April 20, 2014

Missouri senators agree on handling of military sexual assaults

Missouri’s Senators are in agreement on what they see as the better of two proposals to combat sexual assaults in the military.

Senator Claire McCaskill (D) is the sponsor of one of two amendments to the 2014 defense spending bill that would lay out how allegations of sexual assaults in the military would be handled, and by whom. Her proposal would leave with military commanders the authority prosecute cases while stripping them of the power to overturn jury convictions. New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D) proposes giving military prosecutors oversight.

The issue was debated for much of Wednesday but an effort to hold a vote failed. A vote could come before Thanksgiving.

Senator Roy Blunt (R) spoke on the Senate floor in favor of McCaskill’s amendment, saying she and Gillibrand only disagree on how to fix what all senators agree is a problem.

“We all believe this problem’s got to be solved. I think we all believe the (underlying) bill takes a significant, strong step toward doing that. I think most senators are going to agree that the McCaskill amendment adds another element there.”

Both Missouri senators sit on the Armed Services Committee.

Longtime Missouri Congressman Ike Skelton dies (link to AUDIO)

A longtime Congressman who represented west-central Missouri for 34 years has died. Ike Skelton served 17 terms as the representative for Missouri’s 4th Congressional District. He died Monday at Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington, Virginia, at the age of 81.

Former Missouri Congressman Ike Skelton

Former Missouri Congressman Ike Skelton

The cause of his death has not been released, but longtime congressional staffer Russell Orban said he entered the hospital a week before his death.

Skelton was a conservative Democrat who specialized in military issues, serving as chairman of the House Armed Service Committee from 2007 to 2011. He was recently elected chairman of the National World War I Centennial Commission.  His memoir, Achieve the Honorable:  A Missouri Congressman’s Journey from Warm Springs to Washington, was just published two weeks ago.

Listen to Skelton’s 2010 farewell to Congress and read Brent Martin’s story on it

In 2010 Skelton took the floor to say farewell. He told his fellow lawmakers he had “lived a charmed life,” but as a youngster, learned how one’s life can change in an instant when he contracted polio. He said he learned important lessons about life while being treated at the Warm Springs Foundation in Georgia, “Never let illness define you, never be limited by the expectations of others, never give up and never stop working.”

Polio prevented Skelton from joining the military as he had wanted. During his career he was known as an advocate for the military and a defender of Missouri’s bases. In his farewell address he spoke with reverence about the armed forces and the need for civilians to support them.

“The men and women in uniform who form the backbone of our security can not devote all to protect us if we fail to provide what they need to perform their missions, stay safe in the field and take good care of themselves and the families at home. Keeping America safe demands a national committment to military readiness.”

He added, “I’ve always considered each young man and woman in uniform as a son or daughter. They are national treasures and their sacrifices can not be taken for granted. They’re not chess pieces to be moved about on a board. Each one is irreplaceable.”

Of his long time spent in Washington D.C., Skelton said, “You can’t do the job as a member of Congress for so many years unless you love it, and I do. It’s a labor of love, and to paraphrase my fellow Missourian, Harry Truman, I’ve done my damnedest every single day. I will forever be grateful for the trust Missourians have placed in me through the years and for the opportunity to serve Missouri’s 4th Congressional District, U.S. House of Representatives and the United States of America.”

In a statement, Governor Jay Nixon (D) called Skelton a “role model,” who “inspired us all with his quiet dignity and tireless commitment to America’s men and women in uniform.” Nixon added, “Congressman Skelton embodied the true meaning of public service and will forever be remembered as a leader who left a legacy of greater prosperity and security for his district, our state and our nation.”

Missouri Democratic Party Chairman Roy Temple called Skelton a, “Missourian, a statesman and a champion of a strong and sensible national defense, and above all he was a gentleman.” Temple calls Skelton’s passing, “A loss for Missouri and the nation.”

Missouri’s two Senators also remember Skelton in statements. Senator Roy Blunt (R) says, “It was a great privilege to serve Missouri in the Congress with Ike Skelton and to benefit from his friendship and advice. No member of Congress was more dedicated to America’s defense and those who defend us than Ike Skelton. He loved our country and its history and will be remembered for his contributions to both.”

Senator Claire McCaskill (D) says, “Missouri lost a giant. Ike Skelton represented the very best of Missouri and fought tirelessly for the state he loved. Those of us lucky enough to call him a friend know that he lived the Missouri values of compromise and common sense, and in his half-century of service he showed how Missouri could be a leader in contributing to the safety and security of our nation. I join all Missourians in sending my thoughts and prayers to Patty and the rest of Ike’s family. I’ll miss him dearly.”

Skelton was defeated in 2010 by Republican Vicky Hartzler. She issued a statement as well, calling Skelton a, “respected friend,” and saying, “I have appreciated our conversations over the past two-and-a-half years and the commitment we shared to see Missouri’s 4th District prosper. I am thankful for Ike’s tireless efforts on behalf of our men and women in uniform and know our country is safer as a result of his unwavering leadership. My thoughts and prayers are with his family during this difficult time.”

Skelton was born in Lexington on December 20, 1931. He was first elected Lafayette County prosecutor and later to the Missouri Senate before being elected to Congress in 1976. After losing his seat in Congress he had joined a Kansas City law firm and maintained homes in Lexington and in Virginia.

He died surrounded by his wife, Patricia, his sons and their families as well as Orban.

U.S. Senate Democrats split on proposals to handle military sexual assaults (VIDEO)

A rift has formed between U.S. Senate Democrats over the best way to improve the military’s handling of sexual assault cases.

Senators Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri), Kelly Ayotte (R-New Hampshire) and Jon Tester (D-Montana) are joined by retired military women who support Sen. Ayotte's proposals for the handling of military sexual assaults.  (photo courtesy: the office of Senator McCaskill)

Senators Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri), Kelly Ayotte (R-New Hampshire) and Jon Tester (D-Montana) are joined by retired military women who support the Armed Services Committee’s proposals for the handling of military sexual assaults. (photo courtesy: the office of Senator McCaskill)

Military unit commanders have the say in whether prosecution of soldiers under their command for serious crimes, proceeds. One proposal from Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York) would give that final decision to Judge Advocate General attorneys.

Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri) backs proposals that she helped write,  in a defense bill approved last month by the Senate Armed Services Committee. Those make other changes but keep the decision whether to proceed with prosecution with commanders.

McCaskill says it will better serve victims in several ways, including affording greater protection to victims from retaliation.

“If you’ve been victimized and you go back in the unit, do you think it’s more likely you’re going to get retaliation if a bunch of outside lawyers have said to go forward or if the commander has said to go forward? A level of protection comes to the victim because the commander has said, ‘We’re going to get to the bottom of this.’”

McCaskill also refutes arguments made by backers of Gillibrand’s proposal that countries using systems that hers would mirror would see more reporting and prosecution of assaults.

“None of the nations that have changed their systems have had an increase in reporting. The data does not support that position. Secondly we know that literally dozens and dozens and dozens of cases just in the last two years, prosecutors turned down the cases and commanders said, ‘Go ahead.’ We know that if prosecutors are the last say, that we will have fewer prosecutions.”

Several retired military women joined Senator McCaskill at a media conference to offer their support for the proposals.

Retired Army Judge Advocate Lisa Schenck

Retired Army Judge Advocate Lisa Schenck

Retired Army Judge Advocate Lisa Schenck says those proposals would empower victims, including through the requirement that a Special Victims’ Counsel be provided to offer legal advice and assistance to service members who are victims of sexual assault by a member of the U.S. military.

“They need to go to their attorney, their counsel, and they need to be told where they can report. There are nine other places to report aside from the chain of command in the Army … the other thing they need to be told is, they can initiate the court-martial process themselves by preferring charges … they don’t have to wait for the JAG office, they don’t have to wait for the commander, and that’s what that victim counsel is going to tell them.”

Both plans have bipartisan backing.

McCaskill’s position has earned her criticism from some former supporters, including a Navy veteran who was raped in 1986, campaigned for McCaskill last year and now has been featured in a half-page ad in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch calling McCaskill’s approach misguided.

The Armed Service Committee’s proposals would still strip commanders of authority to dismiss court-martial convictions for most offenses and require that any case in which a commander overrules the advice of a Staff Judge Advocate to proceed to court-martial be referred to the civilian Service Secretary for a final decision.

Other changes they would make are:

· Make it a punishable offense under the Uniform Code of Military Justice to retaliate against a victim who reports a criminal offense

· Require a commander, when serving as a convening authority in a military court-martial, to provide written justification for any modifications made to a sentence

· Require a commander, when serving as a convening authority in a military court-martial, to receive input from the victim before arriving at any decision during clemency proceedings

· Require that a person found guilty of an offense of rape, sexual assault, forcible sodomy, or an attempt to commit any of those offenses receive a punishment that includes, at a minimum, a dismissal or dishonorable discharge

· Eliminate the five-year statute of limitations for sexual assault and sexual assault of a child

· Ensure the military has the authority to move an individual accused of sexual assault from a unit to protect a victim from unwanted contact with their alleged attacker, while sustaining a victim’s right to request expedited transfer

· Provide for study of the military’s ability to create a database of information regarding those accused by victims in restricted military reports-meaning the victim chooses to not have the information given to law enforcement, commanders, or others to facilitate potential prosecution-such that serial offenders might be identified and victims might be encouraged to make unrestricted reports that allow for prosecutions in those cases

· Express the Sense of the Senate that commanding officers are responsible for a command climate that appropriately handles sexual assault, that failure of a commanding officer to maintain such a command climate is an appropriate basis for relief of their command position, and that command climate should be a consideration in a commander’s performance evaluation

· Remove the past performance and character of an accused from those factors that may be considered by a commander, when serving as a military courts-martial convening authority, in deciding whether to refer a case to court-martial

· Provide that in sexual assault cases in which a Staff Judge Advocate and a Commander, when serving as a military courts-martial convening authority, agree that a case should not proceed to court-martial, the next higher military commander also review this determination

See the media conference, courtesy of the office of Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-New Hampshire):

Fort Leonard Wood backers express relief at lower reduction total

The Army has announced Force Structure Realignment 2020, a plan to restructure its forces and cut uniformed and civilian personnel around the country. It includes the elimination of up to 885 positions at Fort Leonard Wood by 2019. That would include the inactivation of an Engineer Battalion Headquarters, three Engineer Construction Companies and the Brigade Support Battalion.

A draft plan in January called for as many as 3,900 positions to be eliminated at Fort Leonard Wood, leading Governor Jay Nixon (D), Senators Claire McCaskill (D) and Roy Blunt (R) and Congresswoman Vicky Hartzler (R) all to release statements noting that the plan announced Tuesday could have been worse for Missouri.

Sustainable Ozarks Partnership Executive Director Joe Driskill credits those elected officials as well as State Representative Steve Lynch and State Senator Dan Brown for their roles in raising awareness about the proposed cuts.

He notes no cuts were made among the Fort’s training personnel, which he calls its most important mission for the future.

“Some 80,000 not only soldiers but members of the Air Force, Navy, Coast Guard, Marine Corps and even foreign officers are actually trained at Fort Leonard Wood … both for entry-level training, what most people call ‘basic training,’ plus advanced training in the major specialities that are taught here; military police, chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear, and also engineering specialities.”

Driskill notes these cuts are not related to sequestration, which could take an additional toll on the Fort.

“We are hoping that the Congress and the President can get together around a modest level of further cuts that don’t impact Fort Leonard Wood and don’t impact the readiness of our Army and other military forces.”

For a transcript of the announcement by Army Chief of Staff General Ray Odiero, click here.

Former Senate candidate Brunner calls political system ‘broken’

After losing in the Republican primary for U.S. Senate, St. Louis businessman John Brunner says he’s learned the deck is stacked against political newcomers.

Former U.S. Senate candidate John Brunner.

Former U.S. Senate candidate John Brunner.

Brunner is still busy in politics, but his focus now is on supporting others. He says there are people like state lawmakers, people who lost in the last election and those looking at getting into politics that need inspiration and guidance, which he believes he can offer.

But, he calls the political system “broken,” saying it works against the success of anyone but career politicians.

“It takes so many resources to be able to run an effective campaign, so if you are not full-time in politics spending a whole career building your name I.D., using other people’s money campaign after campaign after campaign, you’re locked out. On the other reverse, you find people who start in politics, spend their entire career and they leave multi-millionaires. That’s wrong as well.”

Still, Brunner says he believes people with backgrounds outside of politics need to get involved in their government.

“At any level, you’re going to have to find people that are willing to get involved and get engaged and see how you can help them, but I tell you … the money hurdle is very difficult and it makes me sick that that’s what’s preventing a lot of good people from getting involved in public office.”

Brunner lost the Republican nomination for Senate to Todd Akin, who went on to lose the Senate seat to incumbent Democrat Claire McCaskill. Brunner doesn’t say whether he thinks Akin’s controversial comments, including some about abortion, played a role in that outcome.

“I go back to the fundamentals. You have to be organized, you have to have a team, you have to pull people together and regrettably we didn’t have the organization and support in terms of our ability to get the ball across the goal line, and I think a lot of people have recognized that we can’t beat each other up in primaries if we plan to have any kind of victory in the general election.”

Brunner says he doesn’t know if he’ll run for anything again.