WASHINGTON — U.S. senators dressed down senior military leaders Tuesday, led by female lawmakers, combat veterans and former prosecutors who insisted that sexual assault in the ranks has cost the services the trust and respect of the American people as well as the nation’s men and women in uniform.
Summoned to Capitol Hill, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the beribboned four-star chiefs of the service branches conceded in an extraordinary hearing that they had faltered in dealing with sexual assault.
But they strongly opposed congressional efforts to strip commanders of their traditional authority to decide whether to level charges in their units.
Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, especially the panel’s seven women, grilled the chiefs about whether the military’s mostly male leadership understands differences between relatively minor sexual offenses and serious crimes that deserve swift and decisive justice.
“Not every single commander necessarily wants women in the force. Not every single commander believes what a sexual assault is. Not every single commander can distinguish between a slap on the ass and a rape because they merge all of these crimes together,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.
Frustration among the senators seemed to boil over as they discussed high-profile cases and statistics on sexual assault.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a Navy veteran of Vietnam, said a woman came to him the previous night and said her daughter wanted to join the military. She asked McCain if he could give his unqualified support to her.
“I could not,” McCain said. “I cannot overstate my disgust and disappointment over the continued reports of sexual misconduct in our military. We’ve been talking about the issue for years, and talk is insufficient.”
The panel is considering seven legislative proposals, including one introduced by Gillibrand that would deny commanders the authority to decide when criminal charges are filed and remove the ability of senior officers to convene courts-martial.
More than 40 senators are sponsors or co-sponsors of the proposals, several of which have overlapping provisions. A bill by Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., would provide any victims with a special military lawyer who would assist them throughout the process. Another, sponsored by Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, would require any service member found guilty of rape or sexual assault receive a minimum punishment of a dismissal or a dishonorable discharge.
Dempsey and the service chiefs warned against making the dramatic changes called for in Gillibrand’s legislation. Removing commanders from the military justice process, Dempsey said, would undercut their ability to preserve good order and discipline. “We cannot simply legislate our way out of this problem,” said Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army’s chief of staff. “Without equivocation, I believe maintaining the central role of commander in our military justice system is absolutely critical to any solution.”