This morning in Washington, Congresswoman Chellie Pingree talked to hundreds of veteransfrom around the country who had been victim of sexual assault in the military. Pingree congratulated the veterans, who had gathered at a conference put on by the Service Women's Action Network, for speaking out.
"I know this is a deeply emotional issue for you, and you should be congratulated for having the courage to come here today and tell your stories. By going to Capitol Hill and talking to Members of Congress directly about your story, you will help bring about real change," Pingree said.
The meeting, called "Truth and Justice: The 2012 Summit on Military Sexual Violence," included victims of sexual assault from Maine who had traveled to Washington to participate and tell their story.
Jennifer Norris from Rumford is a 15-year veteran of the Air National Guard who said she was raped and sexually assaulted soon after joining the military.
"I felt like the rug had been pulled out from under me, I had lost my purpose in life. And when I started to see other people who were victims I realized it was my duty to speak out and bring attention to this problem," Norris said. "It gives me a sense of purpose. I'm a soldier again, but now for a new cause."
Pingree has sponsored legislation that would make it easier for veterans diagnosed withPTSD from sexual assault to get benefits. Currently veterans are often denied benefits because records of an assault are incomplete or unclear, and Pingree's legislation would address those cases by lowering the standard of proof that the victims are required to provide.
After meetings and panel discussions this morning, veterans at today's conference were headed to the U.S. Capitol to ask their local members of Congress to support Pingree's bill and raise awareness around the issue.
Pingree recently met with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who agreed to make several changes to Pentagon policy regarding sexual assault in the military, including the establishment of a special victims unit and mandatory training for all personnel within two weeks of joining the military.
Pingree also praised Senator Susan Collins for her work on the issue.
"This is an issue that cuts across party lines. It's not conservative or liberal or Democratic or Republican, it's about basic decency and fairness for the men and women who serve our country in uniform," Pingree said.
Collins, along with Senator John Kerry, helped pass an amendment to a defense policybill that expands legal rights and protections for service members who havebeen victims of sexual assault.