Congresswoman Niki Tsongas participated in a Joint House Armed Services and Veterans Affairs Committee Hearing today where Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki testified. Tsongas questioned the Secretaries about legislation she authored, and was signed into law last year, to better support victims of military sexual assault as they make the transition to veteran status.
Congresswoman Tsongas: "Thank you both for being here today. Like others before me, [including] Congressman Turner, I want to thank you, Secretary Panetta. I appreciate very much your efforts over the last several months to improve the treatment of survivors of military sexual assault. And, Secretary Shinseki, I was so heartened to learn of your recent interest in the documentary film, the Invisible War. As you say, that which starts during military service ends up in the VA.
And that movie so painfully highlights the multiple bureaucratic hurdles survivors of such assaults, which are all too frequent across all the services, must endure to prove that their physical and psychiatric symptoms are connected to an incident of military sexual trauma and shows that too often, victims are unsuccessful in pursuing their claims for assistance.
To address one aspect of this problem, the Fiscal Year 12 Defense Authorization included language that required the Secretary of Defense, in consultation with the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, to develop a comprehensive policy for the Department of Defense on the retention of and access to evidence and records relating to sexual assaults involving members of the Armed Services. This policy is to be in place by October 1, 2012.
Can you both comment on the status of this policy? I'd also welcome any further thoughts you may have on how these claims can be processed faster and more accurately."
Response from Secretary Panetta: "It's a very important issue for me. I'm not going to wait for the legislation to try to put that policy in place, because I think it ought to take place in providing that kind of guidance and assistance to those that have been the victims of sexual assault so that they get the kind of support that they need, in order, not only to get the care they need, but if they want to continue their career, to get the support system that would allow them to continue their career. I think it's fair to say that Secretary Shinseki and I are going to work together on this issue to make sure that we can deal with this on both sides, not only on the defense side, but on the veterans side for those that ultimately move in that direction."