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Ms. AYOTTE. Let me say I wish to thank very much my colleague from Washington, Senator Murray, for her leadership on this issue and for the opportunity to work together to address this very important issue of making sure we eliminate sexual assaults that occur within our military and that the victims of these crimes get the respect, the support, and the justice they deserve. I am very honored to work with Senator Murray, and I thank her so much for giving me the opportunity to work with her on this important legislation to address a very serious problem in our military.
I approach this issue not just as someone who comes from a military family and has such great, deep respect for the military--as I know Senator Murray does with the important position she has on the Veterans' Committee--but also as someone who serves on the Armed Services Committee and someone who worked in my prior career extensively with victims of sexual assault. During my time as a prosecutor in New Hampshire and then later as the State's attorney general, I saw the devastating impact of these types of crimes.
I also saw the real need to address what is too often a silent crime. The victims often suffer in silence for fear of coming forward and not being supported when they are to come forward and report a sexual assault.
That is very important, and that is why I also supported efforts earlier this year--that I know Senator Murray was a very strong leader on--to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act. I wish to thank her for her leadership on that as well.
Currently, military sexual assault occurs at alarming levels throughout all branches of our military. According to the Department of Defenses estimates, 19,000 servicemembers were sexually assaulted in 2011, a rate of over 52 per day. Despite these shocking figures, fewer than 2,800 assaults against servicemembers were reported to the Department of Defense over the same period.
The Department of Defense Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office's annual report, which was actually just released today at the same time that we are filing our legislation, concludes that the number of people who made an anonymous sexual assault claim but never reported the attack increased from 19,000 in 2011 to 26,000 in 2012, nearly a 37-percent increase. Yet the number of reported sexual assaults against servicemembers only increased--in other words, those who did report and come forward--by about 8 percent. This is a dramatic example of people who were victims but feel they would have the support to come forward and report the crimes that were being committed against them.
Astonishingly, as Senator Murray mentioned, just yesterday it was reported that the police arrested a lieutenant colonel in charge of the Air Force's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response branch and charged him with sexual battery, which brought this issue very much to the forefront, given the fact that this individual was charged with important responsibility over the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Program.
It is important to understand why sexual assault is so destructive, especially when it occurs in our military--of course, when it occurs anywhere. Sexual assault is a serious and unacceptable crime that can inflict lasting emotional and physical impact on the victims of these crimes that can last for years and throughout their lifetimes.
In the military, sexual assault can also damage unit morale, readiness, the preparedness of our troops. Also, military sexual assault can negatively impact the well-earned reputation of those who serve honorably, which is obviously the overwhelming number of members of our military who serve our country with great courage and with great character.
So we must aggressively tackle this problem to compassionately help victims but also to protect the good order and discipline that ultimately undermine and support the readiness of our military units. We do our military and our servicemembers little good if we ignore this problem.
Conversely, it is very important we pass commonsense legislation that will help solve the problem. But we should make no mistake that, again, the vast majority of our men and women in uniform serve with tremendous dignity and honor, and the United States continues to be the very best military in the world because of the character, quality, and courage of our men and women in uniform. But when a servicemember fails to live up to our values and commits a sexual assault, we must ensure victims have the support they need and the perpetrators are held accountable and are brought to justice.
That is why Senator Murray and I have introduced this legislation today. Our legislation, titled the ``Combating Military Sexual Assault Act,'' would expand and improve military sexual assault prevention and response resources available to the victims of these crimes. Building on the lessons we have learned from a pilot program already in place in the Air Force, our bill would provide trained special victims' counsels to victims in all service branches to help them throughout the process. These counsels can help comfort and advise victims after the crime has occurred. The special victims' counsel also provides victims the confidence they need to come forward, report the crime, and seek justice.
The Chief of Staff of the Air Force, General Welsh, testified this morning before the Armed Services Committee ``the evidence is clear'' that providing special victims' counsel to those who suffer from this crime has been ``immensely helpful'' in the Air Force. So every victim of crime within our Armed Services deserves to have the support of the special victims' counsel.
Our bill would also ensure sexual assault response coordinators are available to members of the National Guard and Reserve at all times, regardless of whether the servicemember is operating under title 10 or title 32 authority. It is very important we get this in the law now so that our Guard men and women get the support they deserve. We could not have fought the battles and wars we have fought without their courage and bravery and the sacrifices they have made.
Our bill would also 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 in the immediate chain of command. Right now, the way the system is set up, there is not a set mechanism where there is a conflict of interest. This commonsense approach would recognize the uniquely devastating damage sexual assault crimes inflict on individuals and ensure that victims can have confidence in the military court justice system.
In conclusion, allowing this problem to persist is simply unacceptable, both for the victims and for the morale and readiness of our forces that do so much to ensure the freedom of this country. We must continue to make clear that sexual assault in the military simply will not be tolerated, and we must match these words with actions. Our legislation does just that.
I look forward to working with the Department of Defense, continuing to work with Senator Murray--and I thank her again for her leadership--as well as my Senate colleagues on both sides of the aisle in strengthening existing laws and policies so that all military sexual assault victims can come forward without fear of retribution and with the confidence they will receive the support, care, and justice they deserve from our country.
Madam President, I yield the floor.
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