By Anne McLane Kuster
Congress and the American people are rightly outraged by the ongoing epidemic of sexual assault within our military.
From the widespread misconduct at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, to military commanders unilaterally overturning convictions of sexual assault, military sexual trauma has reached a crisis point.
Until we fix this problem, it will continue to endanger our men and women in uniform, undermine the readiness of our armed forces, and tarnish the reputation of the most distinguished military the world has ever known.
Despite maintaining an official zero tolerance policy for over 20 years, and investing in the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO) for over seven years, the military has seen no marked decrease in the number of sexual assaults or increase in the rate of convictions.
In 2010, an estimated 19,000 service members became victims of sexual assault. The Department of Defense estimates that less than 15 percent of survivors in these cases reported their assaults.
In fiscal year 2011, more than 3,000 military sexual assaults were reported. Of these, only 1,518 were considered actionable, and less than 8 percent actually went to trial.
These numbers are staggering. And yet we know that many of the worst cases and saddest stories are those we'll never know about -- the countless men and women who have been sexually abused but won't step forward for fear of retaliation.
These victims are not just statistics. Behind every case is a soldier, seaman, airman or Marine who stepped forward and volunteered to serve our country.
They're people like Jennifer Norris. Growing up, Jennifer's father taught her that she was equal to her brothers, and she applied her confidence and determination to achieving the American dream. At 18 years old, she joined the Air Force as a new recruit, only to be raped soon after and then assaulted a second time at Keesler Air Force Base.
Think about that for a minute. This is a young woman who left a loving family and sacrificed greatly to serve her country -- and then this. It's difficult to imagine. And yet sadly, we know there are thousands like Jennifer for whom this nightmare is a reality.
Our military leadership, the chain of command, and our government have failed to protect Jennifer and thousands of other victims like her. While we cannot change that sad fact, we can and must do everything within our power to prevent future crimes by securing justice for these victims and holding every attacker accountable for his or her actions.
Of course, no single plan or policy can prevent every sexual assault in the military. Ultimately, a broader cultural shift is needed to break the damaging pattern of cover-ups and looking the other way. But that's not an excuse for inaction, particularly when there are common sense, bipartisan steps we can take to address this growing epidemic.
First, Congress must continue to conduct oversight and aggressively investigate any and all misconduct in the military. We must also prioritize funding for SAPRO in order to prevent future assaults and help victims come forward.
Additionally, Congress needs to work with military leadership to secure justice for every victim. To do so, we should enact serious reforms to protect whistleblowers and facilitate the reporting of these crimes.
And for the service members and veterans we have failed to protect, we must ensure that personnel at the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs have the training and resources necessary to provide the counseling, medical care, and support needed by sexual assault survivors.
We owe it to every victim of military sexual assault to take these actions, and I'm proud that so many of my Democratic and Republican colleagues have joined forces to address this epidemic head-on. As a member of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, I am committed to continuing this bipartisan work to help the heroic men and women of our military prevent, prosecute, and recover from military sexual assault.