This morning Sens. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul are expected to announce support of Sen. Kristin Gillibrand’s crusade to bring in special military prosecutors for sexual-assault cases. It’s the right thing to do, and Cruz and Paul represent the next generation of Republican leadership when it comes to standing up to the Pentagon.
Military commanders have clearly failed to address sexual assault among the ranks. We’ve become familiar with stories about suffering in the military—veterans afflicted with post-traumatic stress, an alarming rise in suicides among soldiers, heroes who’ve lost limbs in battle trying to make their lives whole again. But Gillibrand and Rep. Jackie Speier in the House have refocused attention on the horrific amount of sexual violence against women military personnel. There are over 200,000 active-duty women serving in the armed forces, or about 15 percent of the force. According to a 2011 study, one out of five of them are sexually assaulted during their careers. (The figures are grim, too, when it comes to men: in 2012, the Department of Defense reported around 53 percent of victims of sexual assault were men.)
Cruz and Paul’s support for military prosecutors is a brave move challenging traditional Republican deference to the Pentagon. “Listening to the generals” has been a familiar, and often dangerous, refrain over the past decade of war. "We cannot legislate our way out of this problem," Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno said. Yet the failure of our generals to address the problem leaves no other option. Although there’s a so-called zero-tolerance policy, the Department of Defense estimates less than three out of 100 assaults were ever prosecuted of approximately 26,000 sexual assaults in 2012. To put this in context, 18,957 American servicemen and servicewomen have been wounded in action during twelve years at war in Afghanistan.
Sexual-assault allegations are tough enough to deal with in the civilian world, but the likelihood of justice for victims is magnified when it happens within the U.S. military justice system. Attackers are punished within the military, meaning convicted offenders can leave the military without a record of their crime. There’s no national military sex-offender database, although a brave two-time victim of rape has begun a petition for one, receiving over 364,851 signatures to date. For example, less than 21 percent of cases in 2010 ever made it to military trial. Even of those cases, only half earned convictions. That means that in 2010, about 10 percent of sexual-assault accusations resulted in any kind of formal conviction.
And consequences often seem light: a naval commander who raped two female sailors under his command on a naval carrier served only 42 months in prison. For rape and aggravated sexual contact of more than 31 female students, an instructor got 20 years in prison instead of a life sentence.
As women turn away from the GOP in recent elections, Cruz and Paul demonstrate how Republican men can replace talk about respect for women with equality-based action improving their lives. It’s easy to be disappointed by the rancor and cynical of the inaction in Washington. But this Tuesday morning, Cruz, Paul, Gillibrand, and her 32 co-sponsors are inspiring examples of political leaders crossing the aisle to do the right thing. When the bipartisan Military Justice Improvement Act comes to a vote as early as next week, let’s hope that other Democrats and Republicans can rise to the occasion.