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

Captured IS Militants Explain Why They Fought

Fighters from Turkey, Syria tell VOA Kurdish Service what drew them to extremism, jihad More

Security Experts Split on Kenyan Barrier Wall

Experts divided on whether initiative aiming to keep out al-Shabab militants is long-awaited solution or misguided effort More

Video Philippines Wants Tourists Spending Money at New Casinos

Officials say they hope to turn Manila into the next Macau, which has long been Asia’s gambling hub More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Liberia's Almost Last Ebola Patient Grateful but Still Grievingi
X
Benno Muchler
March 26, 2015 3:41 PM
Beatrice Yardolo was to make history as Liberia’s last Ebola patient. Liberians recently started counting down 42 days, the period that has to go by without a single new infection until the World Health Organization can declare a country Ebola-free. That countdown stopped on March 20 when there was another new case of Ebola, making Yardolo’s story a reminder that Ebola is far from over. Benno Muchler reports from Monrovia.
Video

Video Liberia's Almost Last Ebola Patient Grateful but Still Grieving

Beatrice Yardolo was to make history as Liberia’s last Ebola patient. Liberians recently started counting down 42 days, the period that has to go by without a single new infection until the World Health Organization can declare a country Ebola-free. That countdown stopped on March 20 when there was another new case of Ebola, making Yardolo’s story a reminder that Ebola is far from over. Benno Muchler reports from Monrovia.
Video

Video Cambodian Land Grabs Threaten Traditional Communities

Indigenous communities in Cambodia's Ratanakiri province say the government’s economic land concession policy is taking away their land and traditional way of life, making many fear that their identity will soon be lost. Local authorities, though, have denied this is the case. VOA's Say Mony went to investigate and filed this report, narrated by Colin Lovett.
Video

Video US, South Korea Conduct Joint Military Exercises

The Eighth U.S. Army Division and the Eighth Republic of Korea Mechanized Infantry Division put on a well orchestrated show of force for the media this week during their joint military training exercises in South Korea. VOA’s Seoul correspondent Brian Padden was there and reports the soldiers were well disciplined both in conducting a complex live fire exercise and in staying on message with the press.
Video

Video Space Program Status Disappoints 'Last Man on the Moon'

One of the films that drew big crowds last week at the annual South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, tells the story of the last human being to stand on the moon, U.S. astronaut Eugene Cernan. It has been 42 years since Cernan returned from the moon and he laments that no one else has gone there since. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Young Filmmakers Shine Spotlight on Giving Back

A group of student filmmakers from across the United States joined President Barack Obama at the White House this month for the second annual White House Student Film Festival. Fifteen short films were officially selected from more than 1,500 entries by students aged 6 through 18. The filmmakers and their families then joined the president and a group of celebrities for a screening of their films. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video VOA Exclusive: Interview with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, during his first visit as president to Washington, gave a one-on-one interview with VOA Afghan Service reporter Said Suleiman Ashna, about his request for a change in U.S. troop levels, the threat from the Islamic State, and repairing relations with the United States and Pakistan. The interview was held at Blair House, late Sunday, in Pashto.
Video

Video California Science Center Tells Story of Dead Sea Scrolls

The ancient manuscripts were uncovered in the mid-20th century, and they are still yielding clues about life and religious beliefs in ancient Israel. As VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports, an exhibit in Los Angeles shows how modern science is bringing the history of these ancient documents to life.
Video

Video Angelina Jolie Takes Another Bold Step

Hollywood actress and filmmaker Angelina Jolie has revealed she had her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed to lower her odds of getting cancer. Doctors say the huge publicity over her decision will help raise awareness about the importance of cancer screening. VOA’s George Putic has more

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More