Senate debates sexual assaults in the military

Washington – Maureen Friedly, a former Marine who lives in Meriden, has joined a growing number of victims of sexual assault in the military who hope Congress forces the Pentagon to change the way these crimes are investigated and prosecuted.

Friedly, 25, said she was attacked by her platoon leader at the Navy School of Music in Norfolk, Va., when she was studying to become a member of the Marine Corps Band.

Under current military procedure, Friedly would have had to report the attack to her superior — in this case, the person who attacked her.

She found a way around that, but said the Naval Criminal Investigative Service did not believe her story -– at one point she was asked to take a lie detector test. Friedly said the NCIS eventually dropped the ball.

He assailant almost went unscathed, until four other women came forward with complaints.

Still, he was never punished, Friedly said, only given an administrative discharge from the Armed Services.

Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., are pressing for an amendment to the Defense Authorization bill that would put military prosecutors rather than commanders in charge of deciding whether to prosecute rape, sexual assault and a series of other crimes in the military.

Currently, military prosecutors offer recommendations to commanders, who have the final decision on whether to prosecute.

“I believe if my case had been taken out of the military chain of command, it would have ended with justice for me and the other women who were involved,” Friedly said in a phone interview Monday.

A vote on the amendment could come as early as Tuesday evening or Wednesday. But its backers are unsure if they have the 60 votes they need to overcome a possible filibuster.

“What we have today is really zero accountability,” Gillibrand said at a press conference on Capitol Hill she held with Blumenthal and others who support the amendment. “We must create an unbiased military justice system.”

At a Senate hearing in June, Pentagon officials estimated that the number of cases of unwanted sexual contact in the military had increased to 26,000 in 2012, up from 19,000 in 2010. The estimate did not break out sexual assaults or rapes, but there were only about 300 rape prosecutions in the military last year.

Blumenthal said he does not know if supporters of the amendment have enough votes. But they are close.

To try to persuade undecided senators, victims of sexual assaults in the military have sent senators from their states stories of how they were victimized.

Others, like Kate Weber, are lobbying senators in person on Capitol Hill.

Weber said she was assaulted by a superior when she was an 18-year-old Army private in Germany. She said her complaint was ignored, and she was physically threatened by her assailant for accusing him of a crime.

“He grabbed me by the neck and said he had a pregnant wife,” Weber said. “The current system is rotten, it is also inhuman.”

But the military is resistant to the idea that crimes like rape be handled outside the chain of command, and they have supporters in Congress, among them the powerful head of the Senate Armed Forces Committee, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich.

Levin has proposed an alternative to the amendment backed by Gillibrand and Blumenthal that would make it a crime to retaliate against victims who report crimes and stripping senior commanders of their ability to overturn military convictions.

In addition, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said he’ll do whatever it takes to block the Gillibrand amendment, including a filibuster.

“I’m dead set against taking this out of the chain of command,” Graham said. “You can’t fix any problem in the military where you exclude the commander.”

But Blumenthal, Connecticut’s former attorney general, said, “These decisions ought to be made by professionals.”

Even if the Gillibrand/Blumenthal proposal fails, Congress seems intent on approving some reforms this year.

The Defense Authorization bill approved by the House does not contain anything that would place the decision to prosecute outside the chain of command. But it would strip commanders of their authority to dismiss a court-martial finding and allow sexual assault victims to apply for reassignment to distance themselves from an alleged assailant.
 

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