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U.S. military faces historic tipping point on rape epidemic

The Army is investigating a sergeant first class whose job is to prevent sexual assault at Fort Hood for allegedly forcing a subordinate into prostitution and allegedly assaulting two others. Rep. Niki Tsongas, D-Mass., is co-chair of the Military Sexual Assault Prevention Caucus, and she joins Chris Jansing to discuss.

The U.S. military seems increasingly incapable of policing itself or ridding its ranks of sexual predators, watchdogs charge, but the latest litany of accusations — leveled Tuesday at Fort Hood — has thrust the Pentagon to the brink of wholesale reform long sought by victims of sexual assault. 

With the second member of the military's campaign to stem sexual misconduct falling under investigation — for alleged sexual misconduct — critics were quick to lambast Pentagon brass for "gross negligence" and for maintaining an internal system of investigation and discipline that appears to be in desperate need of being ripped down and rebuilt with fresh independence and transparency. 

"It is abundantly clear that the military cannot adequately handle its sexual violence crisis from within," said Anu Bhagwati, executive director of Service Women's Action Network and former Marine captain.

"If military culture is to transform in any meaningful way, we need to break down the doors of silence and make sure our troops who are harmed have access to the same legal remedies as all civilians whom they protect and defend," she added. "We can start by ensuring that military crimes are no longer handled by commanding officers, but rather by impartial attorneys and judges."

Investigators in Fort Hood, Texas, are looking into allegations that an Army sergeant sexually assaulted three female soldiers and forced one into prostitution. This is only the latest in a string of military sexual assault scandals that has lawmakers demanding answers. NBC's Jim Miklaszewski reports.

Nancy Parrish, president of the victims advocacy group Protect Our Defenders, agreed that "the Pentagon is responsible for failing to effectively govern its personnel," following news that a Fort Hood Army sergeant first class allegedly forced at least one subordinate soldier into prostitution and sexually assaulted two others. 

"The problems are so long standing and pervasive that, at a minimum, it constitutes gross negligence on the part of the leadership," Parrish said. 

Late Tuesday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel directed all branches to "re-train, re-credential, and re-screen all sexual assault prevention and response personnel and military recruiters," according to the Pentagon. 

'Open to any and all options'
The Fort Hood scandal, coming just nine days after the sexual battery arrest of an Air Force officer tasked with preventing rape, cranked the volumed on long-standing cries "to get to work reforming the military justice system that clearly isn’t working," said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. "I believe strongly that to create the kind of real reform that will make a difference we must remove the chain of command from the decision making process for these types of serious offenses.”

Ironically, hours before the Fort Hood allegations surfaced, Gillibrand was prepping a final draft of her bill — set to be introduced Thursday — that seeks to accomplish precisely that goal: transferring sex crimes from the watch and authority of military brass and instead funneling such cases to independent military prosecutors, said a spokesman for Gillibrand. 

Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York plans to introduce legislation to change the way the military handles allegations of sexual assault. In an exclusive interview on The Last Word, she explained why it should be "more parallel to the civilian system."

Her proposal was further hastened by the Pentagon's May 7 revelation that 26,000 troops last year claimed anonymously to be sex-assault victims (up from 19,000 in FY11), and a May 9 White House meeting with lawmakers pitching various ideas to stem the military’s rape crisis.

“Sexual violence in the military is not new. And it has been allowed to go on in the shadows for far too long," Gillibrand said Tuesday. "Congress would be derelict in its duty of oversight if we just shrugged our shoulders at these 26,000 sons and daughters, husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, and did nothing. We simply have to do better by them."

The appetite for a dramatic military shift on the issue seems to have reached a tipping point, lawmakers and advocates agree, especially after the Department of Defense signaled Monday that Hagel is "open to any and all options." That marked a clear pivot from Hagel's position as recently as May 7 when he said decisions on sex cases must stay inside the command structure. 

"Make no mistake," Pentagon press secretary George Little wrote Sunday in a letter to the New York Times, "Mr. Hagel believes sexual assault is one of the urgent matters facing the Defense Department today and will work very closely with the White House and members of Congress to confront this urgent challenge." 

'Debilitating' crisis
Gillibrand began writing her bill — working with Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. — just two days after her impassioned critique of the military's desire to retain "convening authority" in sex crimes went viral last March. She chose to include in her bill all military crimes punishable by one year or longer in the brig because she felt sending only rape cases to the Judge Advocate General's Corps would further stigmatize sex-assault victims and create "a two-class system," her spokesman said.  

Meanwhile, Rep. Dan Benishek, R-Mich., plans to introduce a companion bill in the House, his office confirmed.

The first embers of true Capitol Hill fury were stoked in February when Air Force Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin reversed the aggravated sexual assault conviction of Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, a fighter pilot. A jury of five military officers found Wilkerson guilty of assaulting a civilian contractor as she slept at his home on the Aviano Air Base In Italy. Franklin also dismissed Wilkerson's sentence: one year in the brig and dismissal from the Air Force.

Gillibrand's bill seeks bar military commanders from setting aside guilty findings.

"Hopefully, we have reached the tipping point," Parrish said. "It is ultimately up to the military leadership. If they decide that this epidemic and all of the recent scandals is a problem that should be solved, reform can happen and happen relatively quickly.

"At least until now, the military has treated the issue of sexual assault and rape in the military as a public relations problem," she added. "There are some recent signs that some in the leadership realize that it is a real crisis: a crisis that, for the military, is debilitating."