Published Monday, December 2, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 2:08 pm
Midlands Voices: Reforms critical to address sexual assault in military

The writer, of Omaha, is executive director of the Women's Center for Advancement.

The number of sexual assaults reported in the military has reached the highest level ever, according to a recently released Pentagon report. The 3,553 assaults reported between October 2012 and June 2013 represent an increase of 46 percent over the previous year. According to military officials, this increase shows that victims feel more confident in coming forward.

Maybe so.

But another figure suggests we are very far from solving a problem that borders on an epidemic. According to a confidential survey of military personnel released this year by the Pentagon, 26,000 soldiers reported they were the victim of some level of sexual assault during the previous year.

The difference between the number of assaults reported and the number of assaults likely occurring may reveal a culture that has silently accepted sexual assault as simply a part of life — a culture in which Americans who are ready to put their lives on the line for their country find a more immediate risk within their own ranks.

To their credit, military leaders have acknowledged that military sexual assault has to be confronted and addressed. The issue has received bipartisan attention in Washington, and we may soon see the most sweeping legislation in history directed at sexual assault in the military. However, Congress left for Thanksgiving recess without action.

At the Women's Center for Advancement (formerly the YWCA), we see firsthand the devastating impact of sexual assault in the military. Our Women Veterans Support Program assists veterans in our community who have experienced sexual assault. Sometimes, we see women who have been victimized twice: first by the perpetrator, and secondly by a chain of command that may have responded with inaction, indifference or retaliation.

Two senators have offered proposed amendments to the defense authorization bill that would address sexual assault in the military. A bill drafted by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., would allow commanders to keep their jurisdiction over sexual assault cases but an outside civilian panel could review cases that the commanders don't prosecute.

The Military Justice Improvement Act (MJIA), sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., would remove sexual assault reporting and prosecution from the chain of command and transfer it to a military prosecutor who is independent of the command.

While we commend both senators for their commitment to addressing this issue, the WCA strongly supports Sen. Gillibrand's proposal. Our experience with veterans who were sexually assaulted shows that it is essential that reporting and prosecuting sexual assault in the military be removed from the chain of command under which the assault occurred in the first place.

The support of seven more senators is needed to ensure that this critical reform passes. Nebraska Sen. Mike Johanns supports the Gillibrand amendment, saying, “Our military men and women put their lives on the line to keep us safe, yet that same promise can't be made to our soldiers when it comes to sexual assaults. This legislation helps ensure that these appalling crimes are fully prosecuted, in a timely manner, by military courts.”

Sens. Charles Grassley and Tom Harkin of Iowa also support the Gillibrand amendment. Sen. Deb Fischer is the lone senator from Nebraska or Iowa not to endorse the bill.

WCA clients who have suffered from sexual assault in the military have lasting issues — sometimes a lifelong struggle to overcome the trauma of the event and the additional trauma of dealing with the assault in silence.

We can be silent no more. We need to encourage an environment in which sexual assault victims — male and female — feel safe to come forward, an environment in which an independent military process investigates and prosecutes those crimes.

We urge the Senate to take action. And we urge Sen. Fischer to be among the seven voices needed to make sure the Gillibrand amendment passes so that we can effectively begin to unravel a culture that has allowed sexual assault to become part of its fabric.

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