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A defense bill reaches the floor of the United States Senate today and it includes a measure aimed at cracking down on the problem of sexual assault in the military. For the first time, this bill would give sexual assault victims more rights, rights they normally do not get under the military code of justice.
Many lawmakers praise the reforms as the most significant in decades. But as NPR's Ailsa Chang reports, others worry they don't go far enough.
AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: No one on Capitol Hill claimed military sexual assault was a women's issue. In fact, data suggests the majority of victims are men. But the women of the Senate took ownership over this problem from the very start as anger mounted this year. Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York says the explanation for that was simple.
SENATOR KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND: Because as women, not only can we understand and be very empathetic when we talk to a man or a woman who's been brutally raped, but we are often able to internalize it and actually imagine what that would be like if that happened to my son or to my daughter, or to myself.
CHANG: She says the current defense bill is a good start. It will prevent military commanders from overturning jury convictions. Anyone convicted of sexual assault will be dishonorably discharged. And all victims will get their own lawyer. Democrat Claire McCaskill of Missouri, a seasoned lawyer who's become one of the leading backers of the bill, says victims will be robustly protected for the first time.
SENATOR CLAIRE MCCASKILL: This will be the most victim-friendly organization in the world. There is no system - the civil criminal justice system or any other system in the world - that gives every victim their own lawyer.
CHANG: Calls for major reforms began after a recent spate of disturbing cases surfaced in the news, including allegations that a group of Navy football players raped a female midshipman at a party last year. Then came disturbing data from the Pentagon suggesting up to 26,000 sexual assaults occurred last year, and only 3,000 victims reported. That's the part Gillibrand, another seasoned lawyer, decided to focus on - getting more victims to report. And she says that's where the current bill still comes up short.
GILLIBRAND: All those reforms make the case go better for those 3,000 victims who reported. They don't address the fact that in 23,000 cases the victim said I don't trust my chain of command to do anything, I fear retaliation.
CHANG: So Gillibrand is pushing an amendment - up for a vote next year - that will give military prosecutors rather than commanders the final say in which sexual assault cases to prosecute. She says that will encourage victims to report, because many don't trust their commanders to be impartial. But the proposal has gotten hard pushback from McCaskill and the majority of the military, including retired Marine Colonel Ana Smythe, who appeared at a press conference on Capitol Hill this summer.
COLONEL ANA SMYTHE: The fabric and the essence of the military is built. That structure is built around the chain of command. The confidence is in that commander.
CHANG: Military leaders say stripping commanders of the power to make prosecutorial decisions will erode the good order and discipline that allows the military to function.
GENE FIDELL: This idea that the commander has to control the administration of justice, even for serious offenses, goes all the way back to George III, our last monarch. It's crazy.
CHANG: Gene Fidell teaches military justice at Yale Law School.
FIDELL: The question of who gets prosecuted is a legal question that goes beyond good order and discipline, and it's the type of thing that ought to be decided in this 21st century by attorneys.
CHANG: But there's a belief that only commanders can change the culture to root out sexual predators. Charlie Dunlap is a retired Air Force major general who served as a military lawyer for three and a half decades.
MAJOR GENERAL CHARLIE DUNLAP: What's not always as well understood is that commanders want to purge these kinds of offenders especially, because they know how destructive it is to the ability to form the cohesion that you need to be successful in the battlefield.
CHANG: And Dunlap says in the end there are unfortunately many reasons victims still won't report. The fear of retaliation may still be there, whether the victim is going to a commander or a lawyer.
Ailsa Chang, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.