AUGUSTA, Maine — Lawmakers showed strong support Monday for a resolve that directs the Maine National Guard to bring the state in line with federal guidelines related to the investigation, prosecution and adjudication of sexual assault in the military.
The Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee took the unusual step Monday of moving straight from an introductory public hearing to a recommendation vote on LD 1504, A Resolve Directing the Adjutant General of the State to Ensure the Maine Code of Military Justice Addresses Sexual Trauma in the Military. The committee voted unanimously in favor of its passage.
The resolve calls on Maine Adjutant General James Campbell to conduct a detailed assessment of the Maine Code of Military Justice and other provisions in Maine law, with the intention of bringing the issue back to the Legislature next year for possible action.
The resolve comes on the heels of a startling Pentagon study released last week that estimated at least 26,000 military personnel were assaulted in 2012, up sharply from 19,000 in 2010. That report and the recent arrest of an Air Force officer in charge of sexual prevention programs for sexual battery have put the issue in the spotlight.
Sen. Linda Valentino, D-Saco, the primary sponsor of the bill, said the Pentagon study stirred strong reactions among Maine National Guard members and advocates fighting against sexual assault.
“It’s just a very emotional day for a lot of us,” Valentino said. “I wish this bill would do more but it’s moving forward. Let’s come back next session and pass something.”
Destie Hohman Sprague, program director for the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault, agreed.
“This resolve is the first critical step at moving toward making some changes,” she said.
Sen. Colleen Lachowicz, D-Waterville, was one of 28 legislators who co-sponsored the bill, which gained bipartisan support. She said there is scant information about how many sexual assaults in the military are being reported in Maine, but hoped passage of the resolve would help make that information public.
“This is not out in the open; it’s one of the most hidden things that ever happens,” said Lachowicz, who is a social worker for victims of sexual assault. “There are a lot of people hurting and right now we don’t how they’re hurting. We can help them with their healing.”
William “Chick” Ciciotte of Topsham, retired from the military, implored lawmakers to do what common sense demands.
“I just don’t see any reason why anybody would disagree with this kind of legislation,” he said.
Advocates for the bill stressed that sexual assault happens to both men and women, which was backed by data from the Pentagon study, in which 6.1 percent of responding women and 1.2 percent of men said they had been victims of sexual assault in the military.
“Survivors should not fall through the cracks and offenders should not get off free,” said retired Air Force Lt. Col. Terry Moore, who is also the past chairwoman of the Maine Advisory Commission on Women Veterans.
“It goes without saying that sexual assault causes significant personal trauma to the victim,” said Eliza Townsend, executive director of the Maine Women’s Lobby. “Military sexual assault is the leading cause of post-traumatic stress disorder in female veterans. The Veterans Administration has linked it with higher rates of homelessness, depression and other mental health issues.”
Jill Barkley, public policy advocate for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, said the Maine National Guard has made significant progress in recent years on training and raising awareness about sexual harassment, assault and domestic violence, but that more aggressive policies must be put into place.
“Their efforts must be coupled with supportive policies that seek to hold abusers accountable and promote victim safety and resilience,” said Barkley. While the ACLU is supportive of the resolve, Barkley said the organization has reservations about two sections of the resolve that would bar people with past convictions for sexual offenses from joining the military and the use of state and national sex offender registries, which Barkley said the ACLU opposes in general.
No one spoke Monday in opposition to the bill, which now heads to the full Legislature for passage.