Lt. Col. Antonio Daggett is a 25-year military chaplain who speaks out on sexual assault. "It's just not acceptable," Daggett said. [Photo by Michelle Kanaar]

Lt. Col. Antonio Daggett is a 25-year military chaplain who lives on Chicago’s West Side. He speaks out on sexual assault, without, he says, regard for the future of his career. He believes that the military chain of command — top military brass — should relinquish its role in deciding sexual assault cases. 

Earlier this month, an amendment to the annual defense policy bill introduced by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) attempting to remove military sexual assault cases from the chain of command came up for a vote. But a compromise between the House and Senate to get the defense bill passed ensured that commanders would keep control over the court-martial process of individuals accused of sexual assault.

Born and raised in the Austin neighborhood, Daggett is the father of 10 children, three of whom have served in the military.  The Reporter sat down with Lt. Col. Daggett to discuss the epidemic of sexual assault in the military and why he still trusts the military structure even when it has failed to deal adequately with assault allegations.

When was the moment you learned about the issue of sexual assault in the military?

I first became aware of a sexual assault that took place against a soldier on Nov. 2, 2002. It happened in Michigan City, Ind., at the National Guard Armory. A solider had complained about discrimination, and taken it to the chain of command. The chain of command at the soldier’s level refused to hear it. Sexual assault has become a part of the culture. It is used as a tool to punish or retaliate against certain soldiers who won’t go along with the program.

How long do you think this has been a problem?

It’s probably been part of the culture a lot longer than you and I have been alive. Clearly, the retaliation has been a part of the culture. What is new is the willingness of people to stand up.

You have been on the radio and testified to Congress, which could be a risky career move in an organization dependent on loyalty and obedience. Was there a moment when you considered not taking the risk?

Any decision where you find yourself with pressures on both sides, that is a decision people should take seriously and think about. I see these young people coming into the military, and I think, the very least we can do is ensure the protection of our military family. People are very leery to come to military chaplains because they don’t know whether this chaplain is going to stand up for them or not. That kind of makes me a rare bird. I have always been the kind of chaplain who has been ready to stand up, even though that has cost me greatly. I’ve never been very good at lip service. 

In many instances, the military is seen as being particularly untouchable. Why do you still trust in the institution of the military? 

We need to look at why there are so many people in the military who feel comfortable participating in acts like [sexual assaults and the covering up of sexual assaults]. When we remove it from the chain of command, it becomes clear to everyone in the military, now you will answer to the American people. This is as pro-military as you can get, when you ensure that the people that are working within these uniforms are safe and have integrity. It is so critical to ensure the integrity of the military, not only to the institution, but to the American citizens that count so much on the military.

The defense authorization bill passed – but without Sen. Gillibrand’s amendment that would remove military sexual assaults from the chain of command. What happens next?

We are concerned that the issue of protecting those who protect our nation is not in the forefront of all in the Senate and House of Representatives. Nothing should be more important than making sure our nation is safe, and defense of the nation must be done by those who have the confidence that they are safe. Our plan now is to lobby Congress, go to D.C. and talk with various senators and congress people. And, at this point, continue to push the issue that our men and women need to be protected. The chain of command has proved it can’t protect our soldiers.

This transcript has been edited and condensed.

is a blogger/reporter at The Chicago Reporter.