News of Mishandled Military Sexual Assault Cases Prompts Senators to Act

Supermajority Education Fund

January 22, 2020

Last Wednesday, Democratic, Illinois Senators Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth sent a letter to Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy, urging him to review “troubling charges brought to light” by a story published by the Associated Press (AP). According to that report, military leaders with the 416th Theater Engineer Command allegedly handled at least two sexual harassment allegations improperly at a reserve unit in their state by not referring them to the Army’s criminal division, as is required by federal law. Instead, they conducted internal investigations. 

One of those incidents allegedly happened in 2017, when a female private said a male specialist sexually assaulted her during a lunch break. The same private said she was sexually assaulted again in 2018 by the same alleged assailant outside her workplace. In another allegation, specialist Sara Joachimstaler said a sergeant touched her leg and groped her during two separate demonstrations in March and April of last year. 

Amy Braley Franck, a civilian victim advocate with the 416th who said she was suspended in November after telling the Army about the internal investigations, told the AP that, until this month, commanders had not held required sexual assault management meetings since February 2019. Braley Franck also said that a division went ten months without a sexual assault response coordinator. The AP also reported from documents and interviews with Braley Franck that a victim was put in a situation where she had to spend time with her harasser on a firing range, which made her feel unsafe. 

Col. Don Christensen, president of Protect Our Defenders, a national organization dedicated to ending sexual assault in the military, and the former Chief Prosecutor of the Air Force, told Supermajority News that while “there is simply no excuse” for placing a victim in proximity to their alleged assailant, “the failure to move perpetrators out of working and living areas is a common complaint we hear.” 

Control commanders, rather than independent prosecutors, are given authority over the process following victims’ reports of their assaults, and many “often see the perpetrator as a valued member of the team,” Christensen explained. “This seems particularly problematic in Guard and Reserve units where members may serve together for decades.” 

According to 2016 research on military sexual assault, 15.7 percent of military personnel and veterans report military sexual trauma when that definition included both sexual harassment and sexual assault. That is 3.9 percent of men and 28.4 percent of women who were military personnel and veterans. 

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) has long made the argument that independent military prosecutors should prosecute military sexual assault cases instead of military commanders. Sen. Gillibrand first introduced the Military Improvement Act in 2013 to do just that and reintroduced the legislation in 2019. It did not make any progress after it was referred to the Committee on Armed Services. 

“The military also must accept the reality that commanders should not be making decisions better left to prosecutors and support efforts to modernize the military justice system,” Christensen said.