WASHINGTON — Lawmakers from both major parties rebuked the Pentagon on Tuesday for failing to curtail sexual assaults in the military, arguing that the inability of commanders to solve the problem may mean they need to be stripped of the power to decide on prosecuting and punishing offenders.
With an estimated 26,000 service members experiencing "unwanted sexual contact" last year — and evidence that many fear retaliation if they report an assault to a superior — Congress is preparing to take up a bill by Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) that would shift decisions on serious crimes, including rape, from commanders to independent military prosecutors.
That plan faces steadfast opposition from top military officials, even as they acknowledge that many sexual assault victims decide against lodging complaints, fearing that they will be ostracized in their units, that their careers will suffer and that perpetrators will be protected by their chain of command.
Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the heads of the four military services argued Tuesday in an Armed Services Committee hearing that eliminating commanders' roles in deciding such cases could make it even harder to hold perpetrators accountable.
"We're failing," admitted Gen. Ray Odierno, Army chief of staff. "But removing commanders — making commanders less responsible and less accountable — will not work."
The clash is a rare instance in which female lawmakers, who now make up more than a quarter of the 26 members of the influential committee, are taking a lead role in challenging the Pentagon brass. Several say they no longer believe that the military's largely male command structure can deal with the problem, the victims of which are disproportionately women.
"You have lost the trust of the men and women who rely on you that you will actually bring justice in these cases," said Gillibrand, staring down at the phalanx of senior generals and admirals at the witness table.
Reported sexual assaults of men and women in the military rose to 3,374 last year, up from 3,192 a year earlier, according to a Pentagon report released last month. But about 1 in 4 of those who were assaulted and received medical care declined to press charges — an indicator of the victims' fear of retribution, officials said.
Along with the Gillibrand-Boxer proposal, six other bills pending before the committee deal with the military sexual assault problem, all but one of them introduced by female senators. The bills will probably be considered when the committee takes up the annual Defense Department authorization bill next week.
The prospect for far-reaching change in the way the military prosecutes sexual assaults remains uncertain, despite recent controversy that has focused attention on the way the military handles such cases.
As a sign of the uphill battle facing Gillibrand's bill, Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) urged caution, arguing that the sexual assault problem was caused in part by the young age of many service members.
"The young folks that are coming into each of your services are anywhere from 17 to 22 or ," he said. "Gee whiz … the hormone level created by nature sets in place the possibility for these types of things to occur. So we've got to be very careful in how we address it."
After an Air Force general overturned the sexual assault conviction of an F-16 pilot in February, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called for eliminating a commander's power to overturn court-martial findings and also for requiring an explanation in writing if a commander exercises his power to adjust a sentence.
Both changes would require Congress to amend the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the law that governs the military justice system. But Hagel joined top Pentagon officers in opposing Gillibrand's call to make lawyers in each service's judge advocate general corps ultimately responsible for deciding whether to prosecute rape and other major crimes.
Odierno on Tuesday cited a 2012 case from Ft. Carson, an Army base in Colorado, in explaining why commanders should retain authority to initiate cases. An officer at the base had been investigated by local prosecutors in connection with an off-post sexual assault, but no charges were brought because of a lack of evidence, Odierno said.
The Ft. Carson commander ordered Army criminal investigators to continue the inquiry, which eventually turned up evidence that the officer had assaulted three additional victims. He was convicted in a court-martial and sentenced to 35 years in prison and a dishonorable discharge.
Odierno did not identify the soldier, but the details track the case of Lt. Aaron G. Lucas, a 31-year-old married father of two who was stationed at Ft. Carson. The victims in the cases were all children.