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I'm Fighting to Give Victims Of Sexual Assault in the Military Their Day in Court

Everybody’s work is colored by their experiences. For me, that means I approach my work from the perspective of a mother and a grandmother, and also a former prosecutor. Too often lately, it’s seemed that we’re having to refight battles on issues I’d thought were settled long ago.

In the 1970s, I was a 25-year-old assistant district attorney in Kansas City. I found myself assigned to many of our sexual assault cases, partly because I was the only woman with that position in the office. At the time, and not just in Missouri, there was a pervasive "blame the victim" mentality when it came to crimes against women.

I’ll never forget sitting around a full conference table with senior prosecutors in my office. I was the only woman in the room. We were discussing the docket, which cases would move to trial, which ones we’d try to plea, and what cases would be dismissed. Imagine my surprise when the man in charge of the criminal docket looked down at the file in front of him, and said, "You know, I think we’ve got to let this one go … I’ve looked at this file and the victim was on birth control."

I thought surely that it was a joke. But it wasn’t. And so, I replied with a simple question: "I want to make sure I understand — if I get raped tonight, will you take the case? Because I’m on the birth control pill." 

Well, that was an awkward moment. And there have been a lot of awkward moments since. But that’s how we’ve been able to change how we address violence against women — by standing up for survivors of such violence, and working to change the culture.

I’ve held the hand of hundreds of survivors. Their experiences — and their courage — drive my passion on this subject. And we’ve come an awful long way since then.

And yet in recent months, I’ve seen reflections of the same "blame the victim" mentality seep into the debate over sexual assaults in the military.

In a much publicized case, Air Force Lt. Col. James Wilkerson was convicted in November of sexual assault. He was found guilty by a military jury, sentenced to one year in a military prison, and dismissed from service.

But just a few months after Wilkerson began to serve his sentence, the Air Force commander overseeing Wilkerson's case, Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, used his command authority to dismiss the charges against Wilkerson. It was a unilateral action, permissible under military law, and one which led Wilkerson to be released from prison and reinstated into service, his record expunged of wrongdoing.

The shock and anger I felt when I learned about this reversal must pale in comparison to its effect on sexual assault survivors.

And so I went to work. As a member of the Armed Services Committee, I’ve introduced legislation to strip commanders of their authority to overturn jury convictions. And I’ve begun work with military leaders to change the military justice system to prevent this kind of injustice and to better protect survivors of sexual assault.

In the meantime, we’ve heard from Lt. Gen. Franklin. In a letter attempting to justify his actions, he noted that the victim in the Aviano case refused a ride home, and that Lt. Col. Wilkerson was an upstanding family man — and it all sounds very familiar.

As a prosecutor, I know these types of facts have no relevance to whether a sexual assault occurred. And it brings me back four decades to the day I sat in that conference room in Kansas City.

This case has shown just how much work is left to do. I’m committed to seeing that work through, and ensuring that the message we’ve successfully embedded in our civilian justice system is implemented in our military justice system: if you commit sexual violence, you will go to jail.

Claire McCaskill is the senior U.S. Senator from Missouri, and formerly served as Jackson County Prosecutor

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