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Commission Begins 90-Day Look Into Sexual Assault in Military

By C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (March 24, 2021) -- The independent review commission charged with looking into sexual assaults in the U.S. military kicked off its 90-day investigation today with an online meeting for the highly qualified experts and leads for the commission's four lines of effort.

During a press briefing at the Pentagon, commission chairperson Lynn Rosenthal explained the importance of the IRC's mission and what it's been asked to do.

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"The charge of the independent review commission is to make this broad assessment and then make recommendations to the secretary of defense and ultimately to the president," she said. "These people will be deliberating on those recommendations. I don't expect an in-the-weeds view of 150 policies that should be tweaked around the edges. That is not what we are about. We are about looking at major shifts and big picture items that could really change the culture, improve care for victims, bring about evidence-based prevention and hold offenders accountable."

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III announced the creation of the commission in a Feb. 26 memorandum to Defense Department leaders.

"Sexual assault and harassment remain persistent and corrosive problems across the total force," wrote Austin. "I expect every member of our total force to be part of the solution and leaders -- both civilian and military -- across the Department to take direct accountability to drive meaningful change."

In the memorandum, Austin ordered the establishment of the 90-day "Independent Review Commission on Sexual Assault in the Military," which he said supports the president's efforts to address sexual assault and harassment in the military.

Sexual assault has been a problem in the U.S. military for many years. The services have been trying to solve the problem for decades now. Rosenthal said she believes the IRC will have a new take on the issue and will be looking at new aspects of the problem to try to find a solution that works.

"I think what we'll be asking: what hasn't been tried, what happens in civilian society that is a best practice that we could try on the military side, and then what are the unique attributes of the military environment that [allow] us to do things that we can't do on the civilian side," she said. "I think that these folks that we're bringing in will be looking at this with fresh eyes. I also think that what makes this moment in time different are the words of President Biden and Secretary Austin who have both said that all options should be on the table -- and one of those is carefully examining the role of command in decisions to refer cases to prosecution. We will be assessing that very carefully."

According to the IRC's charter, signed by Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen H. Hicks, the commission will focus on evaluating military policies, programs and processes related to sexual assault. It will also review and assess the best practices from industry, academia and other organizations.

Finally, the IRC will generate recommended policy changes and proposals to improve prevention efforts in the services.

Making all that happen will be four IRC working groups focused on each of four lines of effort during the 90-day look into sexual assault in the U.S. military. Those lines of effort include accountability, prevention, climate and culture, and victim care and support.

Commissioners focusing on accountability will assess the role of the Uniform Code of Military Justice in addressing the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment, survivor likelihood of reporting and the ability to appropriately bring alleged perpetrators to justice.

The prevention working group will assess the services' ongoing prevention efforts so they may identify potential gaps there. They also will attempt to identify where additional resources might be needed.

To address climate and culture regarding sexual assault, that working group will review the implementation of existing support policies and resources across the department. They will also propose new approaches to improve climate and culture that can better ensure all service members feel comfortable reporting sexual assault and using existing services.

Finally, the victim care and support working group will review both clinical and non-clinical victim services currently in place to ensure comprehensiveness and availability to all victims regardless of how those victims report.

According to the charter, each working group will be led by full-time highly qualified experts who will develop their insights and observations from meetings and discussions with subject matter experts and stakeholders both inside and outside the military.

Rosenthal said a lot of effort went into choosing the 12 individuals who will be involved in the working groups and who will develop the insights and recommendations the IRC will put forth to the secretary and president.

"This group is impressive," she said. "It's made up of two civilian prosecutors, including one who served eight years in the Army JAG corps, prevention specialists, two West Point grads who have gone on to have distinguished careers in the service, civilian advocates, experts in gender integration, one of the first female Super Cobra attack pilots in the Marine Corps, and experts from [Veterans Affairs] and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. So, we took the time to get the right group of people to engage in these deliberations."

The progress of the IRC and information they produce will be available to the public and service members on the recently created website.

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