Sen. Blumenthal Compares Military Sexual Assaults to IEDs

By Melanie Arter | March 13, 2013 | 6:56 PM EDT

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) (AP Photo/Senate Television)

( - Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) on Wednesday said the spate of sexual assaults in the military that go unpunished is like “an IED in every unit of every Armed forces.”

Blumenthal detailed how during his first visit to Afghanistan he observed the way Marines “rigged a 10-foot long pole with what looked like the end of a coat hanger, which they used very effectively to detect roadside bombs, because they couldn’t wait” on better detecting equipment. “This problem is the equivalent of an IED in every unit of every armed forces,” he said at a hearing on sexual assault in the military held by the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel.

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Blumenthal called it the equivalent to an “immensely destructive force,” adding that the Aviano case brought this to the “public’s attention in a very dramatic way, much like the photograph of a roadside bomb going off in Iraq or Afghanistan would be.”

The Aviano case involved Gen. Craig Franklin, Third Air Force commander at Aviano Air Base in Italy, who dismissed charges against a lieutenant colonel who was convicted of abusive sexual contact, aggravated sexual assault and three instances of conduct unbecoming of an officer and a gentleman in an incident involving a civilian employee, according to the Air Force Times.

Franklin did not give specifics as to why he overruled Lt. Col. James Wilkerson’s verdict and sentence. A written statement from the Third Air Force said Franklin “concluded that the entire body of evidence was insufficient to meet the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt,” according to Stars and Stripes.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel released a letter Monday, saying the case will be reviewed at the top levels of the Pentagon.

The ruling is unlikely to be changed however, because Hagel said under military law, neither he nor the Air Force secretary has the authority to reverse Franklin’s decision to overturn Wilkerson’s conviction. Wilkerson is a former inspector general at Aviano.

Franklin’s decision to set aside the verdict against Wilkerson “is yet another example of an action taken by a commander that will have a chilling effect on military judges and prosecutors” and will potentially affect future cases and prevent other victims from coming forward, Brian K. Lewis, former Petty Officer Third Class of the U.S. Navy, who is now an advocacy board member of Protect Our Defenders, said in prepared testimony for the Senate Armed Services subcommittee.

Protect Our Defenders is a human rights organization that seeks to fix the military training, investigation and adjudication systems related to sexual violence and harassment – systems that often re-victimize assault survivors by blaming them while failing to prosecute perpetrators.

“A system that elevates a single individual’s authority and discretion over the rule of law often precludes justice and hinders it long into the future,” Lewis said.

Blumenthal said military sexual assaults are “equally potentially destructive to the good order and discipline and most especially to recruitment, to retention of the best and the brightest and the bravest that you now have.”

“People ultimately are our greatest asset in the military,” Blumenthal added.