Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley is now open to taking sexual assault cases out of the military’s chain of command, marking a potentially major shift in how the Pentagon handles the issue.
The general’s comments — offered during a flight back to Washington after a weekend ceremony in Hawaii and first reported Monday — come as Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin weighs sweeping changes to how the Pentagon addresses sexual assault. A review panel already has reportedly recommended taking the matter out of the hands of commanders and moving decisions about sexual assault cases to independent prosecutors.
The apparent openness of Gen. Milley to that idea could prove decisive.
“We’ve been at it for years, and we haven’t effectively moved the needle” on sexual assault and harassment in the military, Gen. Milley said in an interview with CNN and the Associated Press. “We have to. We must.”
“I was adamantly opposed to that for years,” he said of his previous position on the proposed change. “But I haven’t seen the needle move.”
Gen. Milley did not explicitly endorse the overhaul recommended by the Defense Department panel. The proposed changes include a new system in which the civilian-led office of the Chief Special Victim Prosecutor, not a military commander, will decide whether to charge someone with sexual assault and whether that charge proceeds to a full court-martial.
Gen. Milley’s change in position comes as the Army, and the military as a whole, grapples with troubling, high-profile cases of alleged sexual assault and harassment. The most prominent case involved Spec. Vanessa Guillen, who was killed in April 2020 by another enlisted soldier. She later reportedly told family members she had been sexually harassed but feared reporting the incident.
Victim advocacy groups say that such incidents are too common in the military. They argue that victims often fear retaliation by superior officers. In some cases, the alleged perpetrator may be a superior officer, presenting major complications under the current system.
On Capitol Hill, lawmakers such as Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, New York Democrat, have long championed the idea of taking sexual assault and harassment cases out of the chain of command and moving them to independent prosecutors. The idea enjoys support across party lines, including from conservative stalwarts such as Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican.
Critics, however, say that the change could cause a host of unintended consequences and could undermine the concept of chain of command in the military.