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Pentagon panel recommends removing sexual assault cases from chain of command

Then-Defense Secretary nominee Lloyd J. Austin III before the Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington, D.C. Jan. 19, 2021. (EJ Hersom/DOD)

On the anniversary of the murder of Army Spc. Vanessa Guillén, the Pentagon announced it was considering a move many consider essential in preventing deaths like hers from happening again: removing the chain of command from sexual assault and sexual harassment investigations.

The potential shift is one of several recommendations delivered to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Thursday as part of the Independent Review Commission on Sexual Assault.

“Among the recommendations delivered to the Secretary of Defense is the transfer of decision-making authority, for special victims crimes, from commanders to independent judge advocates whether to charge a suspect with a crime, and whether that charge should be tried at court-martial. These independent judge advocates would report to a civilian-led Office of the Chief Special Victim Prosecutor,” a defense official confirmed to Defense One.

President Joe Biden made targeting sexual assault in the military one of his administration’s early priorities. In February, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin established the commission to begin a deep dive into the culture and reporting challenges that have kept sexual assault and sexual harassment a pervasive problem within the ranks.

For the last two months, this Independent Review Commission on Sexual Assault has conducted interviews with service members and sexual assault survivors to identify what changes could be made to the military’s justice system and sexual assault reporting system to better empower victims to come forward without fear of retaliation.

For years, the military has sought to build trust through extensive annual reports of cases reported and adjudicated or prosecuted, and has funded on-base communication campaigns like putting posters up with numbers to call for help in service member bathrooms.

But Guillén, like so many others, could not bring herself to trust a system that involved informing her chain of command. Guillen’s family has said she was harassed by the soldier accused in her death but was afraid to report it.

On Thursday, as Guillén’s family commemorated her death at the Navy Memorial in Washington, D.C., Commission Director Lynn Rosenthal sent Austin the panel’s initial set of recommendations, the Defense Department confirmed late Thursday. The recommendations were first reported by the Associated Press.

Guillén’s body was found outside of Fort Hood in June, and her death brought national attention to the Army’s lack of response in her case. Guillén’s family has said she was being sexually harassed before her death.

In its investigation into her murder, the Army found that systemic leadership failures led to a permissive environment, resulting in higher rates of sexual assaults, harassment, suicides and murder at the Killeen, Texas, base than were reported throughout the Army as a whole.

Austin will now review the recommendations and has asked the military services to provide their feedback by the end of May, the Defense Department said.

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