From left, Judge Advocate General of the Army Lt. Gen. Dana Chipman; Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno; Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey; and Legal Counsel to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Brig. Gen. Richard Gross, arrive June 4 on Capitol Hill to testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee. (Susan Walsh / AP)
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday that the military has “failed” to protect soldiers, civilians and family members from rape, assault and sexual harassment.
But, he added, the remedy is not a complete overhaul of the military justice system.
“Soldier discipline is the foundation of any well-trained force capable of winning our nation’s wars,” Odierno said. “The commander is necessarily vested with the ultimate authority because he or she is responsible for all that goes on in a unit.”
The military legal system “is well equipped to meet the challenges of crime and indiscipline in the Army, to include the crimes of sexual assault and sexual harassment,” he said.
His testimony comes as Congress is weighing seven proposals to strengthen sexual assault prevention programs and improve how cases are investigated and prosecuted.
Odierno is not the only military leader worried that some of the more drastic proposals would cause harm. 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 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.
Odierno noted that the Army has taken steps to improve the investigation of sexual assault allegations and provide more aid to victims.
But he acknowledged that the Army cannot “simply prosecute our way out of this problem,” he said. “Sexual assault and harassment are issues of discipline that require a change in our culture.”
Odierno and Dempsey did say they support criminalizing any sexual activity between trainers and trainees and barring further military service by anyone convicted of a sexual offense.