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Military justice is getting an overhaul. Victims say there's a long way to go


Military justice is undergoing its biggest overhaul in a generation as the services grapple with sexual assault. The head of the Navy's new Office of the Special Trial Counsel says they want to restore trust in the system. Victims say they have a long way to go. Steve Walsh with WHRO in Norfolk talked to one of the survivors of an assault.

STEVE WALSH, BYLINE: Jenna Carlton's Navy career was cut short by trauma.

JENNA CARLTON: I just wasn't sure my chain of command would believe me because I saw how they handled victims who came forward or reported someone. And it was not likely that I would be believed.

WALSH: She left the Navy in 2017 after three years. She had been raped during a party at her first assignment out of boot camp but decided not to report it. She transferred to Naval Station Norfolk, where she continued to confront rumors about herself and other women in her command. Before she enlisted, Carlton planned to rise through the ranks. After a year, she was making plans for life after the Navy.

CARLTON: I couldn't see myself in a leadership position. I couldn't see myself in that culture and being the best version of myself without having to somehow forfeit my personal values as a way to be successful in the Navy.

WALSH: After she left, Carlton founded Millennial Veterans, where she talks to others with similar stories. Many of them are looking at the latest round of reforms to military justice.

CARLTON: The kind of worst behavior I had seen had come from leadership, and it was condoned throughout the ranks below them. So I think it really starts with just changing that culture and making it unacceptable to have any sort of sexual harassment or assault behavior.

WALSH: Congress enacted a series of reforms to the military justice system. Beginning this year, commanders no longer decide whether 13 high-profile crimes will go to court. The reforms were driven largely by the problems with handling sexual assault cases. Rear Admiral Jonathan T. Stephens heads the new Navy Office of the Special Trial Counsel. He says they want to make the system more professional.

JONATHAN T STEPHENS: We hope that we can rebuild the trust, right? And I think for me, one of the keys is kind of communication with all the stakeholders - working with victims, working with their counsel earlier and consistently throughout the process.

WALSH: Lawyers in Stephen's office now decide which cases go to court. Like the other services, the Navy created regional offices, including in Norfolk, which has the highest concentration of cases in the Navy. Prosecutors assigned to the Special Trial Counsel are expected to have more trial experience, Stephens says.

STEPHENS: If people understand that we are making these decisions independent and based solely on our kind of analysis of the evidence, that hopefully some of the - maybe if there were appearance issues on commanders or whomever making decisions - that hopefully those will dissipate a bit.

WALSH: A former Air Force prosecutor, Rachel VanLandingham, teaches law at Southwestern Law School LA. She has testified before Congress. Part of the problem is lawyers in the military rarely have as much experience as civilian attorneys.

RACHEL VANLANDINGHAM: These individuals are smart that go into the military. They're smart. They're dedicated. It's a systemic issue, right? This is a structural issue. They are set up to fail here. They're set up not to get the requisite experience. And I think that's so unfair to those who are serving.

WALSH: The Navy had only 165 courts martial in 2023. VanLandingham welcomes the reforms, but she says victims are right to be skeptical.

VANLANDINGHAM: Well, that trust was grossly abused and then destroyed because of the lack of accountability year after year after year dealing with allegations of serious violent crimes.

WALSH: Other reforms are on the way. At the end of the year, commanders won't have a say in the pool of jurors selected for courts martial. Starting January 1, 2025, sexual harassment becomes a standalone crime in the military. For NPR News, I'm Steve Walsh.

(SOUNDBITE OF JESSE COOK'S "AFTERNOON AT SATIE'S") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Steve Walsh | WHRO
[Copyright 2024 VPM]
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