Lawmakers hear testimony about role of commanders in military sexual assault prosecutions

WASHINGTON - The issue of sexual assault in the military was front and center Tuesday.

The House Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel held a hearing on "Examining the Role of the Commander on Military Sexual Assault Prosecutions."

At the onset, Congresswoman Jackie Speier said "the experience of some survivors is better but it is not good," adding "a culture of endemic retaliation and doubt persists."

The hearing included testimony from three survivors of sexual assault during their military careers.

LCDR Erin Elliot, who has served in the Navy for 14 years, told members of the subcommittee that "in August of 2014, someone who I considered a close friend raped me. It was an extremely traumatic experience, one that nearly destroyed me."

She described being "humiliated, ostracized, outcast and ridiculed from people of every rank" after returning to her command from the court martial in her case.

Retired Colonel Don Christensen, former Chief Prosecutor of the Air Force and President of an organization called Protect our Defenders, also testified.

That group says that "sexual assault prosecutions require experienced attorneys and should be turned over to the civilian justice system."

Congresswoman Elaine Luria, a freshman Democrat who represents Virginia's 2nd District, served 20 years in the Navy before retiring. She also spoke at the hearing.

"We trust our commanders to take our sons and daughters into war. We trust them to make decisions where people are risking their lives, but yet we're sitting here questioning whether we trust them to make decisions such as this about the well-being  of the people who they command and to apply the UCMJ fairly. So, believe that there is a disconnect there," Luria said during the hearing.

In response, Christensen said "We trust commanders to make decisions, life or death when it comes to combat because that is their profession, that is what they are trained in."

Luria later added that "a commander as a lot of other tools that they can use, especially in the case where there's not enough evidence but the case is still on track for a court martial and someone can plea bargain. Therefore the commander can use tools such as non-judicial punishment, administrative action, separation for service, reduction in rank, all of these things that are way more punishment than can ever happen in the civilian system."

The latest figures from the Department of Defense Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office from Fiscal Year 2017 showed that sexual assault reports increased by 9.7%.

It also points to reporting increasing by more than 88% since Fiscal Year 2012, while prevalence has decreased by nearly 45%.

Click here for the most recent statistics from the Department of Defense Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office for sexual assault in the military.

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