WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Senators had some very strong comments on how the military deals with sex assaults. The entire Joint Chiefs of Staff and the chiefs of each military branch came before the Senate Armed Services Committee on the issue Tuesday.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York wants to give military prosecutors, rather than commanders, the power to decide whether sex assault cases are investigated. She says the current chain-of-command system opens victims up to retaliation. She says, "You have lost the trust of the men and women who rely on you, that you will actually bring justice in these cases. They're afraid to report. They think their careers will be over."
And she criticizes how the military lumps all sexual assault and harassment cases together. She says, "Not every single commander can distinguish between a slap on the (expletive) and a rape, because they merge all of these crimes together."
Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri also had strong words. She said, "Unwanted sexual contact is everything from someone looking at you sideways when they shouldn't, to someone pushing you up against the wall and brutally raping you. You've got to in your surveys delineate the two problems."
And Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia is now catching flak from both political parties for his comments. He said, "The young folks that are coming into each of your services are anywhere from 17 to 22 or 3, gee whiz, the hormone level created by nature sets in place the possibility for these types of things to occur."
The military leaders each said sexual assault is a serious problem. Gen. James Amos, Commandant of the USMC said, "It's shameful. It's repulsive." U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno said, "We're failing in our efforts to fully protect our people from sexual assault." But they say they are equipped to handle it.
The military has been hit hard over the issue of sexual assault among its ranks. the defense department reported an estimated 26,000 cases of unwanted sexual contact, ranging from rape to groping, in 2012.
That was a 35 percent jump from 2010.