One of the most critical challenges facing the U.S. military has been a problem for a long time: sexual assaults. At his first Pentagon news conference in 1997, then-Defense Secretary William Cohen, a former U.S. Republican senator from Maine, said, “I intend to enforce a strict policy of zero tolerance of hazing, of sexual harassment and of racism.”
In 2004, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, sitting on the Armed Services Committee, responded with great concern when she learned of 112 reports of servicewomen, working in the Persian Gulf area, being sexually assaulted or raped by fellow troops, plus about two dozen more reports of sexual abuse filed at a rape-crisis center near an Air Force base in Texas.
The rape and sexual assault of men and women in the military is not specifically a Maine issue, nor will it, in any way, be addressed by Maine leaders alone. But Maine does have a role to play, and congressional leaders should listen up. Pay attention to a bill proposed by Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, and Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont. — to be co-sponsored by Rep. Mike Michaud, D-2nd District — that will be introduced on Wednesday.
Called the Ruth Moore Act of 2013 — to honor Ruth Moore, of the Washington County town of Milbridge, who was raped by her supervisor in the Navy — it would reduce the standard of proof that the Veterans Administration currently requires to determine disability compensation for veterans with mental health conditions related to military sexual trauma. When Moore was 18 and serving her country, she was attacked twice by her immediate supervisor and was further victimized as she worked for years to get the benefits she was due.
The bill isn’t about giving people disability benefits simply because they say they were assaulted. They must have a mental health condition — such as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety or depression — that is diagnosed by a mental health professional as being related to military sexual trauma and consistent with the circumstances of service.
A person’s mental health condition and its military connection could still be refuted by “clear and convincing evidence to the contrary,” according to the bill’s draft language, but the person would not have to meet the unreasonable burden of proving that the sexual attack occurred — such as by having the perpetrator convicted at a military trial.
At the very least, congressional leaders should ensure that the bill is thoroughly studied and gets a hearing in the Armed Services committee. We expect independent Angus King, who represents Maine on the committee in the Senate, will apply the same concern Collins did for military sexual assault survivors when she served on the committee.
People who have been sexually assaulted may reasonably fear facing a wall of disbelief. Needing an official record of the sex assault in order to get benefits only makes that wall higher, and it runs counter to what experts know about sexual assault: that it is one of the most difficult crimes to prove in court, and reporting rates are extremely low. The Department of Defense itself estimates that just 2,617 of the 19,000 service members estimated to have experienced sexual assault in fiscal year 2010 reported the attack to a defense official.
The crime is a difficult one for anyone to address but especially so for military members, who are often confined with their attackers and who face lower-level commanders who may not have the impartiality or experience to handle sexual assault cases effectively. According to the Pentagon, 68 percent of substantiated, “actionable” reports were not prosecuted due to lower-level command discretion in 2011. And even if service members are convicted of sexual assault, they are not automatically discharged from the military, which retains about one out of every three convicted sex offenders, putting troops at risk of more assaults.
At the same time that the military has made it unfairly difficult for troops to get the disability compensation they are due, it has also made it hard for those who are attacked to gather evidence of the abuse. It wasn’t until last April that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced procedural changes: to expand survivors’ access to legal assistance, speed up transfers of survivors of sexual assault and expand efforts to provide forensic examinations.
Just as the Veterans Administration has relaxed the burden of proof for combat veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder — improving the processing of PTSD claims — a similar change can be made for survivors of sexual assault. Psychiatrists or psychologists can confirm that the assault experience recalled by a veteran supports the diagnosis and that the symptoms are related to the stressor. They can check performance evaluations that may indicate unusual behavior changes or review unexpected requests for transfer. They can talk to the patient’s friends, family or clergy to better understand what happened.
In the defense department’s most recent annual report on sexual assaults in the military, it said they are “an affront to the basic American values we defend and may degrade military readiness, subvert strategic goodwill and forever change the lives of victims and their families.” Now if only compensation for the harm experienced by troops — often from their own commanders — could be accorded as it is just and due.