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Tom Vanden Brook, USA TODAY

STORY HIGHLIGHTS:

- Service chiefs want commanders to keep ability to overturn sexual assault verdicts.
- Committee chairman called sexual assaults a "stain on our military."
- Supporters of bills say the military often ignores reports of sexual assault.

WASHINGTON -- Members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said Tuesday they oppose proposals that would remove commanders' discretion to overturn decisions to prosecute troops and throw out their convictions, issues that have triggered indignation in light of the sexual assault crisis affecting the military.

Gen. Raymond Odierno, the Army chief of staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee the service had "failed in our efforts to date to protect" soldiers and civilians from sexual assault and harassment.

Commanders, however, need to keep their authority in handling sexual assault cases, Odierno said. Removing that authority will make commanders less accountable, affect unit discipline and delay punishment, he said.

All of the chiefs said the Senate needs to consider the effect of making changes on commanders' ability to deal with their troops.

Adm. Jonathan Greenert, the chief of Naval Operations, said commanders' discretion in criminal matters is critical to the Navy, where ships may be deployed far from military courts.

Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, seemed to resist the concept of removing commanders' authority to enforce military law.

"The commander's responsibility to preserve order and discipline is essential to affecting change," Dempsey said. "They punish criminals and protect victims when and where no other jurisdiction is capable, or lawfully able to do so. Commanders are accountable for all that goes on in a unit. Ultimately, they are responsible for mission success."

Gen. James Amos, the commandant of the Marine Corps, also agreed. "Commanding officers never delegate responsibility and accountability, and they should never be forced to delegate their authority," he said.

Amos, Greenert and Dempsey's comments were in their prepared testimony.

The top brass were testifying on about seven pending bills to deal with sexual assault in the military.

Among the most far-reaching is one introduced by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, the New York Democrat who chairs the subcommittee on personnel matters. It would put decisions to handle sexual assault cases in the hands of military judges and juries. Currently, decisions on charges, the jury's make up and whether a conviction or punishment can stand are handled by a defendant's superior. That commander receives advice from a military lawyer.

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and the committee chairman, said in his opening statement that there was good reason for the bills brought before Congress to deal with the problem.

"The problem of sexual assault is of such scope and magnitude that it has become a stain on our military," he said.

Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., said in his opening statement that he opposed measures that would strip commanders of authority.

Other senators, however, cited examples of the services' failure to deal with sexual assaults or the commanders who seemed to tolerate them.

Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I, quizzed the chiefs on whether commanders had been relieved for failing to deal with sexual assault. Only the Army and Coast Guard had fired a commander for sexual-assault or harassment, according to Odierno and Coast Guard Commandant Robert Papp.

About half of the 57 commanders relieved in the Army were fired for not punishing sexual assault, Odierno said. Papp said one Coast Guard officer was relieved.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said the crisis had grown so dire that he could no longer recommend to a young women to join the armed services.

Calls for overhaul of the military-justice system have grown louder since the Pentagon released a report last month showing a 35% jump in the estimated number of sexual abuse incidents in 2012 compared with 2010.

Several incidents of sexual abuse have caused widespread outrage, and have prompted calls for action.

Levin said it was up to commanders, not just laws, to ensure that sexual assault is not tolerated.

"As important as some of these additional protections and procedural changes may be, however, we cannot successfully address this problem without a culture change throughout the military," Levin said. "Discipline is the heart of the military culture, and trust is its soul. The plague of sexual assault erodes both the heart and the soul."

Odierno agreed: "We cannot legislate our way out of this problem."

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