DoD commission on sexual assault promises it will bring fresh eyes to an old issue

Sexual assaults are still increasing in the military, despite hundreds of recommendations over the years.

The Defense Department’s independent review commission on sexual assault is aiming for historic goals to squash what many have called a dangerous epidemic in the military that has festered in the services for decades, and yet continues to get worse.

Chairwoman Lynn Rosenthal says this panel will be different from the hundreds of recommendations and multiple studies of years past.

The commission is made up of 13 members, who were announced by Rosenthal on Wednesday at the Pentagon.

“Let this be the last commission on sexual assault in the military. That should be our goal,” Rosenthal said in response to questions about how this commission will change an issue that has been a focus of multiple studies, recommendations and legislation. “What we’ll be asking is what hasn’t been tried. What happens in civilian society that is a best practice that we could try on the military side? What are the unique attributes of the military environment that allows us to do things that we can’t do on the civilian side? That comparison is very important, and with these folks that we’re bringing in, we’ll be looking at this with fresh eyes.”

Rosenthal and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin have both said that no option should be left off the table, including taking prosecution of sex crimes outside of the chain of command — a possibility that many top lawmakers are seriously considering.

Austin set up the commission as one of his first acts in office.

“The lived experiences of survivors are the very foundation of the work of the commission, the most powerful voices sadly come from trauma, and from pain,” Rosenthal said. “These are the voices that we must hear in developing our recommendations and we are committed to doing so.”

Rosenthal pointed out that the military’s highest-ranking official putting his weight behind the commission.

“This morning, we met with the defense secretary, the deputy secretary and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, and we heard really strong words about this issue,” Rosenthal said. “What I heard at that table, which perhaps was different than what I’ve heard before, is a really deep understanding about sexual assault. Particularly from the chairman, who expressed an understanding of the predatory nature of sexual assault.”

Rosenthal said Milley’s understanding of the issues presents an opportunity for the commission.

“What we are moving past is this idea that has been long held, not just here but in civilian society, that sexual assault is just this confusion between two parties and somebody didn’t quite understand if they had consent or not. That’s a long held rape myth. It’s not just here it’s long held in our culture,” Rosenthal said. “I heard Chairman Milley say this morning that sexual assault was about predators. and so that creates an opening to have this conversation.”

The commission’s members are broken up into four lines of effort: accountability, prevention, climate and culture, and victim care and support.

Members include Cindy Dyer, former Justice Department director for the Office of Violence Against Women, and Neil Irvin, executive director of Men Can Stop Rape.

Others members joining the commission are Kyleanne Hunter, a Marine Corps combat veteran and professor at the Air Force Academy, and Indira Henard, executive director of the D.C. Rape Crisis Center.

“You will see that there are more women than men serving on this panel, that there are experts in gender integration into the forces serving on this panel, that there are civilian advocates and an expert on innovative trauma-informed care that hasn’t really been tried within the services,” Rosenthal said. “These are folks that whose views, quite honestly, haven’t really been solicited in this debate, and I think that’s part of what’s different with this commission, new voices at the table.”

Other experts on the panel include multiple veterans and experts in trauma and suicide prevention.

Rosenthal said the commission has started a website to keep the public informed on the progress and established an email for stakeholders and servicemembers to submit information and recommendations.

At the exact same time as Rosenthal’s statements, across the Potomac River the Senate Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee heard from experts about the state of sexual assault and harassment in the military.

“Despite sustained congressional oversight and DoD actions, reports of sexual assault in the military continues to rise, totaling approximately 6,200 in 2018,” Brenda Farrell, director of defense capabilities and management at the Government Accountability Office, told the committee.

Farrell outlined areas where DoD has not responded to recommendations to fix sexual assault issues and failed to implement suggestions that could prevent assaults.

“We know that commanders play an important role with the climate assessments, and we have previously recommended that there be a mechanism to track the commanders’ compliance with conducting the climate assessment surveys, this has been a long standing issue,” Farrell said. “There have been other actions taken to try to encourage commanders to use this tool. This is very important because commanders can influence a unit or an installation by supporting and promoting and enforcing the policies and the programs of the sexual assault prevention and response.”

Yet, commanders are not using the tools given to them. Farrell did not have an answer as to why.

“It’s not that we haven’t given them ideas on prevention, it’s that they will not implement the ideas on prevention that the GAO in fact gave them,” Senate Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee Chairwoman Kirsten Gillibrand said.

Gillibrand has introduced the bipartisan Military Justice Improvement Act, which would take sex crime prosecutions outside of the chain of command.

“Nearly all commanders are not attorneys, and are ill equipped to make the kind of increasingly complex legal decisions that the military justice system requires,” said Eugene Fidell, senior research scholar and adjunct professor at Yale Law School.

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