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Home Articles In the News National Defense Authorization Act Includes Sweeping Reforms

National Defense Authorization Act Includes Sweeping Reforms

Reform removes serious crime prosecution from military command

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Abuse at the hands of a military spouse

Members of the U.S. armed forces aren’t held accountable by the civilian court system, but instead by the Uniform Code of Military Justice. This code is enforced by military police and courts, but before a serious crime even goes to court, it’s military commanders who decide if a crime should be prosecuted. However, these commanders often have no legal training or training to deal with serious issues such as domestic and sexual abuse. Many military spouse survivors of domestic abuse have related that their reports of abuse fall on uncaring ears. 

Tamara Campbell is one of those many military spouse survivors. In 2019, she told her story to DomesticShelters.org Editorial Director Amanda Kippert, reporting for the HuffPost. In her harrowing story, she recounted how her husband, an armorer in the U.S. Marine Corps, nearly killed her more than once. During an early stage of her ordeal, Campbell recalled that she called a gunnery sergeant to report her abuse – only to be told the sergeant was tired of wives meddling in the Marines’ business.

The Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act

The U.S. military is governed by its own justice system, which is separated from civilian police and the criminal justice system. Within the armed forces, it is commanders who first receive reports about possible infractions. While there are protocols commanders are instructed to follow, it’s commanders alone who determine if a crime has been committed, if an investigation should be opened and if their subordinate will be punished.

However, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), has been pushing the Department of Defense and her fellow senators for a major military reform bill since 2013. The current version of the bill Gillibrand introduced nearly 10 years ago, The Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act, includes removing the prosecution of all serious crimes from the chain of command. 

In July 2021, the Senate Armed Services Committee approved the sweeping legislative reform package as part of the annual defense bill, also known as the National Defense Authorization Act or NDAA. This decision was fueled by the results of an independent review commission on sexual assault in the military, headed by Lynn Rosenthal. Rosenthal was the first-ever White House Advisor on Violence Against Women, appointed by President Obama and Vice President Biden in 2009.

"We recognized that there's a lot of bias in the military justice system," Gillibrand told NPR's Rachel Martin in June 2020. She also noted the growing rate of sexual assaults in the military and that relatively few cases go to trial or end in convictions. Gillibrand also pointed out the current system is biased "against Black and brown service members," who are often more likely to be punished.

Removing Decisions from Commanding Officers

Gillibrand’s bill includes removing the traditional chain of command from decision-making related to reports of sexual harassment, assault, domestic violence and other serious offenses. Trained military prosecutors would oversee cases, putting oversight in the hands of criminal justice attorneys with relevant experience instead of commanding officers who often have no legal training.

A 2020 Defense Department report showed that reports of sexual assaults have doubled, but the rate of prosecution and conviction has gone down by half since 2013. Only 0.8 percent of sexual assault reports in 2020 ended in sex offense convictions under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, about just one-third of the 2019 convictions. About 6.5 percent of civilian sexual assault investigations lead to convictions, according to a study by the National Institute of Justice.

Though the report didn’t clarify why sexual assault convictions have gone down, it may have to do with the fact that commanders have the option to choose administrative punishments instead of criminal punishments. Administrative punishments result in mild punishments comparatively to criminal convictions—deductions in rank or administrative discharges as opposed to incarceration. Administrative punishments are bureaucratically easier on commanders.

What Being a Military Abuse Survivor Is Like

In 2018, one in 16 women in the military reported being groped, raped, or otherwise sexually assaulted. Between 2015 and 2019, there were over 40,000 reported incidents of domestic abuse involving servicemembers, spouses, and intimate partners—though those incidents are only ones that met the Department of Defense’s legal criteria for domestic abuse.

Like Campbell, other survivors of military intimate partner violence (IPV) struggle with being ignored or not taken seriously when they report abuse or having those they report to defend the actions of the abuser. Some survivors even describe negative repercussions to their reporting, like being ridiculed by the abuser’s commanding officers or unit.

“When I went to the military regarding my ex-husband’s abuse, they literally laughed. I was told they were not going to ruin a military man’s career,” said Barb, an IPV survivor whose name has been changed to protect her identity. “I wrote the Pentagon. They responded by telling me they had investigated, although they never spoke with me, our son or friends. I still have the letter they wrote me telling me of their ‘investigation.’ Their final response: I was never to contact them again.”

Survivors of military IPV often decide not to report being abused because of fears about their own safety and the safety of their children, financial dependence upon the abuser, and fear of escalating abuse. 

Abuse Escalation

Twenty-year-old Vanessa Guillén told her mother that she was being sexually harassed at Fort Hood, where she served as a specialist. When her mother urged her to report it, Guillén said she would stop it herself. Her family believes that Guillén was unwilling to report the harassment due to potential retaliation. 

Guillén’s remains were found after she’d been missing for over two months. It was later discovered that she had been murdered on April 22, 2020 inside Fort Hood. The man who murdered her, Specialist Aaron Robinson, had been previously accused of sexual harassment.

Escalation and repeat offenses are common among sexually violent abusers. Homicide is a leading cause of death for women under the age of 44 and nearly half of women and girls murdered are killed by former or current intimate partners. Domestic and sexual abusers frequently reoffend, with 60 percent of serial rapists having been arrested for at least one previous sexual assault, according to one study. Another study showed that six of ten college rapists will go on to rape again.

For Campbell, escalation and repeated violent assaults became a way of life. Over the next few years, Darlington continued to escalate his abuse of Campbell, including strangling her, which is a high-risk factor in lethality assessments of domestic violence situations. In 2014, after Campbell confronted Darlington again about his infidelity, he retrieved a loaded .45 caliber handgun. He shoved the weapon into her mouth and pulled the trigger, though it did not discharge.

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A month later, Darlington once more violently assaulted Campbell, strangling her again. The assault was reported to a military police officer whose mother was a member of an armed forces spouse support group on Facebook that Campbell belonged to. This time, Darlington was charged. He pled guilty to seven charges including strangulation, inserting a loaded handgun into Campbell’s mouth and adultery. In 2015, a military judge sentenced Darlington to 11 years at Naval Consolidated Brig Chesapeake.

Darlington was released after serving less than four years.

Advocates agree that stopping abusers on the first report greatly reduces the risk of a victim being killed. Minimal or no repercussions, as demonstrated in recent military command decisions, lead to the escalation of abuse and the recurrence of assaults—including homicide. Women like Tamara Campbell could have avoided years of suffering and sustained abuse had this military justice reform already been in place. Experts and advocates are cautiously optimistic that taking prosecutorial and disciplinary decisions out of the hands of command and putting them into the hands of legal experts will not only help stop abuse—it may save lives.