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Senator seeks to reform military's 'unacceptable' sex abuse policies

Military sources tell NBC News the man in charge of sexual assault prevention in Fort Hood, Texas, may have allegedly coerced a female soldier into prostitution. NBC's Jim Miklaszewski reports.

A New York senator introduced a bill Thursday that aims to remove sex crimes from the military’s chain of command — a bid to transform an insulated culture that tends to dampen sex-assault reporting, leaving many victims feeling helpless or hopeless.

Under the Pentagon’s current justice system, less than 1 percent of accused sexual perpetrators in the military were convicted last year while during 2012 just 9.8 percent of sex-assault victims reported the incidents, according to a Department of Defense report. Many victims feel powerless because their superiors can control everything from whether a case proceeds to whether a guilty verdict is eventually overturned.

The new proposal by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., rides a rising tide of public anger over separate allegations that two service members tasked with curbing sexual misconduct within the armed forces had themselves committed sexual misconduct:

  • A Fort Hood Army sergeant accused Tuesday of allegedly forcing at least one subordinate soldier into prostitution. There is suspicion that other senior non-commissioned officers were aware of these activities, but the extent of that remains unclear, a government official told NBC News;
  • An Air Force officer arrested May 6 for alleged sexual battery. 

"When the officer in charge of preventing sexual assault in their ranks is himself arrested for sexual assault — clearly, the strategy we have in place is not working. Twice in just the last two weeks this has happened," Gillibrand said. 

Some service members have confided to Gillibrand, she said, that following sexual offenses committed against them, the military's current system forced them to seek permission from their perpetrators in order to take their cases to trial. 

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."

"This is unacceptable — and is long overdue for change," Gillibrand said. 

Her push to revamp the military's machinery for the investigation and discipline of reported sexual assaults has bipartisan backing. Rep. Dan Benishek, R-Mich., said he will file a companion bill in the House. 

“Right now, too many sexual assaults in our military go unreported," Benishek said. "Many soldiers are uncomfortable reporting the details of these traumatic events. My daughter is a military veteran so I know exactly the kind of hard-working women we have in our armed forces. This situation is a travesty and we need to fix it now.

"We need to reform how the military handles sexual assault cases and make sure victims aren’t afraid to report a crime," he added. 

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was informed Tuesday about the allegations against the Fort Hood sergeant, leaving the Pentagon chief "frustrated, angered, and disappointed over these troubling allegations as well as the breakdown in discipline and standards they imply," said Cynthia Smith, a DoD spokeswoman. 

Hagel immediately directed every branch to "re-train, re-credential, and re-screen" all sexual assault prevention and response personnel and military recruiters — and he has "made it clear he has not ruled out any options for improving the military's response to sexual assault," Smith said.  

Under Gilliland's proposed legislation, any reported offense committed by a service member that’s punishable by confinement of one year or more would be handled not by branch and unit commanders — like now — but instead be funneled to independent military prosecutors. Her proposal also seeks to ensure that military commanders may not set aside a guilty finding.  

She 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 since has emerged as one of the Senate's loudest proponents for wholesale Pentagon reform on the issue, calling for a format that's more parallel to the civilian legal system.