Syracuse (WSYR-TV) - Marching orders came swiftly from the nation's capital with news that sexual assaults in the military are rising – and New York's senator is among those leading the charge against the trend.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand is drafting legislation to remove decision making from the chain of command, citing Department of Defense data that shows 47 percent of service members are afraid of retaliation.
The Pentagon estimates that unreported sexual assaults rose from 19,300 to 26,000 cases in a two-year period.
The number of reported cases did not rise significantly - 3,192 cases were reported in 2011, compared to 3,374 cases in 2012.
"Could you surmise that it may well be that a victim has no faith in the chain of command on this issue?" Gillibrand asked during an Armed Services Committee hearing.
In Central New York, the 174th Attack Wing did not have any cases reported last year, according Sexual Assault Response Coordinator Lt. Col. Maureen Murphy.
Several members of the wing have completed special training, including practice interviews and role playing through Vera House, a non-profit agency in Syracuse that provides services to sexual assault victims. Lt. Col. Murphy is one of two service members who actively volunteers with the agency.
"We have volunteers who cover evenings and weekends as first responders to a sexual assault victim at the hospital and they've joined right in that group so that they can get that experience with sexual assault victims,” said Vera House Executive Director Randi Bergman. Bregman applauds the local partnership, but hopes Senator Gillibrand succeeds in creating more accountability in national policies.
"We don't assume that everybody who is accused of a crime has committed it. But, we do know that many times somebody accused of sexual abuse may get away with it if we don't have a system that works,” Bergman said.
Gillibrand's legislation will focus on a rule that has allowed commanders to overturn court-martial convictions in any case.
"I do not think that you should pat yourself on the back that your commanders have acknowledged and accepted the recommendations of their lawyers in a good percentage of cases. I am highly concerned that so few victims feel that they could ever receive justice, that they won't report,’ Gillibrand said.
The senator will introduce proposed reforms next week. Lt. Col. Murphy believes the military is moving in the right direction.
"I am confident that the Department of Defense is looking at this very thoroughly and working with congress to review options for improving the program," Lt. Col Murphy said.