June 24, 2018
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Sen. King should give military assault victims a voice: Remove cases from chain of command

By Caroline Baldacci, Special to the BDN

To put one’s life on the line for freedom is one of the biggest sacrifices in life. On the battlefield, servicemen and women are prepared to stand up to the enemy. Yet they do not expect harm from their fellow soldiers. Sadly, though, many of them have to endure this trauma.

According to a CNN report released this spring, “The Defense Department estimated that more than 26,000 troops experienced an episode of ‘unwanted sexual contact,’ a huge jump from the 19,300 figure in the 2010 report.” The report also showed that, “The actual number of sexual crimes reported in the fiscal year 2012 was 3,374, a 6 percent increase over the previous year.”

These facts undermine America’s top-notch military as well as its justice system.

U.S. senators are debating two different bills to solve this problem. A New York Times piece stated a plan by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., “would strip commanders of their ability to overturn jury verdicts and mandate dishonorable discharge or dismissal for anyone convicted of sexual assault. But it would keep control of court-martial proceedings within the chain of command.”

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., offers a different approach, as illustrated in her Military Justice Improvement Act. This act would hand cases of sexual assault in the military over to prosecutors instead of the commanders.

Gillibrand has stated that this is not just a women’s issue, for more than half of the victims of sexual assault in the military are men.

It’s also an issue that is underreported. According to Gillibrand, of the 3,374 victims who reported sexual assaults, 62 percent were retaliated against. And according to the U.S. Department of Defense, 50 percent of female victims didn’t come forward to report an assault because they believed that nothing would be done.

Other countries, including the U.K., Israel, Canada and Australia have adopted laws similar to Gillibrand’s bill.

This issue is unlike the majority of proposals that are introduced to Congress, for the debate is not based on party. The New York Times reported that, “Both women have built unusual bipartisan alliances: Ms. McCaskill with two Republican women and moderate Democrats, and Ms. Gillibrand with a coalition that includes conservatives like Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, as well as many liberal Democrats.”

Maine’s senators, Susan Collins and Angus King, are split on this key issue. Collins favors Gillibrand’s approach, while King sides with McCaskill. King has called McCaskill’s plan “a very comprehensive and far-reaching and strong proposal.” However, big victims groups such as, Protect Our Defenders and the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, have rallied behind Gillibrand’s bill.

King has also called McCaskill’s plan the “the last chance for the chain of command to get it right.” I would respectfully ask how that is possible when victims will not go to their commanders when assaults take place.

I urge King to reconsider his decision. Mainers sent him to Congress to give a voice to the injured. Victims of sexual assault in the military are given a voice when their cases go to objective prosecutors. They are given a voice when justice can be served and there is no retaliation.

Sarah Plummer, a victim of sexual assault while serving in the military, said, “Having someone within your direct chain of command just doesn’t make any sense. It’s like getting raped by your brother and having your dad decide the case.”

Contact King at his Maine offices at 800-432-1599 or call his Washington, D.C., office at 202-224-5344 to tell him that he must give victims of sexual assault in the military a voice.

Caroline Baldacci is an eighth grader and Student Council president at James F. Doughty School in Bangor.

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