Armed Forces News

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III greets German Minister of Defense Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer at the Pentagon, Washington, D.C., June 30, 2021. (DoD photo by Air Force Staff Sgt. Brittany A. Chase)

Following the recommendation of an independent review commission, Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III has relieved all commanders of the responsibility to pursue sexual assault cases.

“On my first full day as secretary of defense, I committed that we must do more as a department to counter the scourge of sexual assault and sexual assault in the military,” Austin wrote in a July 2 memorandum.

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Austin in essence agreed to every recommendation put forth by the independent commission in its report, which he received late last month. Under the change, commanding officers no longer will decide how sexual assault cases within their purview should proceed. Instead, the Defense Department and Congress will work together to change the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) to form a new avenue to pursue such cases. Additionally, commanders also no longer will oversee prosecution of domestic violence, child abuse and retribution cases. The new scenario will entail creation of separate offices within each armed service that would handle these cases.

Austin also approved a commission recommendation that special language describing sexual harassment be included in the UCMJ.

Congress would have to approve making these sex-related and domestic crimes federal offenses. However, the services would be able to pursue them administratively through the non-judicial process (NJP). Service members could face an array of punishments under NJP, to include involuntary separation from service.

The commission began its work in March. The process involved interviews with more than 600 past and present service members, survivors, advocates, commanders and junior and senior enlisteds. Lynn Rosenthal, who directed the process, outlined both the commission’s purpose and reasons for reaching its conclusions.

“Twenty thousand service members experience sexual assault every year. Less than 8,000 report those assaults, less than 5,000 of those are unrestricted reports – meaning the victim has said he or she wants a full investigation,” Rosenthal said. “Only a tiny fraction of those end up with any kind of action at all in the military justice system. That’s the chasm we’re talking about.”

Commanders are not able to handle the complex nature of such cases, Rosenthal said. Nor are is the military justice system ready to do so either, she added.

“These crimes are interpersonal in nature and have the potential to be traumatizing for victims as their cases move forward,” Rosenthal said. “They need specialized care and handling.”

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Victims’ advocates no longer would assume such responsibility as a collateral duty, under another recommendation, except in shipboard cases or those involving long and isolated deployments. Instead, such advocates would operate independently from the chain of command.

Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen H. Hicks will oversee preparation of the path forward. Once a plan is formulated and approved, the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness would oversee its implementation.

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