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A battle worth waging

Friday, February 28, 2014
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It’s a good thing New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand is persistent, because some of her colleagues seem bent on doing everything possible to undermine her worthy campaign to take decisions about military sexual assaults out of the chain of command. Those obstacles include half-measures to relieve the pressure for real reform, and procedural moves such as a threatened filibuster, which would require 60 votes to get her bill passed (she now has at least 55, a comfortable majority if a regular vote were held).

A system where military commanders decide which cases should be prosecuted, as they do now, isn’t fair, impartial or transparent. And we’ve been seeing the effects for almost a quarter-century, from the Tailhook scandal in 1991 to last year’s revelation that, despite increased attention to the issue and a supposed zero-tolerance policy, the number of reported cases increased from 3,192 in 2011 to 3,374 in 2012.

Even worse, based on an anonymous survey, the Pentagon estimated there were actually as many as 26,000 sexual assaults in 2012, compared to 19,000 in 2010. This means around 85 percent went unreported. The reason is that the victims feared they wouldn’t be believed if they came forward, or the case wouldn’t be prosecuted, or they themselves would be retaliated against. And testimony by soldiers at Gillibrand’s hearings showed their fears were well-founded.

The price of this failure of military justice isn’t just borne by the victims. According to the Rand Corp., the medical, mental health and intangible costs of military sexual trauma are $3.6 billion a year.

Opponents claim that taking prosecutorial discretion away from commanders and giving it to independent military prosecutors, as Gillibrand’s bill would do, would be bad for order and discipline. But the same was said of other important changes for the military, such as racial integration, women and gays, and they worked out fine.

Gillibrand should keep at it. She has a good cause — and case.

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