A Pentagon panel recommended that commanders shouldn't get a say in whether service members are prosecuted for sexual assault

A Pentagon panel recommended that commanders shouldn't get a say in whether service members are prosecuted for sexual assault

April 23, 2021
  • A Pentagon panel recommends that commanders should not decide if service members are prosecuted for sexual assault.
  • The independent commission said sexual harassment claims should be handled outside the chain of command.
  • These recommendation could drastically change the way the military handles sexual assault cases.
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Recommendations from a Pentagon commission may drastically change how the US military handles sexual assault cases, suggesting commanders stay out of decisions on whether service members should be prosecuted. 

The panel says that independent authorities — not military commanders — should be the ones to decide if service members are taken to task by the justice system. 

The Associated Press reported on Thursday that the commission was recommending that sexual harassment claims be investigated outside of the chain of command. It also proposed that if charges are deemed credible, the process to discharge a service member should begin immediately. 

In addition, the panel said victims should go through a streamlined, expedited process to obtain protection orders, and that the investigation and judicial process for sexual assault cases should follow a set timeline. 

CNN reported that the commission is helmed by Lynn Rosenthal, former White House adviser on violence against women. Twelve members sit on the commission, including prosecutors, activists, and prevention specialists.

It remains to be seen if these proposals will be taken on board, as the Washington Post reported that Pentagon leaders have been resistant to any plans that could strip commanders of their ability to discipline service members in their ranks, saying their authority could be compromised if they cannot make the final call on whether or not to prosecute cases of sexual assault.

This proposal was one of several recommendations submitted to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Thursday, as part of an ongoing 90-day review of sexual assault in the military. Austin in February called for “outside views and ideas” to be proposed by the commission, to hold the military more accountable where sexual assault cases are concerned. 

According to the Defense Department’s annual report on sexual assault, the number of reported assaults in the military has gone up — from 4,736 cases in 2015 to 6,236 cases in 2019. 

The panel’s recommendations come a day after it was announced a US Air Force general is facing a court-martial based on charges linked to allegations of sexual assault against a civilian. Air Force Maj. Gen. William Cooley, former commander of the Air Force Research Laboratory, is the first individual in the force’s history to ever be court-martialed. He is accused of kissing and touching a civilian woman in New Mexico in 2018 without consent.

This recommendation from the Pentagon’s commission also comes one year after Spc. Vanessa Guillén went missing from a military facility in Fort Hood, Texas, in April 2020. Her body was found buried in a shallow grave along the Leon River in Texas two months later. A federal affidavit names a fellow soldier as a suspect in her death.

The Washington Post reported that Guillén had confided in her family before her death that she was being sexually harassed. 

Her death sparked a #MeToo movement in the military, where servicewomen came forward en masse with their own stories of sexual assault.

If you are a survivor of sexual assault, you can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673) or visit their website to receive confidential support.

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