Different Chambers and Parties, One Goal: Reduce Military Sexual Assaults

U.S. Senator Martha McSally, from Arizona, delivers the keynote address for day one of the National Discussion on Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment at America’s Colleges, Universities and Service Academies, April 4, 2019. (U.S. Navy photo/Sarah Villegas)
U.S. Senator Martha McSally, from Arizona, delivers the keynote address for day one of the National Discussion on Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment at America’s Colleges, Universities and Service Academies, April 4, 2019. (U.S. Navy photo/Sarah Villegas)

Details emerged this week on Congress' plans to reduce sexual assaults in the military, with the proposed House and Senate defense policy bills containing no fewer than 20 sections to protect victims, encourage reporting and prosecute crimes.

During a House Armed Services Committee bill markup and rollout Wednesday of the Senate Armed Service Committee's bill language, members of Congress made clear they are sick of Pentagon reports that show military sexual assaults on the rise.

The Defense Department released a report in March estimating that 20,500 active-duty service members were assaulted in fiscal 2018, up from 14,900 in 2016, based on an anonymous survey conducted every two years.

The report also noted that 7,623 sexual assaults were reported in 2018, a 17% increase from the previous year.

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Rep. Jackie Speier, a California Democrat and chairwoman of the House Armed Services personnel panel, is behind several measures designed to support victims, including a "safe to report" policy to encourage victims across the services to report a crime, even if they were engaged in "collateral misconduct" such as underage drinking, fraternization or trespassing at the time of an assault.

Speier also introduced amendments that would allow service academy midshipmen and cadets to request expedited transfers to another academy if they are sexual assaulted, and implement a pilot program at the academies that would require an independent flag or general officer trained in prosecutions to review sexual-assault cases and determine whether they should be referred to court-martial.

The proposed four-year pilot program would reduce senior academy leadership's decision authority over prosecuting sexual-assault cases -- a change that victim advocates, with the support of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, have sought for years to institute across the armed forces.

"I have spoken to countless survivors who saw their dreams, and bright futures, extinguished after reporting assaults and harassment," Speier said during a marathon markup of the House defense bill. "These amazing candidates, many of them who lead their academy classes in grades and citizenship, deserve a fair and just independent review process."

The Senate's bill also includes a "safe to report policy," an indication that the provision likely will become law.

The Senate also would grant a request by Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan to make sexual harassment a separate punitive article under the Uniform Code of Military Justice and would require additional training for commanders rank O-6 and above on reviewing reports and prosecuting sexual assault, harassment and domestic violence cases.

Sen. Martha McSally, R-Arizona, said Thursday she proposed 17 of the provisions that made it into the bill.

McSally, an Air Force veteran and the first female fighter pilot to fly in combat, revealed at a hearing in March that she had been raped by a senior officer early in her career.

She never reported the event but, as she rose in rank, told other military officers but wasn't taken seriously, she said.

Just two days before the March hearing, McSally decided to publicly disclose the assault, saying Thursday during an event hosted by The Washington Post and Wounded Warrior Project that she needed to "step up to lead on the issue."

"I'll be frank. When I got appointed to the Senate and sat down with my team, and we sort of strategically planned what are our focus area's going to be and what are we going to lead on, this wasn't a topic I had planned to lead on," McSally said.

However, she added, she "felt strongly that, having been a commander and a survivor .. that commanders need to be ultimately accountable."

Gillibrand continues to work to remove commanders from the decision process to prosecute sexual assault and give it to military prosecutors. She reintroduced her bill, the Military Justice Improvement Act, on Thursday, saying it is necessary because "military leaders have spent decades promising 'zero tolerance' on sexual assault, but it's painfully clear that they've failed at that mission."

"The Department of Defense has tried incremental reforms, but they clearly haven't worked," Gillibrand said in a statement. "Sexual assault is still pervasive. In fact, the latest DoD numbers show that sexual assaults in the military have dramatically increased while the number of cases going to trial has gone down. None of this is acceptable."

McSally said she respects Gillibrand's "passion on the issue," but "[I] just think she's wrong on it."

"I mean, having served myself, having been a commander, it's like nothing else in civilian society, where we are responsible for putting people's lives on the line and telling them to take lives," she said.

The House and Senate both offered additional measures to address sexual assault, including provisions to expand the Pentagon's special victims counsel program to cover eligible victims of domestic violence. The House bill also would require the DoD to ensure that sexual-assault investigations are completed within six months.

Once both bills are approved by their respective legislative chambers, they must be reconciled in committee before a final draft is approved.

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at patricia.kime@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @patriciakime.

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