Military chiefs acknowledged Tuesday that more needs to be done to combat sexual assault within the ranks but insisted that commanders need to maintain the ability discipline their troops, rather than giving that authority to an outside entity, such as some lawmakers suggest.
"Making commanders less responsible and less accountable will not work," Gen. Ray Odierno, Army chief of staff, testified Tuesday at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. "It will inhibit our commanders' ability to shape the climate and discipline of our units."
Gen. Odierno was joined by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the chiefs of the Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard.
The military chiefs pledged to fight sexual assault but argued that removing commanders' authority over defendants in sexual assault cases could diminish their ability to render discipline in other cases.
Lawmakers say the current system is flawed, saying that sex assault victims fear to report abuse due to a lack of meaningful action against an accused perpetrator or retaliation, especially in cases where a commander may know the accused.
Pentagon statistics estimate that there were 26,000 incidents of unwanted sexual contact within the ranks in 2012, but only about 3,000 of those were reported.
Multiple bills in the House and Senate for the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act aim to reduce those statistics. Some would remove a commander's ability to reduce sentences for those convicted in military court, establish a separate authority outside the defendant's chain of command to convene courts-martial, or set up a separate legal authority outside the chain of command to determine how a case is handled.
"You have lost the trust of the men and women that rely on you," said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat who advocates taking any prosecution on sexual assault outside the chain of command.
"They're afraid to report. They fear retaliation. They fear being blamed … that is our biggest challenge," she said.
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