Reformation of Military Sexual Assault Policies

The general feeling in Washington is that the military has been too lax and too lenient on its sexual assault policies. The Department of Defense’s annual report on sexual assault prevention and response, which shows an alarming increase in sexual assaults in the military, has gotten everyone’s attention. White House and lawmakers are now heavily involved in reform measures.

President Obama recently stepped to the podium fresh from a meeting with Pentagon leaders and service chiefs at the White House. He said military sexual assault constitutes a national security threat and detailed a three-point agenda intended to combat sexual assault in the military:

  • There must be accountability in the military chain of command
  • Victims must be empowered to come forward when assaulted
  • Perpetrators of sexual violence must be punished

Lawmakers are Taking Action

It’s not as if we woke up one morning to find this problem on our doorstep. Newsweek reported two years ago women in the military were more likely to be assaulted by a fellow soldier than killed in combat. And in the last decade there has been a disturbing chain of sexual assaults that have been casually dismissed, swept under the rug, or simply ignored. Happily, it appears those days are over.

House Republicans and Democrats are standing together to express congressional outrage over the way the military has handled sexual assault cases internally. A House panel recently approved a series of revisions to long-standing military law, including divesting commanding officers of their unilateral authority to change or dismiss a court-martial conviction, and requiring that service members found guilty of sexual offenses be dismissed or dishonorably discharged.

The new measures will be folded into the Armed Services Committee’s broader defense policy bill for the 2014 fiscal year, which the full House will consider in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, the Senate Armed Services Committee is taking up a series of sexual assault prevention measures next month. A final plan will become new policy after House and Senate work out any differences.

Congress has repeatedly challenged the military to take more aggressive steps to curb sexual assault. They have not done so. The DOD’s latest figures on the occurrence of sexual assaults have supplied lawmakers with the springboard they needed to pursue swift legislative action.

Rep. Michael Turner, R-Ohio, says he thinks military leadership is confused. Turner, along with Rep. Niki Tsongas, D-Mass., co-chairs the Military Sexual Assault Prevention Caucus. “[Military leadership] believe as long as they have programs where they say sexual assault is wrong that they’ve done enough. No. They have to support the victim, and they have to support vigorous prosecution.”

The most recent legislation will strip commanding officers of their longstanding authority to unilaterally change or dismiss court-martial convictions in rape and assault cases. Lawmakers believe the revision will lead to a cultural shift and encourage victims to step forward.

Congress’ move to eliminate a commander’s ability to reverse criminal convictions of service members is centered in a recent case that caused widespread outrage on Capitol Hill. Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, a former inspector general at Aviano Air Base in Italy, was found guilty by a military panel in November 2012 of charges of abusive sexual contact and aggravated sexual assault. Wilkerson was sentenced to a year in prison and dismissal from the service. Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, commander of the 3rd Air Force at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, reviewed the case and overturned the jury’s verdict of guilty.

Military Sex Abuse Has Long-term Impact for Vets

The VA Accounting office recently released new figures that demonstrate the overwhelming long-term consequences of military sexual assaults: More than 85,000 veterans were treated last year for injuries or illness linked to the abuse, and 4,000 sought disability benefits.

The VA report shows the heavy financial and emotional cost that affects several generations of veterans and lasts long after a victim leaves the service. Sexual assault or repeated sexual harassment can trigger a variety of health problems, most notably PTSD and depression. Women are more likely to be victims, but men were about a third of the cases the VA treated for conditions connected to what it calls “military sexual trauma.”

Vets Have Access to Free Health Care

VA officials stress that any veteran who claims to have suffered military sexual trauma has access to free health care.

“It really is the case that a veteran can simply walk through the door, say they’ve had this experience, and we will get them hooked up with care. There’s no documentation required. They don’t need to have reported it at the time,” said Dr. Margret Bell, a member of the VA’s military sexual trauma team.

Those seeking disability compensation have a steeper road to climb. “Right now, the burden of proof is stacked against sexual trauma survivors,” said Anu Bhagwati, executive director of the Service Women’s Action Network. “Ninety percent of 26,000 cases last year weren’t even reported. So where is that evidence supposed to come from?”

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