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 to discipline their troops, rather than giving that authority to an outside entity, as some lawmakers suggest.
“Making commanders less responsible and less accountable will not work,” Gen. Raymond T. 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.”
Joining Gen. Odierno were Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Adm. Jonathan W. Greenert, chief of naval operations; Gen. James F. Amos, Marine Corps commandant; Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, Air Force chief of staff; and Adm. Robert J. Papp Jr., Coast Guard commandant.
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.
Pentagon statistics estimate that there were 26,000 incidents of unwanted sexual contact, including assault, within the ranks in 2012, but only about 3,400 sexual assault cases were reported.
Of those 3,400 cases involving roughly 3,000 victims, 880 people were disciplined, and 68 percent of those faced a court-martial, according to a Pentagon report in April.
Lawmakers say these statistics indicate that the current military justice system is flawed and that sexual assault victims do not report abuse because of fear of retaliation, noting that an accused perpetrator’s chain of command holds ultimate authority over whether an incident is prosecuted or dismissed.
Military officials say the situation is improving as they focus on the problem, pointing to an uptick in sexual assault reporting as evidence that more victims are feeling safer in coming forward.
The military chiefs said they agree with a recommendation by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel that would take away a commander’s ability to dismiss a major conviction or alter a sentence without a written explanation.
“We’ve failed in this in the past. It has not been a top priority in the years past, in the decades past. If it was, we wouldn’t be here today. But it is now. It is now in my service, and I speak for probably all of us. It is a priority in our services now, and we’re after it. And we hear you loud and clear,” Gen. Amos told the Senate panel Tuesday.
Several bills in the House and Senate for the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act aim to remove a commander’s ability to alter 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 E. 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,” Mrs. Gillibrand said.
Frustration among the senators seemed to boil over as they discussed recent high-profile cases that underscored the challenges the Pentagon and Congress face.
Sen. John McCain, a Navy veteran, said a woman came to him the previous night and said her daughter wanted to join the military. She asked him if he could give her his unqualified support.