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4 Big Players Emerge In Military Sexual Assault Debate

Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey (center) takes a drink of water as he and other members of the military testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday.
Susan Walsh
Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey (center) takes a drink of water as he and other members of the military testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday.

The nation's top military leaders came to Capitol Hill on Tuesday primed to defend their ability to handle, in their chain of command, the sexual assault scandal that has engulfed the armed services.

But the dramatic faceoff with the Senate Armed Services Committee — in particular two of its female members — appeared to only deepen the chasm between the four-star brass and those who want significant change in a system that has failed victims for decades.

If nothing else, the hearing revealed the four players who will play an outsized role in the debate: Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno; Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos; Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.; and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.

Tuesday's wall of blue and green, stars, medals and testosterone (there was one woman — a vice admiral — among the dozen decorated officers who appeared before the panel) may not have crumbled.

But they took some serious, and, at times, seriously embarrassing fire as the committee contemplates more than a half-dozen bills designed to respond to the crisis.

Here's a look at the four who took center stage Tuesday:

Gen. Odierno

Imposing physically, with a shaved head and the requisite chest of medals, Odierno, 58, the commander of coalition forces in Iraq during the troop surge, presented the most vigorous defense of the military's system of justice.

The New Jersey native and West Point graduate referred to the assault crisis as a "cancer within the force."

But Odierno, a blunt and experienced speaker who has made frequent media appearances, characterized the crisis not as the fault of the Uniform Code of Military Justice but as a failure of "commanders to administer that system."

"We must take a hard look at that system," he said, adding, pointedly: "We can't simply legislate our way out of this."

Odierno bluntly asserted that Gillibrand's proposal — to have prosecutors and not military commanders handle sexual investigations — "will not work." He said the military has proved its mettle responding to problems related to racial integration, and the end of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

"We've always worked through them until we got it right," he said.

Gen. Amos

Amos also argued against a separate system of justice for sexual assault in the military.

But the decorated Marine gave senators a more nuanced view of where the military has been on the issue of sexual assault, and where it is attempting to go.

Silver-haired and straight out of central casting, the 66-year-old Amos called the assault scandal "shameful, repulsive," noting that 2 percent of Marines (or about 3,600, if you calculate based on post-sequestration cuts) have committed such crimes.

"Ninety-eight percent," he said, are "keeping their honor clean."

Many of the sexual assault cases the Marines deal with, he said, are "he said, she said," and involve alcohol.

"It's complicated," he told senators.

Amos, who initially opposed the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" but later characterized it as a "non-event," said he believes there is merit to many of the legislative proposals, and is "committed to be an equal partner."

And when the generals were pressed to answer whether rank or military service ever figured into a decision about whether or not to prosecute someone accused of sexual assault, he said:

"I don't believe that a valorous record or substantive record should have anything to do with whether a person should be prosecuted," he said, an assertion greeted with considerable skepticism.

But as to whether commanders at a junior level have felt pressured to "handle" sexual assault complaints rather than properly report them out of concern for their careers, Amos was blunt:

"I think it could happen; it probably has," he said. "But my sense is that we are leaving that environment, but we probably had that environment in the past."

Sen. Gillibrand

Armed with a thick briefing book with page after page marked with highlighter, Gillibrand addressed one general after another, reading their words back to them.

She reminded Odierno about what he said about the assault crisis undermining unit cohesion, and noted to Amos that he'd acknowledged that victims don't trust military leaders.

"Not all commanders are objective," said Gillibrand, 46, a lawyer.

Some commanders may not want women in the Army, she said. Some can't distinguish between a "slap on the ass and a rape."

Do what America's allies have done in Israel, the U.K., Canada and Australia, she said, and take the handling of serious crimes out of the chain of command. She has proposed the creation of a separate legal system of military judges and juries to deal with sexual assault claims.

Gillibrand and other senators argue that one of the most pernicious problems embedded in the current system is the fear of retaliation.

"How do you intend to regain trust," she asked the military leaders. "How do you intend to hold commanders accountable?"

Sen. McCaskill

McCaskill, 59, showed less polish than her colleague Gillibrand. But she brought fervor to the hearing on an issue she has worked on for years.

A former prosecutor, she pressed the generals for better data about sexual assault in the military, arguing that their statistics have "mushed together" data about rape, sexual harassment and other offenses under the umbrella of unwanted sexual contact.

As long as the data is in that form, she argued, the military will be unable to get at the issue of sexual predators in its ranks.

"They are committing crimes of domination and violence," McCaskill said. "This is not about sex. This is about assertive domination and violence."

There's a difference, she said, between when someone looks at you sideways in an inappropriate way, or is "pushing you up against a wall" and committing rape.

McCaskill has proposed legislation that would leave commanders with the authority to deal with sexual assault cases, but would prohibit them from overturning military convictions of sexual assault.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Liz Halloran joined NPR in December 2008 as Washington correspondent for Digital News, taking her print journalism career into the online news world.
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