U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services investigates sexual assault in military

Washington-DC

Since publication, corrections were made to the ninth paragraph.

WASHINGTON (WDVM) — According to Senator Kristen Gillibrand, chair of the United States Senate Committee on Armed Services, U.S. service members are more likely to be sexually assaulted than shot in the line of duty. Sexual assaults have doubled, yet the rate of prosecution and conviction have halved.

Gillibrand shared this data on Wednesday at the committee’s hearing on sexual assault in the military. During her opening statement, the senator said service members are often assaulted by someone in their chain of command. Most victims are between the ages of 18 and 24 and two out of three of those who report are retaliated against or ostracized. 

Senator Thom Tillis, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee on Personnel, noted that sexual assault is not isolated to the military, adding that the rates of reporting and prosecutions are higher in the military than on college campuses. In fact, Tillis said some colleges and universities look to the Department of Defense for guidance. Instead of focusing on how cases are prosecuted, Tillis favors passing legislation that prevents the assaults from happening in the first place.

Gillibrand said the conviction rate of sexual assaults in the military is falling. It currently sits at 7 percent. There were 264 convicted cases in 2019, but in 2014, there were 433 convicted cases. 

The first panel of testifiers included Natalie Khawam, president and founder of the Whistleblower Law Firm. Khawam is representing the family of Specialist Vanessa Guillen, a servicemember whose remains were found at Fort Hood in 2020. The Associated Press reports more than two dozen Fort Hood soldiers died in 2020, including multiple homicides and suicides. Guillen’s death prompted an independent review, which found that military leaders were not adequately dealing with high rates of sexual assault and harassment.

Prosecutors believe Guillen was sexually assaulted by another soldier, who later committed suicide. 

Gillibrand has advocated for her Military Justice Improvement Act since it was introduced in 2013. The legislation aims to redirect sexual assault investigations from the victim’s chain of command to an independent body. It continues to stall in the Senate.

“Every general or commander that has come in front of this body for the past 10 years has told us, ‘We’ve got this ma’am, we’ve got this,'” said Gillibrand. “Well, the truth is, they don’t have it.”

Amy Braley Franck, the founder of Never Alone, also testified. “I am currently being retaliated against for reporting Command for illegally concealing and failing to report three violent sexual assaults to law enforcement,” she said. Franck says she was suspended the day after she filed the report. Since 2006, she’s worked with victims of sexual violence, most recently as a victims’ advocate for the 416th Theater Engineer Command.

“Advocates are continually blocked by layers of Command from protecting their victims,” she testified. “When commanders ignore the advice of advocates, we have no recourse. There are no consequences for commanders when they violate law.”

Last year, staff sergeant Morgan Robinson of the U.S. National Guard committed suicide after her alleged rape was never investigated. Robinson reported that nine soldiers covered her head, dragged her out of a tent, and gang raped her.

“Never investigated,” Franck said. “An outstanding soldier committed suicide. She was not protected.” One of the offenders is still serving in the Oklahoma Army National Guard. 

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