WASHINGTON, D.C. - Commanders must be a part of any solution to the crisis of sexual assault in the military, service leaders told the Senate Armed Services Committee June 4.
Commanders are responsible not only for the health and welfare of those in their commands, but also for good order and discipline, they emphasized.
Some legislative proposals before Congress would take away commanders’ responsibilities under the Uniform Code of Military Justice for sexual assault crimes. Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the service chiefs agreed that commanders have an important role to play in changing the culture that allows sexual assaults in the military.
Dempsey told the senators that he welcomes their input and will work closely with them. “As we consider further reforms, the role of the commander should remain central,” he said. “Our goal should be to hold commanders more accountable, not render them less able to help us correct the crisis.”
Each commander – no matter the service – has the responsibility to preserve order and discipline, the chairman told the senators. This, he said, is essential to bringing about change.
“[Commanders] punish criminals and they protect victims when and where no other jurisdiction is capable of doing so, or lawfully able to do so,” he said. “Commanders are accountable for all that goes on in a unit, and ultimately, they are responsible for the success of the missions assigned to them.”
Being responsible for “good order and discipline” is unique to the military. This is why, for example, that ship captains – even those not near the bridge – often lose their jobs when the craft runs aground.
Commanders are responsible for setting command climates, and in that role are responsible for changing the culture, the military leaders said.
Commanders use the military justice system as a tool to quickly and visibly punish those who commit crimes, deter others from committing crimes, and protect victims. Nonjudicial administrative punishment – known as “Article 15s” in military parlance for the UCMJ article that authorizes it – is one example of the accountability process that is unique to the military. Taking commanders out of this loop takes that tool from their hands, the military leaders told the senators.
Being a commander, of course, entails much more than simply threatening an Article 15, Dempsey said. “Commanders and leaders of every rank must earn that trust and therefore engender trust in their units,” he said. “Most do. Most do not allow unit cohesion to mask an undercurrent of betrayal. Most rise to the challenge of leadership every day, even under the most demanding, physical and moral circumstances.”
The service chiefs were equally adamant that commanders must be part of the solution.
“If I believed that removing commanders from their central role of responsibility in addressing sexual assault would solve the crimes within our ranks, I would be your strongest proponent,” Gen. Ray Odierno, Army chief of staff, said.
“But … making commanders less responsible and less accountable will not work,” he added. “It will undermine the readiness of the force. It will inhibit our commanders’ ability to shape the climate and discipline of our units, and most importantly, it will hamper the timely delivery of justice to the very people we wish to help: the victims and survivors of these horrific crimes.”
Eliminating sexual assault requires the involvement of leaders and commanders, the chief of naval operations told the senators. “It is assuredly a leadership issue and fundamentally embedded in what we call the ‘charge of command,’” said Adm. Jonathan W. Greenert. “The commanding officer is responsible and accountable for everything that happens in his or her ship, squadron or unit. And we expect our commanders to create a safe environment, founded on dignity and respect, one that reinforces our core values of honor, courage and commitment.”
Successful and long-term changes in the military come about only when commanders are involved, the admiral said.
Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James F. Amos told the committee that commanding officers are the centerpiece of the Marine Corps’ effectiveness as a professional and disciplined warfighting organization.
“Commanding officers are charged with establishing and training to standards and uniformly enforcing those standards,” he said. “A unit will rise or fall as a direct result of the leadership of its commanding officer.” They never delegate responsibility, he added, and “they should never be forced to delegate their authority.”
As Congress considers changes to the commander’s authority under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, Amos said, “I plead with you to do it sensibly and responsibly.”
The military has made cultural changes before. Until 1948, African-Americans served in segregated units. Until 2011, gay Americans had to serve in secret. “Our force has within it the moral courage to change course and reaffirm our professional ethos,” Dempsey said. “Working together, we can and will restore force within the trust and with the American people.”