By Patricia Zengerle and Idrees Ali
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Members of the U.S. Congress said on Wednesday they would press ahead with efforts to change the law in order to overhaul how the military prosecutes sexual assault and related crimes, while welcoming Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s unprecedented support for the shift.
Democratic and Republican members of Congress announced the introduction in the House of Representatives of legislation to shift prosecution of such cases from the chain of command and make it the responsibility of trained military prosecutors.
Their bill is named for Army Specialist Vanessa Guillen, who was murdered after reporting sexual harassment. A companion bill is co-sponsored by two-thirds of the Senate, although it has been held up by opposition from the Democratic and Republican leaders of the Armed Services Committee.
Advocates and lawmakers have been calling for years for commanders to be taken out of the decision-making process when it comes to prosecuting the thousands of cases of sexual assault and related crimes among service members every year.
Senior military officials, including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army General Mark Milley, have stopped short of endorsing the move, despite acknowledging failings in addressing sexual assault in the ranks.
They argue, supported by some members of Congress, that preserving commanders’ authority over prosecutions is vital to maintaining discipline. Backers of the legislation argue that the military has failed to improve the system despite years of promises.
Austin, in a major break from his predecessors, said on Tuesday he supported the change and would work with Congress to make changes.
“That is a huge, monumental step forward to recognize that good order and discipline does not rest on a commander deciding on if a case goes forward,” Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who has spearheaded efforts to change the policy, told a news conference with House members and members of Guillen’s family.
Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she would bring the measure to the floor soon and it would pass. “I hope that it will succeed in the Senate as well,” she said.
A 2018 Pentagon survey estimated that 20,500 male and female service members experienced some kind of sexual assault that year.
Guillen, who was based at Fort Hood in Texas, was 20 when she was bludgeoned to death, her body found mutilated and buried in a shallow grave. An investigative panel looking into violent crimes and abuse at Fort Hood, the largest active-duty armored post in the United States, said in December it had found a command structure that was “permissive” of sexual assaults.
“When we have a system that fails victims, everyone is failed,” Republican Representative Mike Turner told the news conference.
(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle and Idrees Ali; editing by Jonathan Oatis)