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Navy unit commanders will no longer be able to investigate sexual harassment claims

Navy and Marine Corps commanders must now send cases to higher-level commanders who “shall not be familiar with the subject or the complainant.”

NORFOLK, Va. — The Navy takes a big step to fight sexual harassment.

Effective immediately, unit commanders in the Navy and Marine Corps will no longer have the authority to investigate sexual harassment allegations.

Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro's department-wide administrative message, which was sent out last Friday, said Navy commanding officers must send sexual harassment complaints to the next higher-level commander, who will then appoint an investigating officer from outside the command who "shall not be familiar with the subject or the complainant."

Until now, such cases have always been handled by the defendant's own chain of command leaders.

Pentagon leaders last year pledged they'd work to remove unit commanders from the investigations of such cases.

"And we are dedicated to pushing change that moves fast and delivers for victims of sexual assault and sexual harassment, for the next generation of service members," said Dr. Kathleen Hicks, the deputy secretary of defense.

Department of Defense statistics show that since 2010, at least 509,000 active duty personnel have experienced sexual harassment.

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Virginia) had long opposed making the change, buying into the argument that removing the chain of command from the decision would hurt unit cohesion.

But last year, he had a change of heart.

"I've come to the conclusion that clearly the status quo is not working," he said. "Other nations have successfully implemented a system of justice around sexual harassment that seems to have a better outcome. I've given the Pentagon the benefit of the doubt for a decade. And I think it's time to try something different."

Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Virginia, 2nd District) introduced the Military Sexual Trauma (MST) Claims Coordination Act on March 31 to better assist survivors of sexual assault and harassment in the military to access the medical care they need and the compensation they deserve.

Luria's legislation will require improved communication and coordination between the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) and Veterans Health Administration (VHA) when assisting veterans with filing claims. Additionally, the legislation would cut red tape and allow veterans to avoid burdensome bureaucratic processes in submitting basic information between the VBA and the VHA.

"Sexual assault and sexual harassment have no place in our military," said Luria, who serves as vice-chair of the House Armed Services Committee, and previously served 20 years as a Naval officer.

She continued: "We must ensure that survivors of sexual assault and sexual harassment are treated respectfully and receive proper care at all stages of the process, including mental health services. While the Veterans Health Administration has made progress on MST services, survivors still far too often encounter a bureaucratic process that can be retraumatizing. As a 20-year Navy veteran, I am proud to introduce the Military Sexual Trauma Claims Coordination Act, and I am grateful for all of MST survivors who assisted in crafting this legislation to better serve veteran survivors."

The Navy change came on the two-year anniversary of the murder of 20-year-old Army Specialist Vanessa Guillén, who complained about sexual harassment at Fort Hood, Texas, before her murder.

The Navy's change also came one day before a military judge convicted Air Force Maj. Gen. William Cooley of sexually assaulting his sister-in-law in 2018.

RELATED: Split verdict in first-ever Air Force general military trial

Cooley faces up to seven years in jail, dismissal from the Air Force and withholding of pay, and a possible spot in the national sex offender database.

According to Air Force Times, this is the first time a military court has issued a verdict in a court-martial case involving an Air Force general.

It's the first time sexual assault charges have led to criminal prosecution for someone so high up in the chain of command.

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