Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel Taking Sexual Assault In The Military Seriously, As He Should

A new defense secretary has just been confirmed and already he has a big issue to address: sexual assault in the military. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) (Full disclosure: I used to work in her office), and Senator Janeane Shaheen (D-NH) recently sent a letter requesting Chuck Hagel immediately review a decision by an Air Force Lieutenant General to dismiss all charges against an officer who had been convicted of sexual assault.

Lieutenant Colonel James Wilkerson, a fighter pilot, had been charged with aggravated sexual assault on former colleague Kimberly Hanks at Aviano Air Base in Italy. Hanks had been socializing with Wilkerson and his wife at their home and stayed the evening in their guest bedroom; in the middle of the night, she woke up to find Wilkerson on top of her. He was found guilty and sentenced to a year in the brig (AKA military prison). But he never served any time in prison because his superior, Lieutenant General Craig A. Franklin, dismissed the jury’s conviction and reinstated him. Senators Boxer and Shaheen and others are rightfully concerned that a troop charged with sexual assault was let off scot-free. 

Secretary Hagel has taken their request seriously, and in a reply, he vowed the case would be looked into. As the New York Times points out, there are two specific areas that activists want the U.S. government to address. One is that if you are sexually assaulted in the military, your commanding officer first has to agree to press charges on the perp. Secondly, after a trial that finds a perpetrator guilty, the military can still overturn the decision — which is what happened with Lt. Col. Wilkerson. This means rapists can go unpunished if a superior doesn’t want to get involved or wants to cover the whole thing up.  

Today a hearing on the prevalence of sexual assault in the military was convened in the Senate Armed Services subcommittee by Chairman Senator Kristen Gillibrand (D-NY).  This hasn’t happened in nearly a decade.  Sexual assault was also the topic of a press conference held by Representative Jackie Speier (D-CA).

It is about damn time the U.S. government more directly addressed the problem of rape in the military. Women can serve in combat but can’t bring a man to trial for sexual assault without their superior’s permission? Why should they be any less protected than civilian women? Thanks, Senator Boxer, you may not be my boss anymore, but you’re still my hero.

[New York Times]




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