Thursday, June 6, 2013

Fire In The Hole

While we're aware of the NSA spying story that broke last night, we're not clutching our pearls and feigning surprise like so many other media organizations today. The NSA has been using its ability to spy on all Americans' phone lines for about a decade, thanks to the Patriot Act - so this "shocking" revelation is neither shocking or a revelation to anyone who's already been paying attention.

Instead, we've been focusing on the hearings on Capitol Hill this week, which have been stacking up rapidly as both houses of Congress finally have chosen to get some work done - or at least give the appearance of getting work done.

Among the many different IRS scandal hearings, several working groups tackling immigration reform, and other conferences and meetings, a very serious and important hearing was held on Tuesday, focusing on sexual assault in the military.

The problem with sexual assault in the military, across multiple branches, has been blowing up in the faces of U.S. military leaders and politicians recently like a hand grenade that's lost its pin.

From the top coordinator of sexual assault prevention in the Air Force, to a different sexual assault prevention coordinator in the Army - both of whom were arrested for sexual assault - and Army sergeant at Fort Hood who's been charged with being a pimp, the stories about sexual assault and misconduct have been on a non-stop march lately.

Which is precisely why lawmakers on Capitol Hill demanded a crackdown on sexual assault issues from the military's highest-ranking members at an eight-hour long Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Tuesday.

For the record, the hearing was an impressive show of bipartisanship. The committee was split not along political lines, as you might expect, but mostly along gender lines - even though women have not been the sole victims of sexual assault and rape in the military.

Senators McCaskill and Gillibrand were direct and brilliant, slamming the commanders on issues of trust and responsibility for how poorly they've handled this massive problem. We even have to give grudging approval to Nebraska's Deb Fischer for her stand on the issue. In short, the seven female Democratic and Republican Senators at the hearing were engaged in some of the most honest Congressional work we've seen in ages.

The men of both parties, however - especially the Republicans - embarrassed themselves with comments reflecting old-fashioned misogyny as well as just plain ignorance.

The core issue surrounding sexual abuse in the military is that the UCMJ - the Uniform Code of  Military Justice - allows for commanding officers to mete out justice themselves in cases of sexual abuse or misconduct. This means your commanding officer - who may have been the one sexually assaulting you - gets to decide whether your claim is valid, including if your accuser will even go before a court martial. If your attacker is convicted, that commander may also reverse the conviction, without needing a jury or other equally high ranked commander.

Even Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel - a veteran himself - agrees that taking the power to reverse a sexual assault conviction out of the hands of commanding officers is the right thing to do. Yet that is the one major change those in charge of the military are refusing to make.

After Tuesday's grueling hearing, we can't help but think Congress will change the rules soon, and once again protect the thousands of women and men who are raped, attacked, and abused every day by their superior officers and fellow servicemembers.

Protecting those that serve their nation is the least that Congress - and Americans - can demand of our military leaders, for all the servicemembers that protect us.

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