Changes proposed as military struggles with sex assaults

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By Ashley Fantz

(CNN) — In light of two new cases this month involving sexual assault in the military — allegedly by the service members tasked to prevent such crimes — legislation was introduced Thursday that could ease victims’ quest for justice.

Democratic Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand of New York, who has this year repeatedly grilled high-level military officials on the topic, wants to remove what is known as chain of command from a process that victims have to go through to get their claims heard. Gillibrand wants to give military prosecutors the power to decide whether cases are investigated.

The current system of reporting often works like this: When someone wants to report that they’ve been violated, that person typically goes to commanders who decide whether the claim is legitimate and can be passed along for further investigation.

The current system, the senator asserts, opens the victim up to retaliation. Gillibrand and others feel that a commander cannot be an impartial figure and may be inclined to protect not just the victim but the perpetrator who is also his or her subordinate.

“When we just talk (to victims) informally, they tell us they don’t report because they are afraid of retaliation, being marginalized, having their careers end or being blamed,” she said on CNN’s The Lead with Jake Tapper. “And so what we have to do is create a different dynamic so they feel more comfortable reporting.”

In 2012, more than 26,000 troops experienced an episode of “unwanted sexual contact,” a huge jump from the 19,300 figure in the 2010 report, the Defense Department said this month.

The military defines unwanted sexual contact as sexual crimes prohibited by military law, from rape to abusive sexual contact.

But of those 26,000, only 3,374 came forward to report an alleged sexual crime in 2012. While that disparity is clear; the lower number still marks a 6% increase in the report of alleged sexual crimes compared with 2011, the report showed.

The number of service members anonymously reporting a sexual assault grew by more than 30% in the past two years, according to a Pentagon report released Tuesday.

Those alarming figures come as two cases brought the problem of military sexual assault into stark relief.

This week, an Army sergeant first class assigned to the sexual assault prevention unit at Fort Hood, Texas, is being investigated for alleged sexual assault, pandering, abusive sexual contact and maltreatment of subordinates.

And in early May, an Air Force officer who worked with an assault prevention unit was charged with sexual battery and removed from duty. He is accused of grabbing a woman and groping her buttocks and breasts in an Arlington County parking lot not far from his Washington office.

Both cases are being investigated.

At a Thursday press conference, survivors of sexual assault spoke about the hell they’ve been through and how difficult it was to have their cases investigated.

Retired Air Force Technical Sgt. Jennifer Norris said she thought it was a better option to “suck it up” than to report being assaulted.

“I did not want to be stigmatized for reporting my assaults as I tried to move forward in my career,” she said. “Instead the best option for me was to try and endure it, to suck it up, and try and make it till I could get transferred somewhere else only to have it happen over and over again like a recurring nightmare.”

Norris began to weep.

Former Navy Petty Officer Third Class Brian Lewis was stationed in Guam when he was raped, he told reporters.

“After the rape, I was told by my command not to file a formal report with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service,” he said. “When I was reassigned to seek medical help, my psychiatrist told me that I was lying about my rape and diagnosed me with a personality disorder.”

Lewis was discharged in August 2001.

“I have been fighting to correct my record ever since,” he said.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has said he’s disgusted over the most recent allegations and has called for a re-evaluation of how service members are chosen to work in sexual assault prevention units.

He’s also ordered that everyone who currently works in those units be retrained and re-screened, and that they have to earn their credentials again.

Hagel is scheduled to meet with President Barack Obama to discuss the issue.

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