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U.S. Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon and Rep. Charles Gonzalez:Lackland events show need for investigation

Posted: October 5, 2012 2:00 a.m.
Updated: October 5, 2012 2:00 a.m.
 

The events at Lackland Air Force Base are the most recent example of sexual assaults that have plagued our military for far too long. Commanders at every level and in every service must do a better job of protecting the men and women who serve under them from sexual predators who also wear the uniform. Continued revelations about sexual assault in the armed services remind us of a special concern among military families: that, in addition to harm at enemy hands, troops might come to harm at the hands of their own comrades.

The tragic incidents at Lackland — where more than 17 instructors are being investigated for or charged with crimes against trainees that range from unwanted and unprofessional contact to rape — demonstrate that we have much more work to do.

Throughout the ongoing investigation, the Air Force has briefed both of us and several of our colleagues about the investigation and the steps already taken. The Air Force has shown its commitment to a full examination, to hold accountable those individuals who violated military rules and regulations and to prevent any repetition.

Additionally, as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, McKeon traveled to Lackland earlier this month to have a first-hand look, finding a leadership team fully aware of the extent and seriousness of the situation and committed to the required investigations, prosecutions, and to the need for future reforms. He spoke privately with trainees whose peers were the victims of these assaults. With no other military personnel in the room and the promise of confidentiality, they assured him that the reforms are working.

While many dedicated people are working diligently to investigate and prosecute crimes committed at Lackland, Congress also has a role to play in preventing sexual assault within the military and assuring victims that their cases will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Over the past five years, Republicans and Democrats together have crafted real reforms to ensure victims of sexual assault are taken seriously and provided medical care and support, and that these cases are investigated and prosecuted.

This year, a strong and bipartisan majority in the House voted to reform how the military tracks sexual assaults in order to develop a reliable picture of just how big the problem is and mandated that only senior officers handle sexual assault cases. Victims advocacy groups like Protect our Defenders have suggested that the Uniform Code of Military Justice is inadequate for the prosecution of sexual assault cases. The House Armed Services Committee has already begun work to establish a commission to review this body of laws, which govern military life.

Many have pressed HASC to hold open hearings on the Lackland abuses. We agree that such hearings, at the appropriate time, would go a long way to shape future legislation and reforms and as Chairman Rep. McKeon is committed to holding them. We must also avoid any chance that such hearings might impede the prosecution of any criminal acts. Recent comments made by the Marine Corps commandant that 80 percent of allegations of assault were legitimate and that the Marine Corps should prosecute predators aggressively in an effort to crack down on sexual assault in his service are already causing Marine Corps prosecutors trouble. There are concerns that mistrials may result.

When military perpetrators of sexual assault are tried by courts-martial, public statements by military and civilian leaders, especially senior leaders, about the guilt or innocence of an alleged perpetrator can be perceived as or even constitute undue command influence on the outcome of the trial. We must not allow public testimony about Lackland to become grounds for a mistrial. That isn’t an outcome anyone wants. Once verdicts have been handed down, open hearings will commence.

There are three months remaining in this Congress. We are committed to working with the Senate to pass a National Defense Authorization Act with vital new reforms to protect trainees and troops and to establish a commission to review the UCMJ.

Both of these actions will reinforce the rights of our troops, and ensure an environment that maintains the respect that each member of our armed services deserves.

 Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-Santa Clarita) represents the 25th Congressional District. Charles Gonzales is a Democrat from the 20th District in Texas.

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