'All Options on Table' for Pentagon's Sexual Assault Commission

The chair of the Pentagon’s new sexual assault independent review committee is Lynn Rosenthal.
The chair of the Pentagon’s new sexual assault independent review committee, Lynn Rosenthal, briefs the media, at the Pentagon, Washington, D.C., Feb. 26, 2021. (DoD photo by Lisa Ferdinando)

The Pentagon has named Lynn Rosenthal, a leading activist working to prevent domestic violence, sexual assault and other gender-based violence, to head a commission charged with finding ways to stop these problems in the military.

Shortly after his inauguration, President Joe Biden ordered the Pentagon to create a commission and give it 90 days to come up with anti-sexual assault and sexual harassment strategies.

These problems have plagued the military for years; despite intense focus recently, the services have made little progress preventing them. In fact, reports of sexual assault and harassment in the military actually rose from 2019 to 2020, according to data released last April.

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Former President Barack Obama in 2009 named Rosenthal to be the White House's adviser on violence against women, where she worked with then-Vice President Biden on programs to stem sexual violence and domestic violence murders.

Pentagon press secretary John Kirby announced Rosenthal's selection to run the Independent Review Commission at a briefing with reporters Friday.

"This commission is dedicated to those service members who've suffered from sexual assault, both those who have come forward and shared their stories at great personal cost, and those who have suffered in silence, and who continue to suffer in silence alone, also at great cost," Rosenthal said.

She told reporters that the commission's most pressing task is finding ways to hold those who have committed sexual assault accountable.

But the commission also plans to look at the military's climate and culture, and ways to prevent sexual assault and harassment, she said.

"The trauma and life-altering effects of sexual assault are devastating in any context," Rosenthal said. "What I'm struck by here, as I've listened to stories of military survivors, is how much their service meant to them. How their life was about this dream of serving in the military, and this dream was part of their identity. And for many, their dreams were shattered by the trauma of sexual violence, and sometimes retaliation for coming forward. This must end."

Rosenthal said that one of the hardest things to hear from survivors is the level of hostility they faced from their attackers, and the messages they received that they don't belong in the military and will be blamed and disbelieved if they come forward.

"This commission says to that service member, 'You do belong in this military, and it's our job to make this climate safe for you to be here,'" Rosenthal said.

The commission has yet to announce its membership, though Rosenthal said it will include current and former military leaders, experts and advocates for survivors of sexual assault, both inside and outside of the military. The commission will consult a diverse group of people from every level of the military, as well as civilians and outside experts and stakeholders, she said.

Rosenthal said the commission will consider a variety of proposals, including ideas to create independent authorities to whom service members would report their assaults and remove commanders from the adjudication process.

"All options must be on the table," she said.

The commission is working on ways for service members to share their ideas and experiences, including an online page. It also hopes to travel to places that have made significant progress and learn from their strategies.

The commission plans to produce initial recommendations, particularly on holding offenders accountable, within 60 days, Rosenthal said. The commission is supposed to finish its work within 90 days, but she said work will continue afterward to put those recommendations in place.

-- Stephen Losey can be reached at stephen.losey@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StephenLosey.

Related: Lawmakers 'Appalled' by Revelations of Sexual Assault, Harassment Culture at Fort Hood

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