June 5 (Bloomberg) -- In the midst of a Senate debate over curbing sexual assaults in the U.S. military, a Republican senator from Georgia cited surging hormones among young recruits as a contributing factor.
“The young folks that are coming in to each of your services are anywhere from 17 to 22-or-three,” Senator Saxby Chambliss told the nation’s top military officers yesterday at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “The hormone level created by nature sets in place the possibility for these types of things to occur.”
While Chambliss, 69, said “we simply can’t tolerate” sexual assaults, his comments added to tensions over how to curb what one of the commanders called a cancer of sexual wrongdoing in the armed services. In the daylong hearing, women in the Senate confronted the nation’s top uniformed officers, who resisted their calls for changes in the handling of sexual-assault cases.
A bipartisan coalition of female lawmakers has taken the lead in proposing measures to bolster victims’ rights and encourage them to come forward.
Chambliss’s comments drew a rebuke from Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, who is chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee.
“For a United States senator or anyone to write off sexual assault and the personal violation of a woman or a man to the raging hormones of youth shows just how dramatically out of touch the Republican Party is,” she said on MSNBC yesterday, adding that Chambliss should apologize.
At the hearing, military officers dug in against a measure by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat who serves on the committee, that would turn over cases of sexual assault to independent military prosecutors.
“Obviously we have a very significant issue in men and women who are brutally assaulted and victims of sexual assault and rape having no confidence that the chain of command can actually address these problems,” Gillibrand said in an interview. “We need significant reform including taking the decision-making out of the chain of command.”
The military leaders said that sexual-assault cases must be handled by the commanding officers responsible for them now.
“The commander’s ability to preserve good order and discipline remains essential to accomplishing any change within our profession,” Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in testimony submitted for the hearing. “Reducing command responsibility could adversely affect the ability of the commander to enforce professional standards.”
Under the longstanding military justice system, commanding officers decide whether to bring charges, choose the court-martial jury and can reduce or overturn a sentence.
The leaders can’t always be objective, nor can all of them distinguish between a “slap on the ass and a rape,” Gillibrand said during the hearing.
“After speaking to victims, they have told us that the reason they do not report these crimes is because they fear retaliation,” Gillibrand told the military leaders. “You have lost the trust of the men and women who rely on you” to bring justice in their cases.
While maintaining that sex-assault allegations should remain within the chain of command, Dempsey said those commanders should be surrounded by a “constellation of checks and balances.”
The Defense Department released results last month of a survey estimating 26,000 cases of sexual assault occurred last year, compared with 2,949 victims identified in criminal reports. The findings were issued amid an uproar over alleged assaults that President Barack Obama has described as “shameful and disgraceful.”
Leaders of the Armed Services panel backed the officers in resisting Gillibrand’s approach. Senator Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat and the panel’s chairman, said the issue of sexual assaults can’t be resolved “without a culture change throughout the military.” Military commanders must be held accountable if they don’t make the necessary changes, he said.
“The key to cultural change in the military is the chain of command,” Levin said in his opening statement. “Only the chain of command can establish a zero-tolerance policy for sexual offenses.”
The panel’s top Republican, Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, said that “rushing” to change the law could be “counter-productive.”
“No change is possible without commanders as agents of that change,” Inhofe said in his opening statement.
Senator Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, said the military must create a climate in which victims are comfortable in coming forward to report crimes.
The Pentagon doesn’t know how many members are raped or sexually assaulted because surveys don’t distinguish between “predatory” behavior and an “unhealthy” working environment, she said at the hearing.
The military has “sexual predators who are not committing crimes of lust,” she said. “This isn’t about sex.” Rather it’s about “domination” and violence, she said.
All of the commanders testifying promised stronger efforts to combat sexual assaults.
“The Department of Defense and specifically the Army has a serious problem,” General Ray Odierno, the Army’s top commander, said in written testimony. “Sexual assault and harassment are like a cancer within the force -- a cancer that left untreated will destroy the fabric of our force.”
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who has called sexual assaults and harassment in the military a “huge problem,” has said “we’re not taking anything off the table” to resolve the problem. He has endorsed legislation barring commanders from overturning court-martial convictions of sexual assaults and other major crimes, a proposal that has support in Congress.
Hagel told graduates at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point last month that solving the military’s crisis of sexual assaults and harassment will require “your complete commitment to building a culture of respect and dignity.”
Among those in the audience for Hagel’s speech were 15 graduating members of the West Point men’s rugby team. It was disclosed June 3 that the team was temporarily disbanded and its players disciplined after they took part in what Francis DeMaro, an academy spokesman, called an “inappropriate e-mail chain” demeaning to women.
Three football players at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, are under investigation for the alleged sexual assault of a female midshipman.
In another case that has fueled debate over the military’s culture, the Army is investigating allegations by soldiers that sexual affairs were condoned at Fort Greely in Alaska, creating what they called a “toxic environment” on the remote base.
An Army sergeant who served as a sexual-assault prevention coordinator at Fort Hood, Texas, is being investigated for allegations including “abusive sexual contact” and “pandering,” according to the Pentagon. Under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, pandering refers to compelling, inducing, enticing or procuring acts of prostitution.
The head of the Air Force’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response branch was arrested in Arlington, Virginia, on a sexual assault charge. Lieutenant Colonel Jeffrey Krusinski “approached a female victim in a parking lot and grabbed her breasts and buttocks” on May 5, according to an Arlington County police report. Krusinski, 41, didn’t enter a plea at his May 9 arraignment, when his trial was set for July 18.
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