Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.)is a hero's hero, or perhaps more apropos in this instance, a shero's shero. She is leading the long-overdue fight to rid the military of sexual assault. The facts, figures and history are well-known but continue to amaze this observer.
Just last month the Joint Chiefs of Staff testified before Congress on a Pentagon report that showed even though the military has spent decades ramping up sexual assault prevention programs, rates of sexual assault in the military climbed (when they should have been diving) by 34 percent between 2010 and 2012. They told members of Congress some 26,000 service members experienced unwanted sexual contact last year compared with 19,300 in 2010. According to Thinkprogress.org, "less than 3 out of every 100 estimated sexual assaults in the military in 2012 were ever prosecuted -- a shockingly low percentage that has shown no sign of improvement." Another report by the Pentagon's Inspector General released last week reveals that the military took no action against one-third of those accused of sexual assault in cases completed in 2010.
These and many other facts show the military has completely flubbed attempts to crack down on this most heinous of military crimes. Massive media coverage of sexual assault at the Tailhook Convention in 1991, the Aberdeen Proving Ground in 1996 and at the Air Force Academy in 2003 proves commanders have had more than fair warning. When is it time to say enough is enough? This is what prompted Gillibrand to write a bill that would take the power to prosecute sexual assault crimes out of the hands of military commanders and transfer it to local prosecutors.
This makes a lot of sense for two major reasons. First, the idea has worked brilliantly in Israel and Britain, whose success inspired Gillibrand to try to follow suit here. Second, as made patently obvious above, U.S. military leaders have proven themselves incompetent. Despite the military's abysmal record that stretches back decades, Gillibrand faces immense pressure, even from strong supporters of women's rights.
Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.) said recently in an interview with my Public Broadcasting Service program, "To the Contrary," that stripping commanders of this power would just give them another excuse to ignore the cries of soldiers, mainly women, who are assaulted. Sanchez is no newcomer to this issue. She is also a strong advocate for women in the military and the second ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee. Sanchez's position typifies the argument Gillibrand faces as she tries to upend a failing process that seems immune to all efforts to change it.
Yet this week, Gillibrand surprised her opponents both within and outside the military bureaucracy by picking up support for her bill from Tea Party stars Sen. Rand Paul, (R-Ky.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas).
A haunting and moving documentary called "The Invisible War," released last year, provided a platform for female targets of sexual assault to tell their horrendous stories. Some suffered repeat attacks from the same or a variety of offenders. When they tried to seek justice, they ran headlong into the military's culture of impunity and feckless attempts at prevention. Their riveting stories and the impervious wall of self-protection they faced are galling. One cannot watch that film without coming to a personal epiphany that Gillibrand is correct and Paul and Cruz deserve applause for joining Gillibrand's team.
I hope their support will provide the momentum Gillibrand needs to move her bill out of committee and onto the Senate floor. I also hope military women (and men) whose psyches have been marred by unfettered abuse will see that some sort of help is finally on the way.
Bonnie Erbe writes this column for the Scripps Howard News Service.