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US News & World Report - Military Sexual Assault Bills Get Their Day on Capitol Hill

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By Lauren Fox

It seems Congress has heard enough excuses from the military's top brass on why sexual assaults remain rampant within their ranks.

And Republicans and Democrats from every corner of Capitol Hill are taking action.

The House Armed Services Committee approved a provision Wednesday that stops military commanders from being able to reverse rapists' convictions. The bill will be included in the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act, a bill that funds the military's upcoming spending.

The bill comes on the heels of a controversial decision by Lt. Gen. Craig A. Franklin, the commander of the Third Air Force in Europe, to reverse the sexual assault conviction of one of his stand-out pilots.

"In recent months we have seen reports rise, commanders and supervisors abuse their authority, and officers in charge of prevention efforts allegedly commit the crimes they swore to stop. This is clearly a systemic problem and accountability is needed at every level, from everyone -- officer and enlisted alike," Rep. Niki Tsongas, D-Mass., said during the hearing.

"This bill takes important steps to address this issue. This bill continues our push to provide victims of sexual assault access to legal counsel, which is a critical step in the process of creating an environment that encourages victims to report these crimes and in bringing those responsible to justice. It makes sure that those who are convicted of sexual assault will absolutely be discharged or dismissed. And it takes away the power of commanders to throw out the jury verdicts of those who have been convicted."

The legislation will get a vote on the House floor next week.

The House also moved this week to pass the Ruth Moore Act, a bill that will ensure that survivors of military sexual assault can more easily get disability benefits for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder acquired from a rape or sexual assault.

The legislation is named after sailor Ruth Moore, who was assaulted twice by her Navy supervisor 25 years ago. It took her 23 years to collect her benefits because of the lack of records and a culture of protecting the perpetrator.

In the Senate this week, the drama over whether military commanders are equipped to break the culture of abuse in the military came to a head.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., fought for her legislation in a Senate hearing this week that would give military prosecutors rather than commanders the discretion of what sexual assault cases should be brought to court and which ones should not.

Gillibrand said that a series of oversights and mistakes show that commanders are not aware enough to "distinguish between a slap on the ass and a rape."

Her bill, however, which has attracted 19 co-sponsors including four Republicans, faces the most uphill battle as the military's top brass are vehemently opposed to disrupting the chain of command.

"Making commanders less responsible and less accountable will not work," Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, said during the hearing. "It will hamper the timely delivery of justice to the very people we wish to help."

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