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My Turn: On sexual assault, Ayotte’s measure ineffective

Re “Mixed bag for New Hampshire delegation” (Monitor Local & State page, March 18):

Since she is given top billing in the article, Sen. Kelly Ayotte’s co-sponsoring a bill on sexual assault in the military is clearly seen as the greatest accomplishment of our representatives in this legislative session. I respectfully disagree.

Ayotte worked to block a bill that would have finally removed prosecution for sexual assault from the military chain of command. The “Military Justice Improvement Act” was sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York. Fifty-five senators, including New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, voted to move this bill forward. Forty-five senators, including Ayotte, voted against it. A majority vote, however, does not work in the U.S. Senate, since 60 votes are needed to avoid a filibuster.

The Senate therefore passed the McCaskill-Ayotte-Fisher bill, since it had to be seen doing something about the appalling number of sexual assault incidents in the military.

What is the difference between the defeated Gillibrand bill and the McCaskill-Ayotte-Fisher bill? The Gillibrand bill would take the prosecution of sexual assault cases out of the military chain of command and place it in the Judge Advocate General’s Office. The Pentagon actively opposed this. The McCaskill bill co-sponsored by Ayotte is an amendment to the current military system of prosecuting sex-related offences. As described in the Monitor article, it eliminates the “good soldier” defense and gives victims more of a say in how their cases are prosecuted. Ayotte’s bill, however, leaves decisions about prosecuting cases within the military chain of command.

The U.S. military is made up of men and woman who have served this country valiantly whenever called upon, no matter what the dangers. Our democracy, our very lives have depended on them. The military is, however, a hierarchical institution, where those higher up on the ladder hold power over those below them. And like all institutions, it is prone to abuses of power. We have seen these abuses in other institutions: churches, corporations and universities. No institution is immune.

Would we look approvingly on the promises of church officials to prosecute their own for sexually abusing children? I think not. Then why are we leaving the prosecution of sexual abuse in our armed forces with the military chain of command? In 1992, Dick Cheney, then secretary of defense, said: “Well, we’ve got a major effort under way to try to educate everybody, to let them know we have a zero tolerance policy where sexual assault is involved.” Twenty years later, in 2012, the Department of Defense reported that of the 26,000 cases of unwanted sexual contact in the military, only 2,558 victims sought justice by filing an unrestricted report and only 302 of these proceeded to trial.

In the words of Paula Coughlin, a member of the U.S. Navy and survivor of sexual assault in the military: “It has to come out of the chain of command. . . . The chain of command is vested in protecting itself, and so often the perpetrator of the assault is in the chain of command.”

The fox guarding the henhouse has never been a very effective strategy for protecting those inside the house, regardless of the amount of training we give the fox. Ayotte’s bill leaves the fox in charge. I do not think this is a great achievement.

(Jeanne Cusson lives in Concord.)

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