News / USA

US Senate Acts on Sexual Assault in Military

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, following a Senate vote on military sexual assaults,  March 6, 2014.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, following a Senate vote on military sexual assaults, March 6, 2014.
Michael Bowman
The U.S. Senate has defeated one measure to boost prosecution of sexual offenders in the armed forces, and unanimously voted to advance another. Passionate debate centered on whether to remove authority for such prosecutions from the military chain of command.

The Pentagon reports that 26,000 cases of unwanted sexual contact occurred in America’s armed forces in 2012, only a small faction of which were prosecuted. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called that unacceptable.

“These are really courageous men and women. And while we cannot protect every member of our military from harm at the hands of America’s enemies, we should at least guarantee them protection from harm at the hands of their fellow service members," said Reid.

On Thursday, the Senate ended debate on a bill that boosts protections for victims of sexual assault and holds military commanders accountable for their units’ compliance with regulations on sexual conduct. But it retains commanders’ authority to decide which cases are brought to trial.

That is a problem, according to Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand.

“The people who do not trust the chain of command are the victims [of sexual assault]," said Gillibrand.

Gillibrand championed a competing bill that would have given military prosecutors authority to decide which cases to try. It was defeated on a procedural vote despite the backing of many sexual assault victims, including Paula Coughlin, who helped bring the issue to the nation’s attention more than 20 years ago. Coughlin and scores of other service members, most of them female, were assaulted at a 1991 military symposium in Las Vegas, Nevada - an incident that came to be known as the Tailhook scandal.

Coughlin, then a Navy lieutenant, says she first reported the abuse to her commander.

“And he was not receptive. In fact, he brushed off the complaint. The military chain of command is inherently biased, whether they do not believe that the victim was actually assaulted, or whether prosecution of that assault would adversely affect their command," said Coughlin.

Coughlin went public with her allegations, triggering a widely publicized investigation that led to demotions and early retirements of top Navy commanders.

Today, the Pentagon says it has zero tolerance for sexual misconduct. But Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel defends the role of commanders in deciding prosecutorial matters.

“It is my strong belief that the ultimate authority has to remain within the command structure," said Hagel.

The Pentagon strongly opposed the defeated Gillibrand bill, but backs the alternative measure, which is widely expected to be approved by the Senate next week.

During floor debate, senators were unanimous in condemning sexual abuse. For Paula Coughlin, the emotional scars of the Tailhook experience are still with her. She says, “Not a day goes by that I do not think how things could have been for me in the military, and how they should have been.”

You May Like

Video In US, Columbus Day Still Generates Controversy

Holiday marks date Columbus discovered Americas, but some are offended by legacy because he enslaved many natives he encountered More

Video Through Sports, Austria Tries to Give Migrants Traction

With 85,000 people expected to claim asylum in Austria this year, its government has made integration through joint physical activities a key objective More

Video Kickboxing Champion Shares Sport With Young Migrants

Pouring into Europe by hundreds of thousands, some migrants, especially youngsters, are finding sports a way to integrate into new host countries More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Amnesty Accuses Saudi Coalition of ‘War Crimes’ in Yemeni
Henry Ridgwell
October 12, 2015 4:03 PM
The human rights group Amnesty International has accused the Saudi-led coalition of war crimes in airstrikes against Houthi rebels in Yemen. Henry Ridgwell reports the group says hundreds of civilians have been killed in strikes on residential areas.

Video Amnesty Accuses Saudi Coalition of ‘War Crimes’ in Yemen

The human rights group Amnesty International has accused the Saudi-led coalition of war crimes in airstrikes against Houthi rebels in Yemen. Henry Ridgwell reports the group says hundreds of civilians have been killed in strikes on residential areas.

Video No Resolution in Sight to US House Speaker Drama

Uncertainty grips the U.S. Congress, where no consensus replacement has emerged to succeed Republican House Speaker John Boehner after his surprise resignation announcement. Half of Congress is effectively leaderless weeks before America risks defaulting on its national debt and enduring another partial government shutdown.

Video New Art Exhibit Focuses on Hope

Out of struggle and despair often comes hope. That idea is behind a new art exhibit at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. "The Big Hope Show" features 25 artists, some of whom overcame trauma and loss. VOA’s Deborah Block reports.

Video Columbus Day Still Generates Controversy as US Holiday

The second Monday of October is Columbus Day in the United States, honoring explorer Christopher Columbus and his discovery of the Americas. The achievement is a source of pride for many, but for some the holiday is marked by controversy. Adrianna Zhang has more.

Video Anger Simmers as Turks Begin to Bury Blast Victims

The Turkish army carried out new air strikes on Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) targets on Sunday, a day after the banned group announced a unilateral cease fire. The air raids apparently are in retaliation for the Saturday bombing in Turkey's capital Ankara that killed at least 95 people and wounded more than 200 others. But as Zlatica Hoke reports, there are suspicions that Islamic State is involved.

Video Bombings a Sign of Turkey’s Deep Troubles

Turkey has begun a three-day period of mourning following Saturday’s bomb attacks in the capital, Ankara, that killed nearly 100 people. With contentious parliamentary elections three weeks away, the attacks highlight the challenges Turkey is facing as it struggles with ethnic friction, an ongoing migrant crisis, and growing tensions with Russia. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.

Video Afghanistan’s Progress Aided by US Academic Center

Recent combat in Afghanistan has shifted world attention back to the central Asian nation’s continuing civil war and economic challenges. But, while there are many vexing problems facing Afghanistan’s government and people, a group of academics in Omaha, Nebraska has kept a strong faith in the nation’s future through programs to improve education. VOA’s Greg Flakus has more from Omaha, Nebraska.

Video House Republicans in Chaos as Speaker Favorite Withdraws

The Republican widely expected to become the next speaker of the House of Representatives shocked his colleagues Thursday by announcing he was withdrawing his candidacy. The decision by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy means the race to succeed retiring Speaker John Boehner is now wide open. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports.

Video German, US Officials Investigate Volkswagen

German officials have taken steps to restore some of the reputation their car industry has lost after a recent Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal. Authorities have searched Volkswagen headquarters and other locations in an effort to identify the culprits in the creation of software that helps cheat on emission tests. Meanwhile, a group of lawmakers in Washington held a hearing to get to the bottom of the cheating strategy that was first discovered in the United States. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Why Are Gun Laws So Hard for Congress to Tackle?

Since taking office, President Barack Obama has spoken out or issued statements about 15 mass shootings. The most recent shooting, in which 10 people were killed at a community college, sparked outrage over the nation's gun laws. But changing those laws isn't as easy as many think. VOA's Carolyn Presutti reports.

Video In 'He Named Me Malala,' Guggenheim Finds Normal in Extraordinary

Davis Guggenheim’s documentary "He Named Me Malala" offers a probing look into the life of 18-year-old Malala Yousafsai, the Pakistani teenager who, in 2012, was shot in the head by the Taliban for standing up for her right to education in her hometown in Pakistan's Swat Valley. Guggenheim shows how, since then, Malala has become a symbol not as a victim of brutal violence, but as an advocate for girls’ education throughout the world. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.

Video Paintable Solar Cells May Someday Replace Silicon-Based Panels

Solar panels today are still factory-manufactured, with the use of some highly toxic substances such as cadmium chloride. But a researcher at St. Mary’s College, Maryland, says we are close to being able to create solar panels by painting them on a suitable surface, using nontoxic solutions. VOA’s George Putic reports.

VOA Blogs