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Gillibrand grills next Army chief on rise of sexual assaults, decrease in prosecutions

The rates of sexual assaults in the military are going up, according to a report presented in a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Thursday, while rates of prosecution and conviction are going down.

Lawmakers had gathered to consider the nomination of Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville as the next Army chief of staff. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., came armed with numbers for her turn to ask a question, minutes after receiving the Defense Department’s 2018 sexual assault report.

“So you’re going in the wrong direction,” she said. “This is something that you must take responsibility for. Because it’s an issue of climate.”

Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville presents the Silver Star on April 16 to Sgt. Armando Yanez during a ceremony at the Army Aviation Association of America Summit 2019 in Nashville, Tennessee. McConville has been nominated as the next Army chief of staff. (Sgt. Steven Lopez/Army)
Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville presents the Silver Star on April 16 to Sgt. Armando Yanez during a ceremony at the Army Aviation Association of America Summit 2019 in Nashville, Tennessee. McConville has been nominated as the next Army chief of staff. (Sgt. Steven Lopez/Army)

Experts have drawn strong conclusions between the health of a command climate and the incidence of sexual harassment, for example, with the likelihood that a sexual assault will occur.

The numbers say one in five women serving in an unhealthy command climate will be assaulted, Gillibrand said, and that 24 percent of women serving in the Army report toxicity in their chains of command. For men, it’s 6 percent. And the survivors of assault are mostly concentrated at E-3 level.

“So from your perspective, things might be perfect," she said. “It is lower down in the chain of command.”

Worse, she added, anecdotal feedback shows that survivors lack faith that their chains of command will competently investigate their allegations.

"What angers me the most, General, is that for the last 25 years, every secretary of defense has told this body, told the American public, ‘We have zero tolerance for sexual assault,' " she said.

Officials often assert that the increase in sexual assault reporting is a good sign, because it means more survivors are feeling confident to come forward. Recent statistics on the number of cases where charges are filed, or where a conviction is secured, suggest that the spike in reports is not resulting in a spike in consequences.

"I am tired of the statement I get over and over from the chain of command: ‘We got this, Ma’am. We got this,’ " Gillibrand said. “You don’t have it. You’re failing us. The trajectories of every measurable are going in the wrong direction.”

Gillibrand finished her statement by asking McConville whether she has his commitment to tackle the issue.

“Yes, Senator,” he responded, before the hearing moved on.

Other than the exchange with Gillbrand, senators heaped praise on McConville, both for his service record and for his family ― his wife, a former Army captain, and his three currently serving children, as well as his staff sergeant son-in-law.

“Who can vote against a guy that has – a distinguished general that has two sons and a daughter, all captains, serving in the United States Army? I’d say no one,” Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., said in his opening remarks.

McConville invoked his children at one point, during questioning from Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., on the Army’s recruiting woes.

“I actually have millennials, and I think we need to manage their talents,” he said, adding that they want to feel like they’re making a difference. “They don’t see themselves as interchangeable parts in an industrial age system.”

And contrary to his example, he added, the Army needs to turn its focus to recruiting outside of its own.

“We need to expose young men and women to the military," he said. “Seventy-nine percent of the recruits that come into the Army have a military family member. We do not want to become a family business. We do not want to become isolated from the American public.”

McConville, a career aviator who most recently served as the Army’s deputy chief of staff for personnel, has been a key figure in getting Army Futures Command off the ground, and he told senators he would continue to be hands-on in that modernization effort.

If confirmed, he will succeed current Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, who has been unofficially tapped to head the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“Let me say what a dilemma this is, to consider voting for somebody who’s an Irish guy from New England, who went to West Point, and is a Red Sox fan,” ranking member Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., said. “So you know the excruciating difficulty it’ll be for me to vote.”

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