What it will take to end sexual assault in the military

The epidemic of military sexual assault requires continued pursuit of reform. With that in mind, we recently introduced the FAIR Military Act, which is aimed at eliminating bias in the military justice system and increasing accountability among all levels of the military.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel speaks to reporters about the Defense Department's sexual assault prevention and response program, May 1 at the Pentagon. Op-ed contributors Reps. Niki Tsongas (D) of Massachusetts and Mike Turner (R) of Ohio write: 'Now is the time for change, through legislation and through a much-needed cultural shift within the military.'

A pervasive cultural flaw is plaguing our armed forces.

The Department of Defense’s “Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military” for fiscal year 2013, released last month, revealed a rise in reported sexual assaults. Rather than signal what might have been the early success of recent legislative and military changes signed into law over the past few years, the increase in incidents means these heinous crimes continue to occur at an alarming rate, to both men and women.

As Congress, advocacy, and survivor groups dig further toward the roots of the issue, one thing has become clear: A widespread problem necessitates widespread accountability.

Accountability in the military must begin at the top and extend across the services, to every rank and position. With that goal in mind, we recently introduced the Furthering Accountability and Individual Rights within the Military Act of 2014 (FAIR Military Act), which was supported by the Service Women’s Action Network and has received bipartisan support from the House Armed Services Committee. The bill, which will be included in this year’s National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), is aimed at eliminating bias in the military justice system and increasing accountability among all levels of the military.

Among other things, the FAIR Military Act would limit the use of the “good soldier” defense, which allows a defendant to cite unrelated, subjective factors during trial, such as military record as a defense against sexual assault charges. It would also require commanders and service members to be assessed on their actions related to sexual assault prevention. And it confronts failures in the current system by improving specific elements in the areas of prevention, protection, and prosecution.  

To address the issue of lack of accountability, the bill requires that commanders be assessed in two new areas: first, on their ability to properly handle reports of sexual assault; and second, on their ability to create a climate where a victim can report a crime without fear of retaliation. Also, with the revelation of the prevalence of these crimes at all levels of the military, this bill takes the critical step of extending sexual assault prevention measures from past legislation to the military service academies.

The legislation will encourage more efficient implementation of recently enacted laws by requiring the Defense Department to better inform Congress of its sexual assault prevention policies. In addition, it directs an independent panel to evaluate the process in which a victim’s mental health is admitted as evidence to a trial, and what impact that could have on that victim’s future wellbeing.

It is the next step in an ongoing process to address military sexual assault, which has proven to be a multifaceted challenge that no one piece of legislation can solve. Recent years have seen multiple historic, important, and bipartisan bills authored by a variety of lawmakers – men and women, Republicans and Democrats, representatives and senators – to address military sexual assault. They provide numerous tools aimed at increasing reporting and prosecutions and better supporting survivors.

Some of the most substantial steps forward on this issue were signed into law as part of last year’s NDAA. The law made unprecedented changes to commander authority by removing the ability to overturn a jury verdict. It also mandated a dishonorable discharge for those convicted of sexual assault and ensured that every military victim of sexual assault be given an attorney.

An intense public spotlight is now being shone on the military’s ongoing sexual assault epidemic. This is thanks in large part to several factors: legislative action, combined with in-depth debate in the Senate over proposed alterations to the military’s legal system; an Oscar-nominated documentary, “The Invisible War”; courageous survivors publicly sharing their stories; and the efforts of numerous individuals and advocacy groups.

Accordingly, when alarming outcomes occur – such as the case of Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair, who pled guilty to an appalling pattern of misconduct but avoided jail time and reduction in rank – we, and many others, are taking our concerns straight to the Pentagon’s top leadership to ensure they know that such outcomes are unacceptable.

Persistent congressional oversight is necessary to hold the Defense Department accountable and ensure that the legislation from recent years is being implemented efficiently and enforced correctly.

Ultimately, it is incumbent upon the military and its leaders to demonstrate that when these crimes occur, justice is served. But the window of opportunity for them to do so is closing, fast.

President Obama has told the Department of Defense that they have one year to demonstrate improvement. A provision we sponsored in the FY2013 NDAA mandated that an Independent Review Panel of legal, legislative, and military experts convene to thoroughly examine the programs and procedures used by the military to investigate, prosecute, and adjudicate sexual assault crimes. This panel will be releasing a comprehensive report on military sexual assault in coming months. We in Congress will be analyzing these reports carefully, to learn from them, and also to ensure that every possible action is taken to eradicate this crime from the ranks.

Military sexual assault requires continued pursuit of meaningful reform. Now is the time for change, through legislation and through a much-needed cultural shift within the military that no longer accepts these crimes as normative, holds everyone accountable, and exacts standards of professionalism worthy of its servicewomen and servicemen.

Rep. Niki Tsongas (D) of Massachusetts and Rep. Mike Turner (R) of Ohio are co-chairs of the Military Sexual Assault Prevention Caucus. They are co-authors of several recent pieces of legislation signed into law that address sexual assault in the military.

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