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2020 Democrats say they have plans to address military sexual assault crisis

Democratic candidates respond to Pentagon's stunning news: Nearly a 38% spike in sexual assault cases in 2018


Shira Tarlo
May 3, 2019 6:15PM (UTC)

Acting Defense Secretary Patrick M. Shanahan has proposed sweeping changes to the way the military handles sexual assault and harassment cases. This comes after the Pentagon revealed a stunning increase in the number of sexual misconduct cases, which rose by 38% in 2018, according to a report released Thursday.

The analysis, which surveyed both men and women from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines, shows about 25,000 instances of "unwanted sexual contact," a category that ranges from groping to rape. The number, obtained from the results of a biennial survey, marked a significant increase from about 14,900 when the military last conducted a similar survey in 2016.

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"To put it bluntly, we are not performing to the standards and expectations we have for ourselves or each other," Shanahan said in a statement Thursday after he reviewed the latest data. "This is unacceptable. We cannot shrink from facing the challenge head on. We must, and will, do better."

The sharp spike in the number of sexual assault cases in the military comes despite years of effort and resources to address and eradicate the problem.

In a letter to senior officials across the Defense Department, Shanahan announced new steps the Pentagon would take to tackle what has been a pervasive issue within the ranks for years. To combat improper sexual behavior in the military, Shanahan directed officials to seek a stand-alone military crime of sexual harassment, develop new tools to assess the problem, launch a program to catch serial offenders, improve assessments of the character of military applicants, train junior officers and junior enlisted leaders to respond to challenges posed by sexual assault and focus on prevention.

The latest report on sexual assaults requires Congress to "step up," Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee who is vying for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020, said Thursday.

Gillibrand's comment, and the results of the latest Pentagon survey, have reignited chatter among the crowded Democratic presidential field. Here's where some candidates currently stand on the issue.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.: "The status quo is not working. It's time for Congress to step up and bring accountability where the Department of Defense has repeatedly failed," the New York senator, viewed as perhaps the leading voice of the #MeToo movement on Capitol Hill, said in a statement. "The evidence is clear — we need to pass the Military Justice Improvement Act so that trained military prosecutors can handle these cases moving forward and give survivors confidence in the system. We must create an unbiased military justice system worthy of their sacrifice."

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Gillibrand has spearheaded the charge in Congress to get the United States to pass the Military Justice Improvement Act, aimed to reform how military prosecutors handle sexual assault cases by removing prosecution authority over such charges outside the chain of command.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.: "Our service members put their lives on the line every day to protect our country, and they deserve to be able to serve without the threat of sexual assault." Warren said in a statement to Salon. "Without significant structural reforms, words like 'zero tolerance' and 'unacceptable' are hollow — we need real accountability for sexual assault crimes."

Warren is an original co-sponsor of the Military Justice Improvement Act.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.: "Sexual assault is an epidemic and Bernie strongly believes we must do everything we can to end sexual assault in this country, including a change in culture," Sanders' deputy communications director, Sarah Ford, told Salon. "Bernie believes we must empower survivors of sexual harassment and assault by implementing a safe process to report their attacker and strongly enforce criminal charges for abusers and rapists.  Bernie is a strong supporter of providing a safe environment for all people, especially women, whether that be a workplace, a campus, or in their own home."

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"As president, Bernie would proudly sign into law the Military Justice Improvement Act, a bill he currently co-sponsors, which would give service members an independent route outside the chain of command to report serious crimes," Ford continued. "Survivors of rape and sexual assault in the military and in all other professions deserve to be heard and believed, and we must ensure they feel safe and comfortable in speaking out. We must end the scourge of sexual violence and harassment in the military and in all places."

Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif: "Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan is right: this is unacceptable, and the Pentagon must do better. These servicemembers have dedicated their lives to, and risked their lives for, our country, and we must reward their bravery in coming forward to report these crimes with immediate action —including more commitment and resources for prosecuting offenders as well as more training and oversight to prevent future crimes," Swalwell said in a statement to Salon.

"If the best in our country feel that they can't serve without harassment or assault, we are all less safe. No matter who you are, you should be able to serve with security, dignity, and justice."

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Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass.: "This increase is unacceptable, and we know about more of these cases for one reason: brave women. For too long the military has had a disproportionately high rate of sexual assault. This must change," said Moulton, himself a combat veteran of the Iraq war, said in a statement to Salon. Moulton expressed support for prosecuting sexual assault charges within the military legal system, but added that a commander should be removed from the decision-making responsibility of prosecuting such allegations.

"I think taking the process outside of the military is a cop-out: the military needs to get this right, and to do so it must change its culture and criminal procedures," the former Marine said. "Ultimately, survivors of assault shouldn't have to face the people who assaulted them at a court-martial. People who are assaulted should be confident that they have an option to report sexual assault without fearing repercussions from superiors, or within their unit. There is a lot more that needs to happen, but these are the things that should change right away."


Shira Tarlo

Contact Shira Tarlo at shira.tarlo@salon.com. Follow @shiratarlo.

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