US senators have rallied behind significant changes in military law to curb rape and sexual assault within the ranks, backing steps to protect the victims and scrapping the nearly century-old practice of using a “good soldier defense” to raise doubts that a crime has been committed.
With the women of the senate leading the fight, lawmakers voted 97-0 on Monday for legislation that would force a half-dozen major changes on a military struggling with a pervasive problem that Pentagon leaders concede could cost the services the trust and respect of the public and make it harder to attract men and women to serve in the all-volunteer force.
The measure, which now heads to the House of Representatives, comes on top of more than 30 changes that congress approved and US President Barack Obama signed into law as part of a defense policy bill just four months ago.
“Unanimous agreement in the US senate is pretty rare — but rarer still is the kind of sweeping, historic change we’ve achieved over the past year in the military justice system,” said Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill, who joined with two Republican senators — Kelly Ayotte and Deb Fischer — in writing the legislation.
Still, that unanimous support was in sharp contrast to last week, when military leaders vigorously opposed a measure by Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand that would have stripped commanders of their authority to prosecute cases and given that power to military lawyers outside the chain of command.
The senate voted 55 to 45 for that farther-reaching bill, but that was five votes short of the necessary 60 to advance the bill under senate procedural rules.
That vote left some hard feelings in the senate as Gillibrand’s bill divided the typical coalitions, splitting women and the political parties.
“While there have been differences of opinion on how best to combat sexual assault in the military, everyone agrees that the current system is broken,” said Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen, who backed Gillibrand’s effort. “We’ve made some good reforms today and I know that all the women senators will be monitoring this issue closely to ensure there are real improvements in the way sexual assault is reported and prosecuted in the future.”
Ayotte insisted in brief remarks after the vote that this “is not the end of this,” while Fischer said congress’ work is not done, with oversight an imperative.
The new legislation would change the military rules of evidence to prohibit the accused from using good military character as an element of a defense in court-martial proceedings unless it was directly relevant to the alleged crime.
The “good soldier defense” could encompass a defendant’s military record of reliability, dependability, professionalism and reputation as an individual who could be counted on in war and peacetime.
Democratic Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said on Monday that the “military culture has been slow to grasp the painful truth that even a successful professional can also be a sexual predator.”
The measure would also give accusers a greater say in whether their cases are litigated in the military or civilian system and would establish a confidential process to allow alleged victims to challenge their separation or discharge from the military.