Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand has been leading the charge against the sexual assault crisis in the military, which has been struggling to curb the culture that yielded 26,000 cases of "unwanted sexual contact" in the ranks last year.

A champion of the bill that repealed the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, Gillibrand, D-N.Y., has pushed welcome legislation to move decisions to prosecute sexual assault cases from the chain of command to independent military prosecutors.

Unfortunately, despite bipartisan support, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., announced plans to squash the bill last week.

That would protect the existing system, under which a victim's superior, often with scant legal knowledge, determines whether to pursue charges and wields control throughout the process. Because victims fear retaliation, less than 15 percent of those assaulted are believed to have reported it to military police or prosecutors last year.

And military bosses made up a quarter of the alleged perpetrators, leaving many victims without recourse.

Despite the military's stated "zero tolerance" policy on sexual abuse, more than half a million soldiers have been sexually harassed since 1991. Incredibly, according to a 2012 study by the Department of Veterans Affairs, about half the women deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan reported being sexually harassed, while nearly a quarter reported being sexually assaulted.


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Sen. John McCain, a former Navy aviator, has declared the problem so alarming that he can no longer advise young women to join the armed forces. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel used his commencement address at West Point last month to urge future Army officers to fight the "scourge" of sexual assault. Recent spates of sexual assault there and at the Naval Academy raise concerns about the future of the world's most formidable military.

While acknowledging the gravity of the problem, military brass summoned to a Senate hearing last week resisted Gillibrand's proposal, arguing that it would weaken military culture.

Now, thanks to Levin and other overly deferential lawmakers, they appear to be getting their way. Although order and hierarchy are pillars of military culture, generals and senators alike must remember that our troops will not perform optimally if they don't feel safe within the ranks, and the military will find itself unable to attract top talent.

In a more encouraging development last week, the Army suspended its commanding general in Japan due to allegations that he failed to investigate a sexual assault complaint thoroughly. As our men and women in uniform continue to return home, now is the time to fight this internal enemy.

If our armed forces can't protect their own, how will they protect us?