Military Sexual Trauma Survivors Call on Presidential Candidates to Sign Reform Pledge

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The Sexual Assault Theater Group displays negative emotions written on a simulated sexual assault victim while rehearsing the play "Everybody Knows" at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia, on April 9, 2019. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Anthony Nin Leclerec)
The Sexual Assault Theater Group displays negative emotions written on a simulated sexual assault victim while rehearsing the play "Everybody Knows" at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia, on April 9, 2019. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Anthony Nin Leclerec)

A national group of military sexual assault survivors is enlisting the public's help to convince presidential candidates to commit to military justice reform in cases of sexual assault and rape.

Eleven of the 15 candidates running for president have signed onto Protect Our Defenders' pledge to eliminate chain-of-command prosecutorial authority in "non-military crimes like rape and murder."

President Donald Trump, Joe Biden, Joe Walsh and Mike Bloomberg have not signed on.

"We cannot rely on the military to institute its own reform," said Paula Coughlin, the whistleblower for 87 women who were sexually assaulted at the Navy’s Tailhook Association symposium in 1991. "I certainly could not rely on the military in the wake of my assault. The time has come to demand real, lasting change. I am heartened that the majority of presidential candidates have signed the pledge."

Notably, the effort to change military prosecutorial authority has some stalwart opponents. Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., a retired Air Force colonel who revealed her own account of military sexual assault last year, has defended the status quo, saying it’s important that military commanders remain involved in the process of bringing offenders to justice.

RelatedSexual Assault Reports Increased Last Year Across Military Academies, DoD Says

The Defense Department reported to Congress in 2018 that active-duty reports of sexual assault and rape had increased about 38% overall since 2016; the number was 50% for servicewomen.

Military women reporting sexual assault are 12 times more likely to experience retaliation than their attacker is of being convicted of a sex offense, according to a 2015 report from the group.

"The epidemic of sexual assault is just as bad -- if not worse -- than when I first entered the military," Harmony Allen, who was raped 20 years ago in the Air Force, said in a news release. "The next president of the United States must protect the women and men who serve our country by committing to fundamental military justice reform."

Part of the pledge states, "As a core part of this commitment, I will make fundamental reform of the military justice system a priority, empowering independent military prosecutors rather than commanders with the authority to make prosecutorial decisions for serious criminal conduct including rape, murder, sexual assault, and domestic abuse while leaving unique military crimes in the hands of commanders."

The group is encouraging the public to tweet and email their support for the pledge to the remaining candidates through its website.

"Protect Our Defenders and countless brave survivors have been fighting toward that end for years, but we need our lawmakers, and particularly the next commander-in-chief, to take action," retired Col. Don Christensen, president of the group, said in a statement. "Until we institute true reform and put serious crimes in the hands of trained professionals, the epidemic of sexual assault will persist."

The pledge reads: "As president and commander-in-chief, I pledge to create in our armed forces a safe and healthy environment where perpetrators are held accountable for their criminal actions."

-- Dorothy Mills-Gregg can be reached at dorothy.mills-gregg@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @DMillsGregg.

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