A bipartisan coalition of senators, flanked by victims of sexual assault in the U.S. military, joined together today to tout their ongoing effort to remove sexual assault cases from the military's chain of command.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who is leading the effort in Congress to create an independent military justice system, said the reforms would give a "fair shot at justice" to survivors of sexual violence.
"This is not a Democratic or a Republican idea. It's just the right idea for all the brave men and women that serve in our military," Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said during a news conference at the Capitol today. "Too often these brave men and women are in the fight of their life, and it is not on some far-off foreign soil. It's right within their own ranks, with their commanding officer, as victims of horrific acts of sexual violence."
The New York Democrat has won over the support of a broad range of her colleagues in the upper chamber, including conservative firebrand Senators Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, who called Gillibrand's effort "a crusade for justice."
"To me, it's as simple as this: Should you have to report to your boss when you've been abused or when you've been a victim of a crime?" Paul, R-Ky., asked rhetorically. "Nowhere in America would you report that to your boss. You report that to the authorities. This would still be within the military, but these should be people who are objectively looking at the law, and it will try to find justice."
Cruz, R-Texas, said that every senator owes "a solemn obligation" to work to protect the men and women of the military.
"For any young soldier to be subjected to sexual assault or rape is utterly unacceptable, and I am encouraged that we can see a bipartisan coalition come together and say, Let's strengthen the military and make sure we can protect every young man, every young woman who is stepping forward to defend our nation, to defend our liberties," he said.
Gillibrand, who claims 46 cosponsors on the legislation so far, complained that there is no accountability or justice because "commanders hold all the cards as to whether a case will move forward or not."
"Critics say moving these systems out of the chain of command will diminish good order and discipline. Well, I have news for you. With 26,000 cases of sexual assaults, rapes and unwanted sexual contact last year alone, we don't have the good order and discipline that our military needs," she said. "It's time to restore this trust. It's time to move the sole decision-making power over whether serious crimes have taken place, akin to a felony in the civilian system, out of the chain of command and into the hands of trained military prosecutors, who are trained to weigh the evidence and make the judgment about whether a crime has been committed and there's enough evidence to go forward."
The senators were joined by a sexual assault victim, Ariana Klay, and her husband, Ben, who described their trouble seeking justice after Ariana was raped.
A former Marine assigned to the Marine Barracks in Washington, D.C., when she was sexually assaulted in her home, Klay identified "a culture of harassment" in the military that she said encourages and protects sexual predators.
"When I reported the assault, my command responded with retaliation," she said. "The humiliation of the retaliation was worse than the assault, because it was sanctioned from those same leaders I once would have risked my life for."
Ariana's husband, Ben, said that beyond a year of retaliation and intimidation, his wife suffered through 15 hours of "degrading testimony" during the trial.
"When Ariana reported her assault, I learned how this denial works. I read her commander's conclusions in writing that she deserved ill treatment for wearing running shorts and makeup. I read the opinion of the command-appointed investigator who compared rape to prostitution or marrying a rich man," Ben Klay said. "The closing statement of that trial was the Marine officer's reading the definition of "c-," "slut" and "whore."
Ben Klay, a former reservist who also served two tours of duty in Iraq, asserted that military justice is "a secondary duty" for a commander and "a distraction from his mission to fight wars."
"I watched the effect of that injustice on Ariana. It takes incredible strength to pull out of that nightmare. And I'm lucky I married - lucky I married someone so strong that she could do it, even if she still suffers and has never been the same," Klay said, choking through tears. "She gained wisdom, figured out how to forgive, and though the experience changed her, she refused to let it prevent her from giving her best to live her life and those around her."
"I've never seen her smarter or stronger than now, but she never should have had to learn the lesson she did. And the military still hasn't learned it," he continued. "The idea that justice should be independent and impartial is one of the foundational principles of our government. Our troops deserve its protection, and when we don't protect them, we have not only a justice problem but a national security problem."
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, predicted the proposed change would "eliminate bias and make victims more comfortable in coming forward" to report crimes.
"It's common sense, but more importantly it's just. Sexual assault is a law enforcement issue," he said. "When young adults commit to serving their country and defending our freedoms, they deserve to know their own rights will be protected, including access to justice. This reform will strengthen morale."
Gillibrand said that the source of opposition to her bill is deep-rooted in the Department of Defense, and contended that thousands of people are leaving the military as a result of the widespread problem.
"We are losing thousands, thousands of military men and women to this scourge," Gillibrand said. "We need them to be healthy, focused, doing their jobs and not leaving the military in droves because they're being kicked out because of personality disorders."
After Jo Ann Rooney, President Obama's nominee to become undersecretary of the Navy, said she opposes Gillibrand's proposal because decisions should be based on evidence rather than preserving good order and discipline, Gillibrand put a hold on her nomination.