Senator John Kerry today introduced the Senate version of the Defense Sexual Trauma Response, Oversight and Good Governance Act (The Defense STRONG Act). The bipartisan legislation aims to expand legal rights for servicemembers who have been victims of sexual assault and improve training in the military related to the prevention of and response to this crime. Among its main provisions, the legislation would enable victims to access legal counsel, maintain confidentiality when speaking with Victim Advocates, and provide greater training for sexual assault prevention at every level of the armed services.
Congresswoman Niki Tsongas (D-MA) and Congressman Michael Turner (R-OH) introduced the House version of the bill last Thursday.
The Defense STRONG Act is being introduced as reported incidents of sexual assault in military have increased in recent years. These escalating numbers are estimated by the Department of Defense to only reflect one tenth of the actual number of such offenses, and surveys of women veterans indicate that as many as 1 in 3 women leaving military service have been sexually assaulted. Additionally, while 40% of sexual assault allegations in the civilian world are prosecuted, only 8% are prosecuted in the military.
"More than 210,000 women have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, and they do their duty with pride and enormous skill. But tragically we've also seen instances of sexual assault grow and many estimate that the number of sexual assaults are severely underreported because victims fear for their safety, their careers, and their reputations. Because we support the women of our military, Congresswoman Tsongas and I have introduced legislation to broaden oversight, make additional resources available to victims, and provide increased sexual assault awareness for both the victims and the military as a whole," said Senator John Kerry.
"We ask women who serve in the military to put their lives on the line for our country and they shouldn't fear or experience harm from their fellow soldiers," said Congresswoman Niki Tsongas. "These sad statistics are unfortunately reinforced by many conversations I have had with servicemembers who report that sexual assault is a crime that often goes unseen, and the voices of its victims go unheard. The Defense STRONG Act makes many sensible improvements to current DOD efforts to provide support for victims of sexual assault and takes steps aimed at reducing incidents of sexual assault all together. I will be working with Senator Kerry, Congressman Turner and my fellow colleagues on the Armed Services Committee to ensure that this important measure becomes law."
According to a recent Department of Defense Task Force Report, victims of sexual assault in the military express serious concern about their inability to access a military lawyer, and a lack of protection and support that exists once an assault is reported. The report also finds that Victim Advocates, who are assigned to provide support for victims, receive very little training and have little experience in dealing with these offenses.
The Defense STRONG Act strengthens the systems in place to prevent sexual assaults and provide support and guidance for victims that do report an incident. The bill enables victims to access a military lawyer so that they understand their legal options. Conversations with Victim Advocates would also be made confidential and immune from discovery if the case goes to court, as they typically are in the civilian world.
The Defense STRONG Act also standardizes the training of service members, commanding officers, Victim Advocates, and Sexual Assault Response Coordinators around prevention and response. It requires that all service members are trained as they move up in the military structure, and prohibits DOD contractors from fulfilling the Victim Advocate and Sexual Assault Response Coordinator roles.
"In the armed forces today, there is no guarantee that sexual assault survivors will get access to legal support or health care, a reliable and loyal Victims Advocate, the certainty of anonymity and confidentiality during the reporting process, or the support of their own chain of command", said Anuradha K. Bhagwati, MPP, Executive Director of the Service Women's Action Network (SWAN). "The Defense STRONG Act will assist countless servicemembers who experience the horror of sexual assault in uniform by guaranteeing access to legal counsel and standardizing training and professionalizing the billets designed to support survivors."