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Ending the Epidemic of Sexual Assault in the Military

The issue of sexual violence in the military is not new, and unfortunately, it’s been allowed to go on in the shadows for far too long. Our best and brightest join our armed forces for all the right reasons and the vast majority of our brave men and women serving in uniform do so honorably. But there is also no doubt that we have men and women in uniform who are committing unconscionable acts of sexual assault. The scourge of sexual violence in the military should be intolerable to all Americans and it’s time to bring it to an end once and for all.

According to the Defense Department’s own estimates, an astounding 19,000 sexual assaults occured in 2011. Of those, only 3,192 were reported, and of those, only 240 proceeded to trial. A system where fewer than 1 out of 10 reported perpetrators are held accountable for their alleged crimes is a system that is broken. We simply must do better. 

That’s why I’ve taken it upon myself as Chair of the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel to crack down on perpetrators of sexual assault in the military and reform the way the military handles assault convictions. Last year, at the Aviano Air Force Base in Italy, Lt. Col. James Wilkerson was convicted by a five-person jury of aggravated sexual assault and sentenced to a year in jail, forfeiture of all pay and dismissal from the Air Force. Yet his commander, Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, proceeded to dismiss the case entirely, and re-instated Wilkerson to the Air Force.

It was in the wake of this injustice that I held the first Senate hearing in almost ten years on the issue of sexual assault in the military last month, where we heard from a panel of sexual assault survivors as well as military officials. I felt it was incredibly important to hear the voices of some of the men and women who've experienced sexual assault, but also hear the perspective of the military itself. What I heard from the military officials was not enough, and made it more clear to me than ever that we absolutely must reform the way the military handles these cases.

It also reinforced for me the importance of having more women in Congress and in high-level decisionmaking roles. After we held the hearing, Andrea Mitchell asked me if it was a coincidence that this issue is only coming to the forefront now that I've become Chair of the Personnel Sub-Committee and we have 20 women in the Senate. In my view, it's not a coincidence at all. When women are at the table, a broader agenda is discussed, an agenda that looks out for all Americans, particularly those who are voiceless. Women's voices are not better than men's, they're different and the broader perspective that we bring often leads to better results. That’s why I’ve been such an advocate for more women to run for office and make their voices heard.

It's also why I've pushed the Pentagon to lift the combat ban that prevents women from officially serving in many of the combat positions that can lead to significant promotion opportunities. By opening the door for more qualified women to excel in our military, we will have increased diversity in top leadership positions, thus improving response from leadership when it comes to preventing and responding to sexual violence.

I am committed to fighting to bring about reforms that will change the way the military handles sexual assault cases, and I'm pleased that so many of my colleagues are standing right beside me in this fight. I'm also pleased that Secretary Hagel is just as committed to reform. In the coming weeks I’ll be introducing legislation that would move decisionmaking on sexual assault cases and other violent crimes in the military from the chain of command to an independent prosecutor. We must reform the military justice system so there's real accountability, so that more survivors of sexual assault and other violent crimes have the confidence to report these crimes.

As Sexual Assault Awareness month comes to a close, we must commit ourselves not just to a zero tolerance policy, but we need to get to a point of zero occurrence. We owe it to the men and women who bravely join the military. While they join knowing the risks involved in serving, sexual assault at the hand of one of their peers should not be one of them.

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