Democratic candidates back plan to change how military investigates sexual assault allegations

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The pledge — launched by Protect our Defenders, an organization devoted to ending rape and sexual assault in the military — would strip the power to investigate sexual assault from senior officers and allow soldiers to report such crimes to a trained, independent military prosecutor. The language is based on legislation proposed by Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier of California.

Ten of the 12 Democratic candidates running for president have signed on.

But it’s not as simple as signing a pledge.

The military keeps all discipline issues in the chain of command as it’s seen as the backbone of how the military functions. Sexual assault is not an exception. Service members report alleged assaults to their commander. That superior then has the authority to determine how the cases are handled and whether they ultimately move forward. The Pentagon has pushed back on taking sexual assault out of the chain of command for years.

The only two veterans in the race — former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard — signed on.

Pete Buttigieg, who served in the US Navy Reserves and completed one tour in Afghanistan in 2014, has touted his service on the campaign trail.

“Pete believes that if our service members can sum up the courage to put their lives on the line to defend our country, our elected officials should have the courage to break from the past to ensure safe and healthy environments for our men and women in uniform,” said Rachel Thomas, Buttigieg deputy communications director, in an email.

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Businessman Andrew Yang, whose wife revealed earlier this month that she was sexually assaulted while pregnant, sharing her story in an exclusive interview with CNN’s Dana Bash, endorsed the plan.

“Sexual assault in the military is absolutely abhorrent and we owe all of our service members the protections and accountability they deserve,” Yang’s national press secretary SY Lee told CNN in an email.

Only former Vice President Joe Biden and former New York Mayor Mike Boomberg have not signed the pledge, but say they would address the issue.

The Biden campaign said in a statement to CNN that he is committed to changing “the culture of abuse” within the Armed Forces.

“He will immediately appoint a commission comprised of current and former military leaders, military sexual assault survivors and their advocates, and prominent sexual assault experts, to make concrete recommendations to him within 90 days,” the statement said. “All options should be considered to end this scourge.”

Bloomberg’s campaign said it is considering the issue.

“We’re considering this pledge as we continue to release our policy proposals, including plans around the military and the best ways to prevent sexual assault,” a spokesperson for the Bloomberg campaign wrote in an email.

Retired Col. Don Christensen was the chief prosecutor for the Air Force between 2010 and 2014. He also served as trial counsel, defense counsel or military judge for 23 years. He is now the president of Protect our Defenders.

“In the military justice system, the commander always knows the suspect. And if they have a favorable opinion — which they normally are going to have of the suspect — it’s going to color the way they handle the case,” Christensen said. “A lot of times both the victim and the accused work for the commander. They have to make a decision supporting one or the other which is a conflict within that unit.”

CNN reached out to the Pentagon, the White House and the Trump campaign for comment on the military sexual assault pledge but did not receive responses.

The Pentagon has not been on board with the proposal.

As recently as last year, the secretaries of each service branch voiced opposition to taking military sexual assault cases out of the chain of command.

Responding to questions at the first national summit on military sexual assault last year, hosted at the Naval Academy in Annapolis Maryland, the secretaries of the Army, Navy and Air Force were unanimous on that point.

And Arizona Republican Sen. Martha McSally, who revealed last year that she was raped while serving in the US Air Force, advocated to keep sexual assault within the chain of command in a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in March.

“I do not take this position lightly,” McSally said. “It has been framed often that some people are advocating for the victims while others are advocating for the command chain or the military establishment. This is clearly a false choice… We cannot command change from the outside alone. It must be deployed from within. It must be built and constantly maintained and expertly managed by commanders who are themselves educated, conditioned, and given the tools to ensure what you survived and what I survived happens to no warrior under their command.”

She added: “To that end, I very strongly believe that the commander must not be removed from the decision-making responsibility of preventing, detecting, and prosecuting military sexual assault.”

Other military sexual assault survivors like former Air Force SSgt. Harmony Allen and former Navy helicopter pilot Lt. Paula Coughlin — the faces of the Protect our Defenders campaign — disagree. They told CNN that more soldiers would report if given the protection of an outside prosecutor because of circumstances unique to the military: like being stationed with the accused and even sharing a commander.

“Things get pushed under the rug,” Allen said, of the current system.

“I just tell anybody who asks me in any work environment, ‘What should I do if I’m harassed or assaulted at work?’ I tell them, ‘Call the police. Call 9-1-1.’ Why would you think some guy in HR is going to protect and initiate the proper investigation? Why would you think a helicopter pilot in your command is going to protect you and initiate an investigation? They’re not trained. You call law enforcement,” Coughlin said.

“It’s just so simple, and it’s taken so many years to make the message that clear.”

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