Service members who are victims of sexual assault must be confident that they can count on the most powerful weapon in the military's fight against this heinous crime: their commander.
Stripping commanders of their authority to combat sexual assault, as my colleague Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., has proposed, would be a grave mistake.
Removing authority from commanders fails to address the problem of sexual assault and would provide no benefit to the victims.
As retired Marine Col. Ana Smythe said at a press conference this summer, "What you don't understand if you're not in the military is that the fabric and the essence of the military is built around the chain of command ... If we dismantle or weaken the chain of command, we are lost."
In order to better understand why maintaining the commander's role is best for protecting the victim and preventing future cases, it's important to first address some common misconceptions about sexual assault in the military.
First, blanket statements have been made that victims do not report sexual assault because they fear retaliation.
The fiscal year 2012 Department of Defense Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military and the Workplace and Gender Relations Survey of Active Duty Members found that 70 percent of women who experienced unwanted sexual contact did not file a report simply because they did not want anyone to know.
It takes courage for victims to come forward. That is why the services all have sexual assault victim advocates to help victims through the difficult process to bring about justice. Commanders play an essential role to provide this supportive environment and ensure victims get the needed assistance.
Second, Gillibrand's bill is based on the assumption that removing commanders from the process will increase reporting and convictions.
Evidence proves otherwise. In fact, commanders are proactively choosing to prosecute sexual assault offenders, even when civilian prosecutors will not. A recent letter from Adm. James Winnefeld Jr., vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reported that our commanders have taken 93 cases that civilian prosecutors declined in the past two years. To date, 73 resulted in courts-martial with 52 convictions while other cases are still in process.
Lastly, the media has reported that our allies changed their military justice systems to combat sexual assault. This is inaccurate.
Canada and the United Kingdom changed their military justice systems to address concerns for the rights of defendants in court-martial cases, not to fight sexual assault. Contrary to assertions, our allies in Israel, Germany, and Australia have made no changes to their military justice systems due to sexual assault or for the specific purpose of benefitting victims of crime.
No victim is or should be forced to report to the chain of command. If a perpetrator is senior to the victim, a victim has a wide number of options to report sexual assault including calling 911; notifying civilian or military police; reporting to the military criminal investigative organizations; or notifying chaplains, judge advocates general, or inspectors general.
The services are actively providing training and education that we expect will encourage sexual assault victims to come forward so they can get the help they deserve.
Military sexual assault is a serious issue that must be addressed. It is imperative that the armed services and Congress put every effort forward to provide a healthy environment where men and women can serve together, but removing the commander's role is not the solution.
As retired Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Barbara Taylor said about Gillibrand's bill: "It would be devastating to the U.S. military... A commander cannot be held responsible if he does not have the authority to act."
We entrust our military commanders with the lives of our sons and daughters. The provisions that Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., and I included in the fiscal year 2014 Defense Authorization Act ensure those commanders remain engaged and accountable for protecting victims' interests.