By Sen. Patty Murray and Sen. Ayotte
When our best and brightest don a U.S. military uniform, they do so with the understanding that they will sacrifice much to defend our country from dangerous threats. But they shouldn't have to face a threat from within their own ranks.
Twice in two weeks, the very people in the military who are responsible for protecting victims of sexual assault have been accused of committing these crimes. These incidents are disturbing -- and the secretary of defense must act swiftly to re-examine sexual assault services across the department. It is also time for Congress to enact legislation that gives victims the protections they deserve to seek justice and provides the Pentagon with the necessary tools to deal with this growing crisis. When a service member fails to live up to our values and commits sexual assault, we must ensure he or she is held accountable and that victims can come forward without fear of retribution.
While the Pentagon has made good faith efforts to address this problem, it has fallen well short. This month, the Pentagon released its annual report on sexual assault in the military, showing an alarming increase in the estimated numbers of sexual assaults, from 19,000 in 2010 to 26,000 in 2012. Equally disturbing is that while the number of assaults rose, the number of assaults that were reported did not change significantly. With 3,158 cases reported in 2010 and fewer than 3,400 being reported in 2012, the vast majority of sexual assaults continue to go unreported. As military sexual assaults are becoming increasingly common, too many victims are suffering silently, unable to receive the care they need and the justice they deserve -- all while continuing to bravely serve our country.
While sexual assault cannot be tolerated in any circumstance, such crimes are particularly damaging in a military context, posing serious risks to unit morale and cohesion and undermining the good order and discipline needed to maintain military readiness. Given that approximately 62 percent of victims who report abuse face retaliation in some way, it's not surprising that victims lack confidence in the current system.
That's why we introduced bipartisan legislation to address a number of gaps within current law and policy and build on the positive steps the Pentagon has taken in recent years to address this urgent issue.
Our bill, the Combating Military Sexual Assault Act, would attack this crisis on multiple fronts. It would empower victims with special military lawyers to help guide them through the legal process. It would prohibit sexual contact between instructors and trainees during basic training and ensure the National Guard and Reserves have improved access to sexual assault response coordinators. Our bill would also take steps to make certain sexual assault cases are referred to the general court-martial level when sexual assault charges are filed -- or to the next superior competent authority when there is a conflict of interest within the chain of command.
Our legislation has gained support from members of both parties, and we welcome additional proposals that will turn "zero tolerance" rhetoric into "zero tolerance" policy and practice.
Make no mistake, our nation continues to have the best military in the world, largely because of the character of the brave men and women who selflessly serve. The vast majority of our service members are exceptional citizens who serve with unparalleled honor, dignity and distinction. We owe them nothing less than to take meaningful action to rid our military of the scourge of sexual assault.