It’s difficult to determine whether the latest revelations will finally start to end the pervasive acceptance by the military of sexual assaults. But hearing the graphic account of a former prosecutor has to help.
Michael C. Lancer, now a Buffalo attorney, is one of those standing up to injustice. Lancer was an Army prosecutor a couple of decades ago and recently spoke with News Washington bureau chief Jerry Zremski about his stark experiences.
Lancer’s story can only strengthen the argument for changing the system that too often ignores complaints of sexual assault in the armed forces. A major step will be taking cases of sexual assault out of the regular military chain of command and handing them over to trained prosecutors.
As one example, Lancer recalled hearing his commanding officer downplay one case as “just a little rape.” That outrageous assessment of a traumatic and criminal act was followed by a general unilaterally dismissing the conviction in the case.
Lancer’s account of a military so dismissive of crimes within its ranks and the latest startling statistics on the number of sexual assaults should be unnerving to the nation’s military leadership.
To make sure that happens, Lancer reached out to Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y.
Gillibrand is one of a number of lawmakers who have pledged reform. The senator has rallied long and loud to change what has been an unchanging culture. Her bill would give military prosecutors, instead of the offender’s commanding officer, the power to decide which cases to try. It would also abolish a commander’s post-trial powers to dismiss convictions.
Both are important elements and may hold the key to reversing what too often becomes a toxic environment for women, and a few men, who are sexually assaulted.
Gillibrand’s approach is more than Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel seems willing to do.
Hagel announced his support for legislation that would strip commanders of their ability to reverse convictions. But he said he was reluctant to move cases to military prosecutors, believing the ultimate authority has to remain within what is clearly a flawed command structure.
That tone-deaf response did not go over too well, and a few days later his spokesman told reporters that Hagel was “open to any and all options” for solving the problem of sexual assaults in the military.
It is difficult to believe the culture will change any time soon, with a Pentagon report showing that sexual assaults occurred on an average of 71 times a day in 2012. As appalling as that number is, it is dwarfed by the Pentagon’s estimate that 26,000 sexual assaults occurred in the military last year, with most of them going unreported because victims were aware of what was likely to happen to the case. Even more outrageous, the report said that only 1,714 service members were charged with an offense. Numerous times commanders dropped cases against defendants.
Lancer served as chief of military justice at Aberdeen Proving Ground. The Army brought charges against 12 commissioned and noncommissioned officers at Aberdeen in 1996, finding an elaborate pattern of abuse. There were convictions in that case, but recent statistics show that little has changed since then.
Gillibrand’s bill has bipartisan co-sponsors in the Senate and House. It will lead the way for reforms without harming military readiness. The Pentagon should welcome the change. Families of members of the armed forces certainly will.