After Failures to Curb Sexual Assault, a Move Toward a Major Shift in Military Law

After Failures to Curb Sexual Assault, a Move Toward a Major Shift in Military Law

WASHINGTON — After decades of failing to curb sexual assault in the armed forces, lawmakers and Pentagon leaders are poised to make major changes in military laws that many experts have long argued stand in the way of justice.

A bill championed by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Democrat of New York, would remove military commanders from a role in prosecuting service members for sexual assault and has gained support from scores of key members of Congress. Among them is Senator Joni Ernst, Republican of Iowa and a retired National Guard lieutenant colonel, who said her own experience with assault and her daughter’s stories from West Point helped shift her views on the issue.

“I have been torn,” Ms. Ernst said in an interview. “On the one hand, I was a commander in the National Guard and know how important that role is. But also, as a sexual assault survivor, I know we have to do more. I never really wanted to take this out of chain of command, but we are not seeing a difference.”

Ms. Ernst’s nod on a new bipartisan measure is likely to attract several other key lawmakers, whose combined support could usher in the biggest change to military rules since the repeal of the ban on service by gays and lesbians in 2010. Other senators — many of whom voted against the measure in the past — said in interviews that they had waited long enough for the military to solve the problem and agreed that Congress should step in.

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