Two U.S. senators, including Iowa's Joni Ernst, are leading the congressional effort to curb sexual assault in the military.
Both members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Ernst and Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., introduced the bipartisan Military Retaliation Prevention Act this week, aimed at protecting sexual assault victims from personal and professional retaliation after coming forward with abuse allegations.
After serving 23 years in the military, including a tour in Iraq, Ernst brings a "unique perspective" to the issue and has made it a cornerstone of her first term in the Senate.
"We must work to change the culture surrounding sexual assault in the military, and make clear that any retaliation against a sexual assault survivor is unacceptable," Ernst said in a statement Thursday. "Combating and preventing sexual assault in the military is a bipartisan issue, and we absolutely must provide the support and care these brave survivors deserve."
During a press conference on April 28, Ernst said there must be laws in place to prevent victims from unfair treatment or punishment after reporting an assault, but a culture shift also is necessary so victims feel comfortable coming forward.
"I think it starts as a cultural issue, but then at some point it does become a legal issue when you have specific instances of retaliation," the junior senator said. "So first, one way that we have to combat this is starting with, 'What is our military culture? What is acceptable and what is not acceptable? And in no way shape or form is sexual harassment or sexual assault OK in our armed services or in any situation."
The senators' bill targets retaliation practices in four areas, including:
Strengthening military response by making retaliation its own unique offense under the Uniform Code of Military Justice;
Increase transparency by requiring victims be notified of how their complaint was decided and requiring the Pentagon collect and publish data on retaliation complaints;
Require specific training for officials investigating complaints;
Ensure each branch of the military adopt a set of best practices for measuring outcomes of their efforts to prevent and respond to accusations of retaliation
Over the past several years, more than 30 reforms have been enacted to take sexual assault in the military more seriously. Every victim who reports a sexual assault now gets their own lawyer, dishonorable discharge is a required minimum sentence for anyone convicted of sexual assault and victims are allowed to challenge their discharge or separation from service.
"Sexual assault incidents are down and reporting is up," said McCaskill, elected to the Senate in 2006. "And importantly, the surveys show victims have a high degree of confidence in the command and the support that they're getting from the command."
But 2014 data from the Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military showed 62 percent of women who reported an incident of unwanted sexual contact also reported experiencing some form of retaliation, prompting Ernst and McCaskill to introduce legislation on the issue.
"Sexual predators thrive when victims are too scared to come forward -- and while we've taken big steps to get more survivors out of the shadows and empowered, a fear of retaliation in the military remains one of our most stubborn obstacles," the Missouri senator said. "This bipartisan bill represents our next step in our shared, sustained effort to stamp out these heinous crimes."
The Invisible War, an award-winning 2012 documentary about sexual assault in the military, set off a string of reforms in the four years since its release. Former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta wrote in his memoir the film was one of the main reasons he took action against sexual assault in the military. In January 2013, President Barack Obama included as part of the national defense budget funding to strengthen education and prevention initiatives.
Both senators said they were confident their bill would be signed into law this year.
"This is an important topic to so many of us," Ernst said. "What we would like to do is eliminate sexual assault, period, in our armed forces. But if we can't prevent it, we need to make sure the victims are protected."