I was standing on a desk when I was introduced to U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.
A while back, while I was working as a staffer on military issues for Colorado’s own terrific U.S. Senator Michael Bennet, I found myself in the boss’s D.C. office area. I had flown to D.C. for a few staffer things and was puttering around the office area when a need arose in the intern’s office. It seems something was needed up high on a shelf and I mean up high. So, I found myself atop one of the desks, reaching up for the object when the door opened and Bennet walked in, accompanied by Gillibrand. As he started to introduce me to her as a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, I scampered down with as much dignity as I could muster and shook hands with Gillibrand. I thanked her, as a military guy, for all the great work she was doing for military families and then I returned to my critical work as a tall-guy-reacher-upperer.
I was reminded of that meeting recently when I read the story in The Gazette about the Pentagon’s apparent pushback against a new plan to remove sexual assault cases from the direct chain of command. For my civilian friends, the military handles legal and disciplinary matters rather differently than do employers in the civilian world. While minor disciplinary issues, say, someone has a problem showing up for work on time, are handled in a similar manner, the military system really starts to differ from the civilian world when things get more crime-like. The chain of command — your commander and his/her commanders on up — have a good bit of leeway in how such issues are handled.
There are good reasons for this military system, often revolving around good order and discipline, and the ability to carry out the needed mission. Military folks operated not only under U.S. law, but also under something called the Uniform Code of Military Justice, or UCMJ for short. That code of legal behaviors goes well beyond what civilian law deals with. For example, while a civilian employee of, say, Google, might be looked down upon for committing adultery, a military member could be criminally charged under the UCMJ for that offence. The idea is that the military has such a profound and vital mission that it must be allowed to have a higher standard for the behavior of military members. I agree with that idea.
The types of punishments available to commanders vary. We military types have what is called “non-judicial punishment” which can be as mild as a letter of admonishment all the way up to being kicked out of the military with a dishonorable discharge. It’s a bit more complicated than I’m making it sound, but that is the basic idea.
For many violations of the UCMJ, the chain-of-command model works just fine. But one area in which it has not is the reporting and responding to issues of sexual assault. All too often when individuals — especially women — report a sexual assault to their chain of command, they find their complaints dismissed. Аll too often, an even more hostile work environment results.
For years Gillibrand has taken the lead in pushing the Pentagon to remove sexual assault reporting from the chain of command and instead into the hands of the јudge аdvocates. The ЈАGs, as they are called, are the lawyers in the military. They are by tradition isolated from the local chain of command and answer only to higher military legal authorities. Thus, no local commander could, for example, threaten to punish a JAG for pushing a particular case forward. Gillibrand and others (including yours truly) strongly believe that sexual assault issues should automatically be kicked over to the JAG corps. I know from my own 25-plus years of active military duty that commanders can get way too cozy with some subordinates, and when those lower-ranking people act inappropriately or even potentially criminally, they may well get a “boys will be boys” slap on the wrist, simultaneously marginalizing the victim while also sending a message that sexual assault is not that big a deal.
New Secretary of Defense (and retired 4-star general) Lloyd Austin and some of the military’s top generals are apparently concerned about the proposed change in policy of kicking such cases to the JAGs. And there are legitimate concerns about unit readiness and even worries that the change might make it more difficult for victims to come forward.
I respect Austin and I don’t doubt that his heart is in the right place on this issue, but unfortunately, it’s too late. The military, which I still love and respect, has all too often failed utterly to do the right thing regarding sexual assault. We need a new, independent, and energetic system, under the JAGs, to go after those who would prey on fellow military members. Earlier this year, a commission set up by Austin to study the issue recommended what might be called the Gillibrand model, wherein sexual assault cases would, in fact, be shifted to an independent JAG to decide if someone should be charged and if that person should face a court martial.
I hope Secretary Austin follows his own commission’s recommendations. It is long past time for the military to handle sexual assault issues with the urgency they demand. And thank you to Sen. Gillibrand for her years of hard work to get us to this point.