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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.”

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