Yesterday, the House Armed Services Committee approved the bipartisan Fiscal Year 2011 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) which authorizes funding and sets policy for the Department of Defense. The bill contains several provisions authored by Fifth District Congresswoman Niki Tsongas including legislation to accelerate the development of lightweight body armor and new measures to better prevent and respond to incidents of sexual assault in the military. The NDAA was approved in committee by a unanimous vote. Tsongas, a member of the committee, released the following statement.
"The approval of the Fiscal Year 2011 National Defense Authorization Act provides our men and women with the tools they need to protect our country and effectively find and hold accountable those who wish us harm. This bipartisan measure supports the ongoing efforts of our armed forces to seek out and destroy terrorist networks, keep up the fight against extremists, and sustain nuclear weapons non-proliferation efforts. These efforts have helped keep America safe and secure over the last two years, and this bill will continue to build on this record. Equally as important, the NDAA includes important protections for our servicemembers who we ask to carry out these difficult missions and sacrifice on our behalf.
"To that end, the NDAA includes language I authored to accelerate the development of lightweight body armor. Currently soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are outfitted with body armor that weighs up to 40 pounds. Combined with helmets, rifles, ammunition, backpacks, and other equipment, the load that they are carrying on a day-to-day basis exceeds 120 pounds. In 2009 alone, the Army reported 267,000 acute orthopedic injuries. Even more alarming, we've even heard testimony from servicemembers who remove their body armor in combat because it is too heavy.
"The language that I was able to include in the NDAA will accelerate the Department of Defense's efforts to reduce the weight of body armor and related protective equipment while maintaining an adequate level of protection for our soldiers by directing a federally funded research and development center to examine how the Department can improve the research, development, and procurement requirements of lightweight body armor.
"Beginning in 2004, questions from soldiers in the field, the American public and Massachusetts residents like Brian and Alma Hart drove Congress to pass legislation so that the DOD would bring improved armor plated HUMVEE's and MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Prevention) vehicles to the field once the issue of roadside bombs became apparent in Iraq. My effort around improving an individual servicemember's protective gear is motivated by this same urgency, and the language approved by the Armed Services Committee last night encourages the Department of Defense to put a similar, dedicated focus on this issue.
"The NDAA also includes a bill I introduced 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. Cosponsored by many others in the House, both Democrats and Republicans, our language strengthens the systems in place to prevent sexual assaults in the Armed Forces and provide support and guidance for victims that both report incidents as well as seek treatment. The bill enables victims to access a military lawyer so that they understand their legal options. I was pleased that as the result of an amendment offered by Congresswoman Susan Davis, conversations with Victim Advocates would also be made confidential and unusable if the case goes to court, as they typically are for psychiatrists and social workers in the civilian world. This key provision was also contained in the sexual assault legislation I authored earlier this year.
"Additionally, our language standardizes the training of servicemembers, commanding officers, Victim Advocates, and Sexual Assault Response Coordinators around prevention and response of sexual assault. It requires that all service members are trained on how to prevent and respond to this crime as they move up in the military structure, and prohibits DOD contractors from fulfilling the Victim Advocate and Sexual Assault Response Coordinator roles.
"In addition to these important legislative provisions, this bill will continue to support companies located in the Fifth District that employ thousands of workers and provide the Department of Defense with the most up-to-date products and technology. The NDAA establishes a new initiative, called the Rapid Innovation Program, which will allow our companies to further strengthen their relationship with the DOD. The program creates a new way for companies to market their products and innovative capabilities to the DOD. Funding would then be awarded based on the merits of the company's products and the needs of the specific service branch.
"Also of importance to the Fifth District is language I was successful in including in the NDAA which directs the Secretary of Defense to ensure our forces are able to continue to rely on the Patriot missile, a system manufactured here in the Fifth District and which has unparalleled success in protecting our troops. The Nanomanufacturing center at UMass Lowell also receives a significant investment of $4 million as part of the NDAA to continue their important research into innovative technologies that will lighten the load carried by our soldiers, improve the durability and quality of equipment, and protect servicemembers from chemical and biological agents.
"The unanimous bipartisan support that this bill received is a testament to our continued commitment to provide the technology, equipment and manpower required to defeat terrorist threats and to protect our country at all times. It also appropriately recognizes the sacrifices of our servicemen and women and their families with a 1.9 percent pay raise. I would like to thank the members of the Committee including Chairman Ike Skelton, Ranking Member Buck McKeon, Congressman Adam Smith, Congresswoman Susan Davis, and Congressman Michael Turner for their support of the specific language and programs I worked to include in the NDAA and I look forward to our continued work together as this bill moves to the floor for a vote by the full House which is expected next week."