Press Release

Ahead of Sexual Assault Vote Expected on Senate Floor Next Week, Bipartisan Group of Senators, Survivors, Advocates Continue Push for Independent Military Justice System

Feb 6, 2014

Washington, D.C. – As the U.S. Senate prepares for an expected vote on the bipartisan Military Justice Improvement Act next week, a strong bipartisan coalition continued the push earlier today for an independent, objective and unbiased military justice system.  U.S. Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Dean Heller (R-NV), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), and Ted Cruz (R-TX), together with Jeremiah Arbogast, advocate and retired Lance Corporal, U.S. Marines, Paula Coughlin, retired Lt. and helicopter pilot, U.S. Navy, Member, Protect Our Defenders Board of Directors, Stacey Thompson, retired Lance Corporal, U.S. Marines, Advocacy Committee Member, Protect Our Defenders, Greg Jacob, Policy Director, Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN), Tom Tarantino, Chief Policy Officer, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), and Thomas J. Berger, Ph.D., Executive Director, Veterans Health Council, Vietnam Veterans of America stood together to push for the bill’s final passage.  

53 Senators, including 44 Democrats and nine Republicans, have publicly announced their support of this common sense proposal that seeks to reverse the systemic fear that victims of military sexual assault consistently describe in deciding whether to report the crimes committed against them due to the clear bias and inherent conflicts of interest posed by the military chain of command’s current sole decision-making power over whether cases move forward to a trial.  The Senate is also expected to vote next week on additional sexual assault reforms sponsored by Senator McCaskill, which Senator Gillibrand supports.

“America is home to the world’s best and brightest, brave men and women who join the armed services for all the right reasons – to serve our country, defend all that we hold sacred, and make America’s military the best the world has ever known,” Senator Gillibrand said. “But too often, these brave men and women find themselves in the fight of their lives not off on some far-away battlefield, but right here on our own soil, within their own ranks and commanding officers, as victims of horrific acts of sexual violence. Our bipartisan bill takes this issue head on by removing decision-making from the chain of command, and giving that discretion to experienced trial counsel with prosecutorial experience where it belongs. That’s how we will achieve accountability, justice and fairness.”

“The status quo isn’t working,” Senator Grassley said.  “The Military Justice Improvement Act is a reform with bipartisan support.  It would give members of the Armed Forces more confidence in the military system of justice and contribute to improved morale and recruitment and retention of troops.  It’s time for decisive action.”

“It is time to bring an end to the broken promises of ‘zero tolerance’ for sexual assault. Enough already,” Senator Boxer said. “It is time to fix our military justice system and to give survivors a chance at the justice they deserve by enacting the Military Justice Improvement Act.”


“Thousands of military sexual assault survivors know that the Defense Department’s policy isn’t working,” Senator Shaheen said. “We owe it to every man and woman in uniform to do everything we can to protect them just as they do our country. We cannot wait any longer to implement our bipartisan, commonsense and meaningful reforms to our military criminal justice system.”


Sen. Blumenthal said, “Victims of this hideous, horrific crime deserve a fairer, more effective justice system – with decisions made by a trained, experienced prosecutor – so they will be better protected and encouraged to report sexual assaults. As the best and strongest military in history, our men and women in uniform deserve a justice system worthy of their excellence. I am proud to stand with Senator Gillibrand and fearless advocates, as well as colleagues from both sides of the aisle in this renewed effort to assure stronger justice to military sexual assault victims through passage of the Military Justice Improvement Act.”


“The awareness of sexual assault in the military has led to a number of important changes. But, in listening to the survivors, we have not made what they consider the most important change: putting the decision to prosecute these crimes in the hands of trained military prosecutor. While we have more than 50 senators supporting this bill, the challenge right now is for us to get the 60 votes necessary to bring this bill to the floor for a vote. We are still hopeful we can bring this bill to the floor,” said Senator Hirono.


“Sexual assault should never be tolerated, and we must ensure that victims are able to report crimes without retaliation. No doubt, the Military Justice Improvement Act is the best path forward,” said Senator Heller. “I am pleased to stand today with fellow Members of Congress, as well as survivors, advocates and former military personnel, in an effort to ensure perpetrators of sexual assaults are held responsible for their atrocious offenses and victims receive the protection they deserve.”


“I commend Sen. Gillibrand for her leadership on legislation to improve our military justice system,” said Senator Cruz. “It will address the most serious crimes in the military while enabling commanders to focus on their wartime mission and ensure that the rights of both victims and those accused of crimes are protected. Our strongest allies have adopted similar military justice changes and their experience shows us that this can be done without harming the chain of command or military readiness. I look forward to continue working with her on this important issue.”


“Last year, Congress passed a series of reforms, but they do not go far enough to create trust in the system. Waiting another year as some would like will not fix the fundamental dynamic fueling the crisis. As a survivor and an advocate who has waited for more than twenty years for the military to live up to their promise of zero tolerance, I urge Congress to stand with us now, and to pass the Military Justice Improvement Act,” said Paula Coughlin, retired Lt. and helicopter pilot, US Navy, Member, Protect Our Defenders Board of Directors.


“Service Women’s Action Network continues to believe the reforms created by Senator Gillibrand’s Military Justice Improvement Act are vital to increasing service members’ access to justice and building trust and confidence in a military justice system that has betrayed so many sexual assault survivors,” said Greg Jacob, Service Women’s Action Network policy director and former Marine. “This year’s National Defense Authorization Act puts forth a number of military sexual assault-related reforms, but these changes alone are simply not enough. We cannot afford to wait any longer to do the right thing for our troops. With more waiting comes more injustice. Congress must pass the Military Justice Improvement Act now.” 


“Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America stands behind this urgent fight to protect survivors of military sexual assault and to strengthen our national security. We call on all members of the Senate to support this common-sense solution that will create a military justice system worthy of the trust of our brave service men and women. And we call on all Americans to stand with us, call their Senators, and urge them to vote ‘yes’ on the Military Justice Improvement Act,” said Tom Tarantino, Chief Policy Officer at Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.


“Vietnam Veterans of America stands in solidarity with our colleagues from SWAN and IAVA in supporting Senator Gillibrand’s Military Justice Improvement Act.  Today you’ve heard tragic stories from survivors about the flawed military justice system currently in operation.  Thank you for stepping forward. To those who say that the MJIA removes a commander’s convening authority  undermines good order and unit discipline, VVA says “baloney”.  The fact is, that most military leaders responsible for maintaining order and disciple do not have convening authority.  The collective effort of all our military leaders determines unit discipline, cohesion and combat readiness. It’s about time to make a change that many of our closest allies, including the UK, Canada, Australia, and Israel have made – without a negative impact to good order and discipline,” said Thomas J. Berger, Ph.D., Executive Director, Veterans Health Council, Vietnam Veterans of America.


The carefully crafted Military Justice Improvement Act moves the decision whether to prosecute any crime punishable by one year or more in confinement to independent, trained, professional military prosecutors, with the exception of 37 crimes that are uniquely military in nature, such as disobeying orders or going Absent Without Leave. The decision whether to prosecute the 37 serious crimes uniquely military in nature plus all crimes punishable by less than one year of confinement would remain within the chain of command. The bill does not amend Article 15 pertaining to non-judicial punishments.


According to the FY2012 SAPRO report released earlier this year by the Defense Department, an estimated 26,000 cases of unwanted sexual contact and sexual assaults occurred in FY2012, a 37 percent increase from FY2011. Another report released by the Defense Department this year showed that more than 1 in 5 female servicemembers reported experiencing unwanted sexual contact while serving in the military. Also according to the FY2012 SAPRO Report, 25 percent of women and 27 percent of men who received unwanted sexual contact indicated the offender was someone in their military chain of command. Further, 50 percent of female victims stated they did not report the crime because they believed that nothing would be done with their report. Even the current top military leadership admits the current system “has failed” and as Commandant of the Marine Corps General James F. Amos stated this year, victims do not come forward because “they don’t trust the chain of command.”


The problem of sexual assault in the military is not new, neither are the pledges of “zero tolerance” from commanders, which date all the way back to then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney in 1992. The Military Justice Improvement Act would for the first time remove the decision whether to take a case to general court-martial completely out of the chain of command and give that discretion to experienced military prosecutors for all crimes punishable by one year or more in confinement, except crimes that are uniquely military in nature, such as disobeying orders or going AWOL.


In September, the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services (DACOWITS) voted overwhelmingly in support of removing the decision whether to prosecute sexual assaults and other serious crimes from the chain of command. Ten members voted in support of the measure, six abstained to study further, none voted against. DACOWITS was created in 1951 by then Secretary of Defense, George C.  Marshall. The Committee is composed of civilian and retired military women and men who are appointed by the Secretary of Defense to provide advice and recommendations on matters and policies relating to the recruitment and retention, treatment, employment, integration, and well-being of highly qualified professional women in the Armed Forces. Historically, DACOWITS’ recommendations have been very instrumental in effecting changes to laws and policies pertaining to military women. Secretary Chuck Hagel was recently quoted as saying, “I have a put a premium on that advisory board.”


Many of our allied modern militaries have reporting outside of the chain of command, such as Britain, Canada, Israel, Germany, Norway and Australia. For example, the British military has prosecutors making trial decisions for all crimes through the Service Prosecuting Authority (SPA) within Britain’s Ministry of Defense. Four allied commanders recently testified to the Response Systems Panel that these changes to their military justice systems had no negative consequences to good order and discipline.


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