As Sexual Assault Awareness Month comes to a close, I joined the Secretary of Defense as he announced major reforms as to how the Department handles sexual assault in the military. Secretary Leon Panetta announced that the Department of Defense (DoD) would finally bring the much needed policy changes for our military service members .The announcement was made following a meeting with the Congressional Military Sexual Assault Caucus, which I co-founded with the bipartisan support of Congresswoman Niki Tsongas (MA).
In the most tragic of circumstances, the issue of military sexual assault was brought to my attention with the story of U.S. Marine Corps Lance Corporal Maria Lauterbach. Maria, who grew up in Vandalia, Ohio, she was proudly serving her country when she was allegedly sexually assaulted by a senior enlisted member in her unit. After reporting her assault, Maria was forced to continue serving alongside her assailant. For eight months, Maria lived with the aftermath of her attack, and then her accused attacker struck again killing her and her unborn child. The tragic story of Maria Lauterbach demonstrated significant problems with the Department of Defense's Sexual Assault policy. Thanks to the help from Maria's family, her story has not been forgotten and has helped shape the laws created in the House Armed Services Committee and policies within the DoD.
Here are some of the new initiatives to combat sexual assaults in the military, that were announced by the Secretary, and that I will be working to codify into law:
- Elevating disposition authority for the most serious sexual assault offenses so that, at a minimum, these cases are addressed by a "Special Court Martial Convening Authority" who is an officer at the Colonel (or Navy Captain) level.
o This will ensure that cases of sexual assault receive a high level of command attention, and that the prosecuting bodies have the resources necessary to handle these cases.
o This will also ensure that these cases remain within the chain of command, so that our leaders retain responsibility and accountability for the problem of sexual assault.
- Establishing "Special Victim's Unit" capabilities within each of the Services, to ensure that specially trained investigators, prosecutors and victim-witness assistance personnel are available to assist with sexual assault cases.
o This will provide specially-trained experts in evidence collection, interviewing, and interacting with survivors of sexual assault.
- Requiring that sexual assault policies be explained to all service members within 14 days of their entrance into active duty.
o This will educate our newest members right away, so that they enter the military knowing that the culture will not tolerate sexual assault, and understand what to do in the event an offense occurs.
- Allowing Reserve and National Guard personnel who have been sexually assaulted while on active duty to remain in their active duty status in order to obtain the treatment and support afforded to active duty members.
- Requiring a record of the outcome of disciplinary and administrative proceedings related to sexual assault, and requiring that copies of those records be centrally retained.
o This will allow the Department to better track progress in combating sexual assault in the military, and will help better identify potential patterns of misconduct and systemic issues.
- Requiring commanders to conduct annual organizational climate assessments.
o This will allow commanders to measure whether they are meeting the Department's goal of a culture of professionalism and respect and zero-tolerance of sexual assault.
- Mandating wider public dissemination of available sexual assault resources, like the DoD "Safe Helpline". The helpline is available 24 hours a day via web, phone, or text message and is operated by the non-profit Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network through a contractual agreement with the Department.
- Enhancing training programs for sexual assault prevention, including training for new military commanders in handling sexual assault matters.
These new initiatives will build on the victim-focused policies that were implemented within the past year. I am proud of the work by the Military Sexual Assault Prevention Caucus and believe these new initiatives will help prevent another tragic case like Lance Corporal Maria Lauterbach's.