With the scourge of sexual assault plaguing the U.S. military, Rep. Jackie Speier has reintroduced legislation to shift authority to investigate rapes within the armed forces from commanding officers to a new office within the military separate from the chain of command.
"We're here today to combat the fiercest enemies of the military, and that is the sexual predators that are allowed to roam within military service and prey on unsuspecting victims," Speier, D-Calif., said at a Capitol Hill news conference this morning.
Speier's legislation, which has 83 cosponsors, would establish a Sexual Assault Oversight and Response Council and create an enhanced Sexual Assault Oversight and Response office within the military to investigate cases. Currently, a commanding officer has discretion to choose jurors and the power to dismiss convictions in sexual assault cases.
"This bill fixes the problem," Speier said. "It takes the decision making out of the hands of the unit commander who has a direct conflict of interest, and places it in a separate office within the military that will handle the reporting, victim care, the investigation and, most importantly, the prosecution of cases of rape and sexual assault."
"We are keeping it within the military but taking it away from the unit commanders that have proven over and over again that because they have no legal training, because they are in fact conflicted, they are not in the best position to make this kind of decision," she added.
Speier, who introduced similar legislation with 131 cosponsors last year, pointed to data from the Pentagon that shows 19,000 sexual assaults occur within the military each year. In 2011, when the most recent data is available, just 191 cases ended in convictions.
"The reality is that women serving in our military have a much greater likelihood of being raped by a fellow service member than being shot by the enemy," Speier said. "Our service members deserve a judicial system that relies on the facts of the case, not the whims of its commanders."
Kelly Smith, a retired U.S. Army linguist who says she was raped in 2003 by a non-commissioned officer when she was just 19 years old, urged lawmakers to support the legislation.
"This epidemic must be stopped, and the STOP Act is the best way to move forward," Smith said.
Retired U.S. Marine Corps Lance Corporal Jeremiah Arbogast, another victim who said his sexual assault led to PTSD and a suicide attempt, pleaded with Americans to stand up and "demand change."
"Sexual assault victims are blamed and stigmatized. Victim blaming must stop," Arbogast said. "We survived the attacks and retaliation and then struggle with the shame, and must fight for benefits and services. This must stop today."
Last month, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered a review of the rules that allow a military commander to overrule court martial convictions, calling it "a significant question whether it is necessary or appropriate to place the convening authority in the position of having the responsibility to review the findings and sentence of a court-martial."
Today, a spokeswoman said the Pentagon does not comment on pending litigation, but she noted that the department has taken multiple steps over the past year to address sexual assault.
"Sexual Assault has no place in the military," Cynthia O. Smith, a Defense Department spokeswoman said. "It is an affront to the values that we defend. The Department of Defense recognizes sexual assault is a terrible crime and more needs to be done in combating it. It is a national problem in our society. We in the military must hold ourselves to a higher standard."