be met during different phases of transition.

Openly transgender people will not be able to join the military during the six-month review period, but decisions on whether to kick out those individuals who are already serving will be referred higher up the chain of command.

Officials hope not to force anyone out of service for being transgender during the review period.

“Transgender Americans have every right to serve their country openly and honestly, and for far too long, this discriminatory ban has robbed them of the dignity of doing so,” Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin said in a statement. “The time for ending the military’s longstanding ban on transgender service is long overdue.”

News Law and Policy

Military Sexual Assault Reform Blocked Again in Senate

Emily Crockett

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s quest for military justice reform faced another setback on Tuesday, when the Senate blocked a vote to include the Military Justice Improvement Act as an amendment to the 2016 defense spending bill.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s quest for military justice reform faced another setback on Tuesday, when the Senate blocked a vote to include the Military Justice Improvement Act (MJIA) as an amendment to the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

The amendment failed on a 50-49 vote; it had majority support, but did not get the 60 votes required to overcome a filibuster. Last year, the MJIA fell five votes short of overcoming a filibuster.

The MJIA would end the practice of letting military commanders make decisions about prosecuting sexual assault cases from their ranks.

Gillibrand, along with many advocates for military sexual assault survivors, says these reforms are necessary because survivors don’t trust the system. Commanders often retaliate against survivors, or they may even be the ones accused of assault. Even sympathetic commanders are said to lack the legal training they would need to properly assess the cases.

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A recent report from Human Rights Watch found reports of retaliation against service members who report sexual assault. Survivors most often report being socially ostracized and threatened with violence by their peers, but they say commanders also retaliate by refusing to promote victims or demoting them to lesser duties.

The Pentagon’s most recent survey on sexual assault found that rates of retaliation haven’t changed, and that one in seven survivors was assaulted by someone in their chain of command.

“It is unacceptable that the retaliation rate has remained unchanged, and that the Pentagon cannot point to a single case where a penalty was levied against an individual who retaliated against a survivor who reported,” Gillibrand said in a statement after the vote.

The MJIA has an unlikely list of bipartisan supporters, including Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Rand Paul (R-KY). A prominent Democratic opponent of the bill is Sen. Claire McCaskill (R-MO), who says that the reform wouldn’t do anything to prevent retaliation.

Gillibrand has called on President Obama to publicly support the bill, arguing that military brass—and thus the members of Congress who follow the Pentagon’s lead—would change their position “overnight” if the commander-in-chief declared the reform necessary.

“Those opposed to a fair justice system for our troops and their families are listening to the same generals that were against gay Americans serving their country or allowing women to serve equally,” said retired Colonel Don Christensen, the Air Force’s former chief prosecutor, in a statement.