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High-ranking general drops opposition to change in sexual assault policy

Milley’s comments, as arguably the most influential officer and as senior military adviser to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and President Joe Biden, are likely to weigh heavily among department heads and strengthen the momentum for change.

Austin, himself a former commander-in-chief and former vice-chief of the military, has not publicly commented on the review board’s proposal, but it is its creation and his recommendations are therefore considered particularly important. Lawmakers are also stepping up the pressure for change.

Milley said he would reserve judgment on the proposal to remove the power to prosecute sexual assault cases from commanders until the review board has completed its work and its recommendations are fully debated within the military leadership.

The review board submitted its initial recommendations to Austin late last month. Officials said they expected him to give department heads about a month to review and respond.

The review panel said that for some special victim-related crimes, appointed independent judge advocates under a civilian-headed office of the Chief Special Prosecutor should decide two key legal issues: whether to charge someone. ‘one and, ultimately, whether this charge should go to court martial. Crimes would include sexual assault, sexual harassment and, potentially, some hate crimes.

It flies in the face of the Pentagon’s long-standing and vehement opposition to such initiatives.

“I was adamantly opposed to this for years,” Milley said, speaking on a military flight on Sunday. “But I didn’t see the needle move” – referring to a failure to reduce the number of reported sexual assaults.

Indeed, in response to policy questions for his Senate confirmation hearing in July 2019, Milley wrote, “Commanders must retain the ability to hold all members of their formation accountable for their actions. The power to discipline military personnel, including to convene courts martial, is an important tool that enables commanders to fulfill their responsibilities to their people and to establish an appropriate culture where victims are treated with dignity and respect.

In his comments on Sunday, Milley said he changed his thinking in part because he was concerned about indications of a lack of confidence on the part of junior enlisted military personnel in the fairness of the outcome of cases in the United States. sexual assault. He said this amounted to an erosion of trust in the military chain of command.

“It is really bad for our military if it is true, and the investigation and the evidence indicates that it is true,” he said. “It’s a very bad situation if the enlisted force – the junior enlisted force – lacks confidence in its chain of command to be able to deal effectively with the problem of sexual assault.

Sexual assault has long plagued the military, sparked widespread condemnation from Congress, and frustrated military leaders struggling to find prevention, treatment and prosecution efforts that work. The most recent of the Defense Department’s biennial anonymous polls, conducted in 2018, found that more than 20,000 servicemen said they had been victims of some type of sexual assault, but only a third of them filed a complaint. official report.

Official reports of sexual assault have risen steadily since 2006, including a 13% jump in 2018 and a 3% increase in 2019, according to Pentagon data. 2020 data is not yet available.

There have been a number of changes to the Uniform Code of Military Justice over the past decade to add more civilian oversight to military prosecutions in sexual assault cases and to strengthen victim assistance. But lawmakers, including Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, have long demanded more concrete change, arguing that commanders should be stripped of the power to decide whether serious crimes should be tried.

These commanders, Gillibrand and others argue, are often reluctant to lay charges against their troops and overturn court martial recommendations or reduce the charges. And they say victims constantly say they are reluctant to press charges because they don’t believe they will get the support of their superiors because often their abuser is part of the chain of command.

However, removing this power of pursuit from commanders is seen in the military as an erosion of a basic principle that a commander who is required to maintain order and discipline in his troops must have the power to decide when to prosecute. Thus Gillibrand encountered widespread resistance among the senior officers.

Milley said he now welcomes “a fresh look” from the review board, which he spoke directly to members of.

“We want that,” he said, adding that he was “very open” to any ideas proposed by the committee.

“I have no doubts that the recommendations of the independent review board – I have no doubts that they will develop evidence-based solutions, and this will be important as we move forward,” he said. declared.

Milley said it would be unrealistic to think that sexual assault in the military can be completely eliminated.

“Realistically, crime will happen. So zero might be an unrealistic goal, although it is certainly a desirable goal because one sexual assault is too much. But that being said, realistically it’s probably not possible to bring it down to zero. “

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