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Column - Protecting Our Servicemembers


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The men and women who serve in our Armed Forces bravely volunteer to do a dangerous but necessary job. We enjoy an unprecedented amount of freedom and prosperity because they risk their lives to keep our nation secure.

Unfortunately, a series of recent events has shown that our servicemembers are vulnerable to sexual assault. According to the Department of Defense, around 26,000 of our servicemembers were subject to unwanted sexual contact in 2012. That represents a 40 percent increase in just the last two years.

Sadly, only a small handful of these encounters are reported and even fewer are eventually prosecuted. Shockingly, there have been at least a few cases where high-ranking officers overturned prosecutions, calling into question current appeal procedures.

This is simply unacceptable. The men and women who sign up to defend our nation should be able to serve without fear of harassment or attack. When a crime is committed, the victims should have justice.

This week, the House considered the National Defense Authorization Act, annual legislation that governs our military. This bill contains a number of new provisions to fight this problem and protect those who willingly serve.

These reforms cover every step of the process starting right from the beginning of service. Entering the military can be daunting. There are new rules and rituals to learn. This time of change from civilian to soldier can be a vulnerable period.

The No Tolerance Act included in the NDAA requires our Armed Forces to established a policy about what is acceptable conduct, communication and contact between current servicemembers and those who are being recruited or who have just joined the service. This policy requires new punishments for violations. Recruits and trainees will be informed about what is acceptable so that they know if they are being taken advantage of.

While we must take every possible effort to stop assault, when it does happen there needs to be proper justice for victims. The new bill includes a provision to create a new victims counsel.

Sexual assault is a particularly brutal crime and working through the legal process to get justice is an ordeal itself. The new victims' counsels would be qualified and specially trained lawyers who could provide legal assistance. They would be available to accompany the victim at any related legal proceedings, medical support or mental health counseling. They would also be available to assist in any civil case that may result.

The bill also establishes new mandatory minimum sentences for offenses. For most offenses, dismissal or dishonorable discharge would be required.

In recent months, it has been revealed that at least two Air Force generals used their power to overturn sexual assault convictions that had been handed down by juries. Neither of these judges has observed the trial in question.

Those convicted of offenses need a proper appeal process, but the current process allows generals to act as a "convening authority" and vacate an offense without proper scrutiny. In the one case, the general overturned the conviction because he had nagging doubts about the victim's credibility. Gut feelings are no way to decide serious criminal cases.

The new legislation reforms post-trial review to bar these convening authorities from dismissing convictions for major offenses. No sexual assault case could be considered a minor offense.

The bill also eliminates the current five-year statute of limitations for prosecution of sexual assault. Such offenses could be tried and punished at any time without limitation. Finally, the bill affirms the authority of commanders to temporarily reassign or remove a servicemember who is accused of such grave offenses.

We rely on an all-volunteer military to keep our country safe. American citizens willingly stand up to defend our country, and we cannot expect Americans to serve if they are vulnerable to assault. We cannot expect them to serve if they are not given justice when victimized. I know that the Senate is also considering strong reforms. We should come together to end this scourge in the military.

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