Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, June 4, 2013, before the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on pending legislation regarding sexual assaults in the military.(AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Through eight nearly uninterrupted hours of testimony on Capitol Hill Tuesday, nobody—not the Joint Chiefs of Staff, representing each branch of the military, nor the top judge advocates general for each service, nor any of the assembled senators on the Armed Services committee—contested that military sexual assault has reached crisis proportions.

The numbers lead to that indisputable conclusion: “unwanted sexual contact” cases have risen 35 percent in the last two years alone. Up to 45 percent of women in the military experience sexual assault or unwanted contact at some point, and the Department of Defense itself estimates that as many as 86 percent of sexual assault cases go unreported. And women in the military are nine times as likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder if they’ve experienced sexual assault in the military, even when controlling for combat exposure.

The hearing was a historic, and often dramatic, attempt to face this crisis head on. But there was a central fissure in the meeting between the military commanders and most—but certainly not all—of the senators.

Namely, has the sexual assault crisis in the military destroyed the fundamental trust between enlisted members and their commanders, who are tasked with policing and largely with adjudicating the crimes? And thus, should sexual assault cases be taken out of the chain of command entirely?

As it stands now, if one experiences sexual assault in the military, the first (and only) step is to notify the commanding officer. That officer then has sole discretion on whether to take action, and whether that action is anything from a slap on the wrist for the offender to referral to a court martial.

But commanders are the wrong people to handle these claims, victims’ advocates contend, for reasons ranging from a lack of legal experience, potential unwillingness to declare there is a problem in their unit, a lax attitude towards sexual assault, to cases where the commanders themselves are the perpetrators.

This leads to a pervasive, and accurate, perception within he military that sexual assault isn’t taken seriously, which not only discourages victims from coming forward—as the Pentagon’s own numbers demonstrate—but creates an atmosphere where predators feel free to act.

During her testimony, Nancy Parrish, president of the victims’ group Protect Our Defenders, read aloud what victimized soldiers have told her group:

One soldier explained: “I got raped.… When I [told] my squad leader I got shut down…. I waited, spoke with my platoon leaders…. I got told if I say another word…I would be charged with adultery.… I told my new squad leader.… In December 2012 they chaptered me on an adjustment disorder.… He is free…wears the Uniform, [it] represents a Protective Shield, if you’re a rapist with rank.”


Last year, an officer of 18 years, on active duty said: “I was deployed overseas. The first advice you get…always carry a knife.… Not for battle. To cut the person who tries to rape you. I was drugged and raped.… If you report you are done.… Check the base IG records…[see] how many complaints were pushed under the rug.”

Senator Kirstin Gillibrand has introduced a bill that would take sexual assault crimes out of the chain of command—so victims would go directly to experienced military prosecutors, who would make a legal judgment whether to proceed. “Not every single commander necessarily wants women in the force. Not every single commander can distinguish between a slap on the ass and a rape,” she said during the hearing. “You have lost the trust of the men and women who rely on you that you will actually bring justice in these cases.”

This was the central focus of the hearing, because it’s where there is the most disagreement—the military brass presented a unified front in opposing Gillibrand’s measure. “Making commanders less responsible and less accountable will not work. It will undermine the readiness of the force,” General Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, testified. “Most importantly, it will hamper the timely delivery of justice to the very people we wish to help.”

Only a small number of senators explicitly agreed with this position. Senator James Inhofe said he believes “we can not abolish sexual assault by legislation alone,” and that the policy tweaks included in last year’s National Defense Authorization Act should be given time to work. Those included extra training on sexual assault prevention throughout the military, extra legal assistance for victims and special investigative tools to root out cases. “We’ve made these suggestions,” Inhofe said. “They’ve got to have time to get this done.”

So should the status quo, with some tweaks and extra training, be allowed to continue? It’s pretty easy to build the case that it shouldn’t. Really, one can just look at the numbers—the increasing number of incidents—and end the argument there. It’s not working.

But the military brass themselves, and some of the senators on the panel, also provided some inadvertent evidence that the current system isn’t working—and that attitudes towards sexual assault in the chain of command, leading right up to the men testifying, just isn’t equipped to deal with the problem on its own.

Senator Jack Reed asked each of the joint chiefs if they had removed commanders for failing to deal with sexual assault cases adequately. As it turned out, most of them had not.

Later, Senator Claire McCaskill asked several commanders—there to testify about how they and their colleagues were well-equipped to handle sexual assault cases—whether each of them had ever actually referred a sex assault case to a court martial during their career. One of them, despite being selected to present an image of proactivity, never had.

At other times, the military brass made statements that telegraphed a pretty lax attitude towards sexual assault. General Martin Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps, told senators that a lot of the cases were “he said, she said….involved alcohol…it’s complicated.” In fairness to Amos, he was explaining how he favored referring them to a court martial regardless, but it seemed as if his below-board attitude was that many of the cases were shaky if not unfounded. (Senator Saxby Chambliss made similar and already infamous comments during the hearing, that sex assaults were a product of “hormones.”)

At another point, Senator Joe Manchin asked why it had taken so long to address this problem—similar hearings were held ten years ago, and the number of cases has only increased. Why?

General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the joint chiefs, had a candid answer—once the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan started, they stopped worrying about it. ““I took my eye off the ball,” he admitted. “Some of that stuff, frankly, just got pushed to the side.”

But now military leadership wants Congress to trust them to fix the problem this time—though won’t endorse taking cases out of the chain of command, which has already provably reduced the number of sexual assaults in other militaries, like Israel and Canada.

Gillibrand isn’t buying it. “I was quite disappointed that the military really failed to take this opportunity to lead.” she told All In with Chris Hayes last night. “I think they are too comfortable with the status quo.”

Read about the House Committee side-stepping a hearing on sexual assaults in the Air Force.