Secretary of defense, Congress seek to remove sexual assault cases from chain of command
A little more than a week after members of Congress filed a bill that sought to remove sexual assault prosecution decisions from the chain of command, the secretary of defense released guidance that would do the same.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin released the guidance Friday that followed a three-month Independent Review Commission on Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment, he said.
Austin said he is directing the Department of Defense to move forward on reforms and to work with Congress to amend the Uniformed Code of Military Justice by:
- Removing the prosecution of sexual assaults and related crimes, domestic violence, child abuse and retaliation from the military chain of command
- Creating dedicated offices within each military branch to handle the prosecution of those crimes with appropriate legal oversight and guidance from the Office of the Secretary of Defense
- Adding sexual harassment as an offense under the Uniform Code of Military Justice
On June 22, bipartisan members of Congress filed the Vanessa Guillén Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act, which also seeks to remove sexual assault prosecution decisions away from the chain of command.
It is a companion bill of Senate Bill 1520, which has 66 bipartisan cosponsors.
Rep. Richard Hudson, whose district includes Fort Bragg, cosponsored the House bill.
The bill and Austin’s directive come after the death of Spc. Vanessa Guillen, who was last seen April 22, 2020, at Fort Hood, Texas.
Her dismembered remains were later found June 30, 2020, buried near a river 20 miles east of Fort Hood. The soldier accused of killing her shot himself to death as investigators were moving in.
Guillen’s family told media that before her disappearance, she told them she experienced sexual harassment at the installation.
The bill named in her memory also contains provisions that would:
- Improve training for servicemembers on sexual assault response;
- Increase professional development for prosecutors;
- Improve the physical security of living accommodations on military installations.
Under current law, commands with no legal training can make decisions on whether to prosecute service members for major crimes, such as murder and rape, according to those who filed the bill,
The bill would transfer the responsibility to military attorneys and assure victims and their loved ones the prosecutor is outside of the chain of command of the victim and alleged perpetrator.
Fort Hood report and Bragg cases
Guillen’s death prompted the creation of the Fort Hood Independent Review Committee, which was tasked with determining whether the command climate and culture at Fort Hood reflects Army values that include “respect, inclusiveness, and workplaces free from sexual harassment,” Army officials said.
The committee’s findings were publicly released in December and include references to reported crimes at Fort Bragg.
The report looks at reports of sex crimes during the 2018 and 2019 calendar years and part of the 2020 calendar year through Aug. 31.
Using data from the Defense Sexual Assault Incident Database, it shows there were 51 violent sex crimes reported at Fort Bragg in 2018; 49 in 2019; and 36 in 2020 through August.
In 2018, there were 20 rapes or attempted rapes reported; 14 in 2019; and seven through August 2020.
The report states no forcible sodomies were reported at Fort Bragg in 2018; two were reported in 2019; and at least one was reported in 2020.
The Defense Sexual Assault Incident Database does not track juvenile, domestic and “certain other sex crimes,” the report states.
According to a news release on Rep. Jackie Speier’s website, there were 6,290 reports of sexual assault within the Department of Defense in 2020.
Speier, a California Democrat, is a sponsor of the Vanessa Guillén Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act.
The news release notes that sexual assault “remains an underreported crime, with only 36% of survey-estimated sexual assaults actually being reported and only 1% ending in a conviction at court-martial, or military trial.”
In a June 23 news release, Hudson said “sexual assault is an affront to the values of our military and the nation they defend.”
“We must accept that what we have tried in the past has not worked,” he said. “We owe it to the victims like Vanessa Guillén to do everything we can to end this culture of sexual assault. Our men and women in uniform sacrifice every day to keep us safe and we have a responsibility to ensure all service members are treated with the dignity and respect they deserve."
While Austin has given the deputy secretary of defense two months to develop an implementation roadmap of the directive, leaders at Fort Bragg have implemented a few soldier ideas on revising the Army’s Sexual Harassment Assault and Rape Prevention Program.
Fort Bragg actions
Leaders in the 18th Airborne Corps asked soldiers in February to submit ideas on changes for the program.
As several soldiers focused on moving the program away from having handouts or PowerPoint presentations during sexual assault and harassment training and shifting to more interactive training with open dialogue, 1st Lt. Alexandra Elison concentrated on policies.
Fort Bragg soldiers: PowerPoint not best way to present sexual assault and harassment topics to soldiers
Elison, a soldier under the 18th Airborne Corps Headquarters and Headquarters Company previously said she proposed reforms to the Criminal Investigation Division actions.
She sought changes for how representatives under the SHARP program are trained and for SHARP representatives assigned to a victim to be in a different unit than the victim.
“I don’t think sexual assault and sexual harassment is going to go away with the click of a button,” Elison said. “I think it’s going to take these long conversations and be a long process to fix the problem.”