My Turn: What’s behind the resistance to military justice reform?

  • By Rich Moniak
  • Friday, February 12, 2016 1:03am
  • Opinion

Last week, the Alaska House of Representatives passed HB 126, a bill reforming Alaska’s Code of Military Justice (ACMJ). Although not the same as Military Justice Improvement Act, which has been championed for the U.S. Armed Forces by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-NY, both are attempts to curtail sexual abuse in the military and put an end to a culture of denial and cover-ups within the chain of command.

But while HB 126 passed unanimously, Gillibrand’s bill has been strangled by senate filibusters. Hers is a story of obstruction by the world’s most powerful good old boys club. And it may be the generals aren’t as resistant to change as much as they’re afraid of what the country might learn if they lose some of their power.

In Alaska, Gov. Bill Walker made sure that club wouldn’t have its way. Less than two months after being sworn into office, he named retired Superior Court Judge Patricia Collins to lead a special investigation of the sexual abuse allegations that surfaced four years earlier. And he appointed retired U.S. Army Col. Laurel Hummel as the Guard’s Adjutant General.

Certainly these women had an influence on how easily HB 126 was passed in the House. But there’s also a key difference between it and Gillbrand’s proposed reform.

In Alaska, state law already requires that civilian authorities prosecute criminal offenses within the National Guard that aren’t of a military nature. What that means is any Guard member accused of sexual abuse would be prosecuted by the District Attorney’s office. And more importantly, the officers within his chain of command would have no authority over the case.

But in the U.S. armed forces, the commanding officer of the accused can exercise prosecutorial discretion that includes an outright dismissal of charges. And even if the commanding officer recommends a court-martial, he or she decides which charges are to be prosecuted and also chooses who will sit on the jury.

The Military Justice Improvement Reform Act would change that by giving all prosecuting authorities to full-fledged military attorneys outside the chain of command. It’s got bipartisan support that includes unlikely allies such as Sens. Harry Reid, D-NV, Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Ted Cruz (R-TX). Three quarters of the Senate’s women support the reform, including Sen. Lisa Murkowski.

On the other side, 15 of the 20 men in the Senate who have served in the military oppose it, including Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska. They and the rest of the bill’s opponents have mainly bought the military brass’ argument that stripping commanders of this responsibility would undermine military order and discipline.

But the reality is order and discipline are already being compromised by the 52 new cases of unwanted sexual contact that, according to the Pentagon, occur every day. By denying this, the generals are acting more like the Catholic Church hierarchy that’s shielded abusive priests in hopes of preserving the institution’s respectable image.

Consider the story of Lt. Col. James Wilkerson. In under four hour hours of deliberations, a military jury convicted the highly respected F-16 fighter pilot of sexual assault. He was sentenced to a year in prison and dishonorably discharged.

After the verdict though, the good old boys club came to Wilkerson’s rescue. Dozens of high ranking officers defended him in letters they sent to Gen. Craig Franklin, the commanding officer who had recommended the case go to trial. Franklin overturned the verdict and reinstated Wilkerson to his full rank.

Col. Don Christensen (retired) was the Air Force’s chief prosecutor when he tried that case. He successfully pushed for a reform that prevents commanding officers from being able to overturn jury verdicts. As a strong proponent of the Military Justice Improvement Act, he offered this analogy of the still broken system he once presided over.

Imagine an employee of Walmart is raped by a popular store manager. Walmart’s CEO gets to decide whether or not to prosecute instead of the local district attorney. And he could pick all Walmart employees to serve as an impartial jury.

“Could that victimized employee have any faith in that system?” Christensen asked. Of course not. He believes that’s why, according to Pentagon estimates, 75 percent of the victims chose not to report the crime.

Sexual assault is about power. In politics, power comes from money. Unlike our state government, multi-star generals can muster support from their billion-dollar defense industry dependents to influence enough senators on any issue. And with thousands of unreported sexual abuse cases each year, maybe they’re fighting passage of the Military Justice Improvement Act because they don’t know how many Bill Cosby-like surprises are lurking within their officer corps.

• Rich Moniak is a Juneau resident and retired civil engineer with more than 25 years of experience working in the public sector.

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