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Sexual Assault in the Military: A Troubling Trend

Senator Susan Collins speaks at a Capitol Hill news conference on sexual assault in the military.  She is accompanied by (L-R) Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO), Rep. Mike Turner of Ohio and Rep. Niki Tsongas of Massachusetts.
Senator Susan Collins speaks at a Capitol Hill news conference on sexual assault in the military. She is accompanied by (L-R) Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO), Rep. Mike Turner of Ohio and Rep. Niki Tsongas of Massachusetts.
Posted May 29, 2013, at 10:22 a.m.

Nine years ago, I participated in a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the tragic issue of sexual assault in the military. At a time when American women were risking their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan, I asked the military leaders who testified two fundamental questions. What does it say about us as a people, as the nation, as the foremost military in the world when our women soldiers sometimes have more to fear from some of their fellow soldiers than from the enemy? Why is there less public outrage when service women suffer at the hands of some of their own fellow service men than from the enemy?

Those questions remain largely unanswered. While I believe today’s military leaders are committed to solving this terrible problem, it appears to continue unabated. Denial that this is a crisis remains widespread. A policy of zero tolerance for sexual assault and harassment has yet to become a culture of zero tolerance.

A recent report by the Department of Defense Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office bears this out. According to the Pentagon’s statistics for 2012, more than 26,000 incidents of sexual assault or unwanted sexual contact occurred last year, an increase of 37 percent over 2011. There were, however, only 3,374 reports of these assaults. The likely reason? Sixty-two percent of military personnel – men as well as women – who reported sexual abuse experienced some form of retaliation.

Beyond the statistics are the real stories of patriotic Americans betrayed. In just the past few weeks, three military officers assigned to programs to prevent sexual abuse were removed from their posts after allegations of sexual misconduct against the very personnel they were supposed to be protecting. The only woman in a bomb-disposal unit in Afghanistan stepped forward to describe how persistent harassment by her fellow troops culminated in rape and contempt from her unit commander. A sergeant at the U.S. Military Academy was charged with indecent acts, including videotaping female cadets while they showered.

To be sure, the vast, overwhelming majority of our military personnel are honorable, conscientious, and respectful individuals, not rapists or harassers. It is for their sake that the pattern of covering up, blaming the victim, and failing to provide even the most basic protections that has been all too common for far too long must end.

Addressing this crisis requires legislation. In 2011, as a member of the Armed Services Committee, I joined then-Senator John Kerry in co-authoring the STRONG Act, which provided survivors of sexual assault the assistance of advocates with genuine confidentiality, guaranteed access to a lawyer, and expedited consideration to be transferred far away from the location of their assailant. I was honored to have received an award from the Service Women’s Action Network for my work to reduce the incidence of sexual assault in the military and to strengthen victim protections.

But our work continues. Today, I am leading a bipartisan effort to address a critical issue revealed by the Pentagon’s 2012 report: less than half of the women who reported sexual assaults were satisfied with their commanders’ handling of their cases, and one out of three were dissatisfied. Moreover, 27 percent of the women who had been sexually harassed said that the offenders were in their military chain of command.

Along with Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), I have introduced legislation that would reform the military justice system by removing the prosecution of all crimes, punishable by one year or more in confinement, from the chain of command, except crimes that are uniquely military in nature, such as disobeying orders or going AWOL. Many of our allied modern militaries already have reporting outside of the chain of command, such as Britain, Canada, Israel, Germany, Norway and Australia.

A key to fixing this issue is successful prosecution because only seven percent of military sexual assaults resulted in convictions in court-martials in 2012. Under the current legal system, the chain of command has legal authority in these cases, even though some service members do not believe the chain of command is on their side. After all, why would victims come forward if they feel their “reward” will be retaliation? Our bill, The Military Justice Improvement Act, would make sure that these cases are handled by a prosecutor whose only loyalty is to the law rather than a commander whose loyalties may be divided and result in disservice to the victim and the law.

I have also introduced legislation, along with Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO), that would, among other provisions, require that a person found guilty of an offense of rape or sexual assault be dishonorably discharged from the military in addition to any other legal penalty. And, it would remove the convening authority’s ability to change or dismiss an adjudged court-martial conviction for any charge or specification except for a charge or specification for a minor offense. Individuals who commit acts of rape or sexual assault have no place in the United States Armed Forces, an institution that depends upon the high standards, ethics, and character of its service members.

As we combat sexual assault, we seek to strengthen, not tear down, the institutions that protect our nation. The Commandant of the Marine Corps addressed this subject directly in a letter sent to every Marine. He wrote: “The Marine Corps has not spent the last ten years defending our nation’s high principles abroad only to permit this type of behavior within our own ranks.”

I could not agree more, and I will continue to work with my colleagues and our military leadership to end this scourge. We must work together to guarantee support for victims of sexual assault, and appropriately punish those responsible for committing these crimes.

Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine) is a senior member of the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee.

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