Just as a new Vanessa Guillen military reform bill is gaining strong support in Congress, military leaders are expressing their opposition to a proposal to remove the chain of command from prosecutorial decisions involving sexual abuse and other serious crimes such as murder.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, for the first time, said Tuesday he will support changes to the military justice system that would remove decisions on prosecuting sexual assault cases from military commanders. But Austin, who was due to testify on the matter before Congress on Wednesday, has not expressed his opinion on other crimes such as murder.
But, in recent weeks a number of military chiefs – generals and admirals - in letters to congressional leaders, said they had deep reservations about a broad overhaul of the military justice system.
Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said removing commanders from prosecution decisions “may have an adverse effect on readiness, mission accomplishment, good order and discipline, justice, unit cohesion, trust, and loyalty between commanders and those they lead.”
"I urge caution to ensure any changes to commander authority…be rigorously analyzed, evidence-based, and narrow in scope, limited only to sexual assault and related offenses," he added.
That sparked a passionate reaction from members of Congress leading the battle for reform.
“There is no greater problem in the U.S. military right now than the scourge of sexual assault,” said Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, who has been pressing for reform for eight years. “Even worse than that is the view of the commanders. The fact that our generals, our admirals …are still against this is shocking,” she added during a press conference Wednesday to announce the latest reform bill honoring Vanessa Guillen.
Gillibrand called the letters “disappointing, but not surprising.” In a statement she said “the chain of command has always fought to protect the status quo, just as they are doing here. Their arguments are recycled talking points from the battles for progress in the past and are void of any coherent argument beyond the disingenuous ‘good order and discipline.’”
An independent review commission, appointed by Austin, has recommended to the Pentagon that sexual assault, sexual misconduct, domestic violence, stalking, retaliation, child sexual assault and the wrongful distribution of photos should be removed from the chain of command.
Austin in favor
In a statement, Austin said he supports taking sexual assault and related crimes away from the chain of command, and let independent military lawyers handle them. "We will work with Congress to amend the Uniform Code of Military Justice, removing the prosecution of sexual assaults and related crimes from the military chain of command," he said.
Austin said he will present his recommendations to President Joe Biden in the coming days.
Austin’s memo, however, did not express a view on Gillibrand's bill that would turn over all major crimes to independent lawyers.
It's time for military leaders and skeptics in Congress to "get on the right side of history," said Col Don Christensen, president of Protect Our Defenders, a group that advocates for military victims.
"After decades of fighting back against any type of reform, despite an egregious and ongoing sexual assault epidemic, military leadership knows that it has lost on the issue of sexual assault," said Christensen. "Leaving serious crimes within the chain of command is a surefire way to ensure that abuse continues," he added.
Gillibrand’s legislation, the Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act, has the support of a bipartisan supermajority of 66 senators, including 43 Democrats and 21 Republicans. But the legislation is being blocked in the Senate by two senior senators who have traditionally leaned in favor of the military chiefs.
On Wednesday Representative Jackie Speier, a California Democrat, introduced a House companion bill, named after Vanessa Guillen. "The heinous murder of Specialist Vanessa Guillen was the tipping point … to wake Congress and the military up,” she said. “Since 2016, more Fort Hood soldiers have died in homicides than in battle... making the homeland more deadly than the battlefield,” she added.
"Under current law, commanders who do not have legal training make the decision on whether to prosecute a servicemember for major crimes, such as murder and rape, under the military justice system," Speier said.
"This is just an incredible day," said the Guillen family's attorney, Natalie Khawam. "I want to tell all those victims out there just because someone doesn't believe you, doesn't mean you're lying. Just means you got to keep fighting for justice, like we did for Vanessa," she added.
The Guillen family is also pushing for a separate reform that would allow financial compensation claims against the military for victims of abuse. Under current law, members of the military have no right to sue the government, except for medical malpractice.
"Say her name: Vanessa Guillen"
Gillibrand and Speier's bill has the significant backing of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, as well as several Republicans and former military members in Congress.
"It is long overdue to be addressed. We will bring this bill to the floor (for a vote) ... as soon as possible," Pelosi said at Wednesday's press conference.
"Say her name: Vanessa Guillen," she added, before congratulating the Guillen family for their courageous effort, "turning their pain into change to save other people who might be victimized."
Two of Guillen's sisters attended the press conference, Mayra and Lupe, to give their support to the bill. "Someone had to suffer in order for all of us to realize what's happening, and that someone was Vanessa Guillen," said Lupe Guillen, choking back tears.
"Someone will always have to suffer for someone to care, but that stops now and it stops with us," she added.