Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Mark A. Milley address a member of the media during a joint press briefing with Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III from the Pentagon, Washington, D.C., May 6, 2021. (DoD photo by U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Jack Sanders) (Staff Sgt. Jackie Sanders)

By Jim Garamone, DOD News

The Independent Review Commission on Sexual Assault in the Military has presented initial recommendations to Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III that would take the responsibility of prosecuting sexual assault offenses out of commanders' hands, and Austin and Army Gen. Mark A. Milley are willing to contemplate the change.

Austin and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff discussed the problem of sexual assault in the military during a Pentagon press conference yesterday.

The commission is still working, and there are many other lines of effort they are studying. "The accountability line of effort was the very first, and so they provided me an initial readout of their work on … that line of effort," Austin said. "Of course, I'm taking that into consideration."

The secretary wants other defense leaders, the service secretaries and service chiefs to review the recommendations and engage in dialogue with him on the issue. He wants their input and thoughts because "we're all going to have to execute it," he said. "As I've said before, this is very important to me and it's very important to this entire department. And we're going to stay sighted on this … until we find ways to improve."

Austin is open to taking the process on prosecuting sexual assault outside of the chain of command. He said in establishing the commission that all options are on the table.

Milley said he has no objection to taking the process out of the chain of command as well. "I'm going to wait [to make a final decision] until the final results of the review commission," he said. "But I was the Chief of [Staff of] the Army for four years, then the chairman for coming up on two. … We have to move the needle, that's the bottom line."

The current situation is not working, he said. "We estimate based on some surveys that there were probably 20,000 men and women who were sexually assaulted in the United States military last year," Milley said. "That's one percent of the force. If we had 20,000 killed or wounded in Afghanistan or Iraq, those are casualties, that's huge, that's significant. And that number hasn't significantly been reduced over time."

Despite everything the department and the services have done, the number of assaults has not changed, Milley said. The commission is providing evidence-based recommendations that may fundamentally change the process.

"Twenty thousand is a huge number and … we can't tolerate that," he said. "We can't tolerate that level of divisiveness in our force. These are assaults. These are blue-on-blue assaults. It cannot stand. It has to be resolved."

Another aspect of this are surveys that show service members losing confidence in the chain of command over this issue. "The chain of command, we the generals, the colonels, the captains and so on, we have lost the trust and confidence of those subordinates in our ability to deal with sexual assault. We need to make a change. What that change is, we'll see what the Independent Review Commission comes up with in terms of the recommendations, and we'll take a hard look at it, and we'll have discussions with the secretary and so on," he said.

Austin said the recommendations are not the last step. Defense Department officials will apply whatever is decided upon and examine the effects. "Then we'll stay sighted on it to make sure that we have the right things and environment, that we're taking care of our troops, men and women, and that we're doing the right things," he said.