The Senate Armed Services Committee has approved a bipartisan amendment, based on legislation authored by Senators John Kerry (D-MA) and Susan Collins (R-ME), that would strengthen protections for service members who are victims of sexual assault. The amendment to the Fiscal Year 2012 Defense Authorization bill is similar to the Defense Sexual Trauma Response, Oversight and Good Governance Act (The Defense STRONG Act), which Senators Kerry and Collins introduced last month that would strengthen legal protections for sexual assault victims and improve the systems to prevent and respond to sexual assault in the military. The amendment is cosponsored by Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Claire McCaskill (D-MO), Mark Begich (D-AK), Kay Hagan (D-NC), Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Scott Brown (R-MA) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT).
"Sexual assault has no place in our military, where brave men and women stand up to defend us every day," said Senator Kerry. "Our armed forces rightly pride themselves on honor, which makes these crimes doubly tragic because sexual assault is beyond dishonorable. When I was a prosecutor I saw the terrible effects of sexual violence firsthand, and I'm proud to see this amendment passed as an important step forward to end sexual assault in the military once and for all."
"This amendment would help ensure that many of the recommendations made by the Defense Task Force on Sexual Assault in the Military are enacted to truly build a culture of zero-tolerance towards sexual assault. If we provide the legal protections for victims and their advocates, and if we guarantee support for the victims of sexual assault, we can take the fragile and reversible gains in the fight against military sexual trauma and turn them into sustainable and irreversible progress," said Senator Collins.
"Our brave service members answer a call higher than any other to defend our nation," Senator Gillibrand said. "Not only does sexual assault do unconscionable harm to the victim, it also destabilizes our military and threatens our national security. There is no place for sexual assault in our armed forces, and we must do everything possible to protect our service members' rights."
"All too often in the military, victims of sexual assault are unwilling to report the crime because they worry nothing will be done, fear punishment for coming forward or worry that doing so could impact their career. That is not acceptable, and it has to change. We've made some progress on this issue, but we can't back down now. This bill is a good step forward and will help provide victims with support and assistance they need to feel comfortable coming forward as well as provide them confidential legal advice," said Senator McCaskill.
"We can and we must do more to end unreported or improperly addressed incidents of sexual assault," said Senator Begich. "Our service men and women should never feel the threat of sexual assault. There's no place in our military for any form of abuse that prevents our brave men and women from defending our country. I was proud to support this amendment and urge its passage on the Senate floor."
"Our men and women in uniform put their lives on the line for our freedom, and this amendment will protect our service members from sexual assault. I am working with my colleagues on both sides of aisle to ensure this important amendment becomes law," said Senator Hagan.
"I am pleased that this bipartisan effort to protect our service members from sexual assault and sexual harassment was included in the National Defense Authorization Act," said Senator Brown. "This legislation will help victims get the tools and support they need, and is an important step toward eliminating sexual assault in the military."
"Deterring and punishing sexual assault is essential to military readiness as well as simple justice," said Senator Blumenthal. "Predatory acts against those serving and sacrificing for our freedoms are unconscionable and intolerable, and strong action by the military is clearly necessary."
While 1 in 6 women will experience sexual assault in her lifetime, as many as 1 in 3 women leaving military service report that they have experienced some form of sexual trauma while serving in the military. The military has made strides in addressing this problem, but victims of sexual assault in the services still report problems including a lack of confidentiality, protection, support, and access to legal counsel once an incident is reported because it lacks a concrete system for dealing with sexual assaults.
This amendment strengthens support and assistance for sexual assault prevention by:
* Increasing the rank of the Director of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response office to a flag officer or SES position.
* Requiring the Secretary of each military department to determine the appropriate number of Sexual Assault Response Coordinators (SARCs) and Victim Advocates to assign to each military unit; and
* Requiring the President to update the Manual for Courts-Martial within 60 days to protect privileged communication between the victim and SARC/VA.
* Ensuring Victim Advocates and SARCs are certified and full-time service members or DoD civilians; and
* Providing victims of sexual assault with expedited consideration for a base transfer, should they request it.
The amendment also strengthens legal protections for victims of sexual assault in the military by:
* Ensuring that victims have access to a legal assistance and maintaining their option of confidential reporting, even if they seek legal counsel.
* Ensuring that conversations between victims and Victim Advocates are confidential and immune from discovery by military lawyers should a case go to court.
The Defense Authorization bill also includes a provision to help ensure sexual assault victims have the necessary evidence to take their case to court or seek appropriate benefits/compensation they are due from the Department of Veterans' Affairs.