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Statements on Introduced Bills and Joint Resolutions

Floor Speech

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Location: Washington, DC

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Mr. KERRY. Mr. President, I am deeply troubled by the increasing number of sexual assaults in the U.S. military. Not only is sexual assault a crime that is incompatible with military service, but it also undermines core values, degrades military readiness, subverts good will and forever changes the lives of victims and their families.

We know from the Defense Department's 2009 Report on Sexual Assault in the Military that the number of reported sexual assaults in the military
increased substantially last year--a trend that has continued for the last couple of years.

Unfortunately, according to the Pentagon, we also know that while improvements have been made, the number of sexual assaults in the military actually reported is far below the estimated number of assaults that have actually occurred in the military. It is estimated that only 10 to 20 percent of sexual assaults in the military are actually reported.

Obviously, more needs to be done. That is why I have introduced the Defense, Sexual Trauma Response and Good Governance, STRONG Act of 2010. This legislation builds on many of the common sense solutions that were included in the December 2009 Report on Sexual Assault in the Military, a report from the Defense Task Force on Sexual Assault in the Military Services.

The Defense STRONG Act of 2010 would guarantee legal counsel from a Judge Advocate General to all sexual assault victims, whether or not they file restricted or unrestricted reports. Currently, anyone who files a restricted report cannot seek legal counsel. Seeking legal counsel triggers an investigation, which, in turn, makes that report unrestricted--that is, it is no longer confidential and the chain of command is notified.

A directive issued by the Department of Defense in 2005 omitted Judge Advocate Generals and civilian lawyers trained in military law from the list of individuals that a victim can seek guidance and assistance from. The only individuals on the list are Sexual Assault Response Coordinator's, SARCs, Victim Advocates, VAs, health care personnel, and chaplains--none of whom are likely to have legal training. But it is my belief that the victim of a sexual assault should have the right to legal counsel no matter what.

In its report, the Defense Task Force on Sexual Assault in the Military Services also found that victims are not offered appropriate privileged communications. The report noted that there are 35 states that currently have a privilege for communications between Victim Advocates and victims of sexual assault. However, because no privilege exists in military proceedings, defense counsel are able to identify Victim Advocates as a potential defense witness in a court-martial. There have been multiple occasions in which information was obtained from Victim Advocates in court-martial proceedings and used to try to undermine the credibility of a victim with cross examinations highlighting inconsistencies in prior statements.

There are certain roles that I believe are inherently governmental and certainly one is the role of Sexual Assault Response Coordinator, which should be filled by either a uniformed servicemember or a DoD civilian employee, not a contractor. The Defense Task Force on Sexual Assault in the Military Services agreed. So this legislation would require one Sexual Assault Response Coordinator per brigade, filled by either a full-time military servicemember or a DoD civilian employee.

Moreover, this legislation also would require that Victim Advocates be either a uniformed servicemember or a DoD civilian employee. At the battalion level, there are usually two part time Victim Advocates. The Defense STRONG Act would require that there be at least one-full time Victim Advocate at each battalion, or battalion equivalent.

Another issue that has long plagued the DoD's ability to adequately respond to and prevent sexual assaults in the military is the lack of standardization amongst the services. The Defense STRONG Act would require the DoD to standardize much of their certification programs in a manner modeled after the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute, training Sexual Assault Response Coordinators as well as Victim Advocates. Standardization and professionalization would drastically impact readiness.

This legislation would also require the Department of Defense to develop modules specific to each level of Professional Military Education. By doing so, we could ensure that military leadership is aware of all available resources. This provision would also encourage the Department of Defense to craft each level of Professional Military Education to the level of responsibility as military leadership get promoted.

Elevating the Director of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office to the Senior Executive Service level was another recommendation put forth by the Defense Task Force Report. A senior leader in this office is necessary in order to obtain resources and provide the attention this issue requires, much like the Defense Military Equal Opportunity Office and the Office of Military and Community Family Policy. Leadership at the senior level has already proven instrumental in helping advance the DoD's efforts in overcoming domestic violence and discrimination and could be just as helpful in combating sexual assaults.

While there is no magic formula for solving a problem that has long plagued the Department of Defense, I believe these provisions will strengthen the DoD's ability to respond to cases of sexual assault and prevent future cases from occurring.

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