Military leaders said Tuesday that sexual assault in the ranks is "like a cancer" that could destroy the force, but they expressed serious concerns about far-reaching congressional efforts to strip commanders of some authority in meting out justice.
In an unusual joint appearance, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the head of each branch of the military testified on what is widely viewed as an epidemic of sexual assault plaguing the services.
"The risks inherent to military service must never include sexual assault," said Army Gen. Martin Dempsey. "We can and must do more to protect victims."
Outraged by high-profile cases and overwhelming statistics, lawmakers have moved aggressively on legislation to address the scourge of sexual assault.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said the problem of sexual assault "is of such a scope and magnitude that it has become a stain on our military."
Congress has acted in prior years to ensure the aggressive investigation and prosecution of sexual assaults, Levin said, but more needs to be done. The committee is considering seven bills to deal with sexual assault.
As important as additional protections would be, Levin said, the problem won't be addressed successfully without a cultural change throughout the military. And that starts at the top of the chain of command.
"Our goal should be to hold commanders more accountable," said Dempsey, "Commanders are accountable for all that goes on in a unit."
"The military services are hierarchal organizations: The tone is set from the top of that chain, the message comes from the top, and accountability rests at the top," said Levin, who has not endorsed any of the bills.
The military leaders offered no disagreement about the impact on the services.
"Sexual assault and harassment are like a cancer within the force - a cancer that left untreated will destroy the fabric of our force," said Army Gen. Ray Odierno. "It's imperative that we take a comprehensive approach to prevent attacks, to protect our people, and where appropriate, to prosecute wrongdoing and hold people accountable."
While acknowledging the problem and accepting that legislation is inevitable, military leaders insisted that commanders keep their authority to handle sexual assault cases.
"Reducing command responsibility could adversely affect the ability of the commander to enforce professional standards and ultimately, to accomplish the mission," Dempsey told the committee.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., a member of the committee, is a proponent of ambitious legislation that would remove commanders from the process of deciding whether serious crimes, including sexual misconduct cases, go to trial. That judgment would rest with seasoned trial counsels who have prosecutorial experience and hold the rank of colonel or above.
The Pentagon estimated in a recent report that as many as 26,000 military members may have been sexually assaulted last year, up from an estimated 19,000 assaults in 2012, based on an anonymous survey of military personnel. While the number of sexual assaults that members of the military actually reported rose 6 percent to 3,374 in 2012, thousands of victims were still unwilling to come forward despite new oversight and assistance programs aimed at curbing the crimes, the report said.