Bold Reform Needed to Fix Military's Sexual Assault Problem

We believe there must be a complete break with the status quo -- not simply changes around the edges -- to strengthen how the military responds to and handles instances of sexual assault.
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The outrage to the growing crisis of sexual assaults in the military has been swift and consistent -- from the commander-in-chief to top military leaders to members of both parties in Congress to veterans and those who support them.

What is not uniform is how we reverse an alarming and growing trend and support victims of sexual assault in the military.

We believe that now is the time for bold action to combat military sexual trauma. We believe there must be a complete break with the status quo -- not simply changes around the edges -- to strengthen how the military responds to and handles instances of sexual assault.

Recent developments from the last month should make it clear that we're confronting a broken system.

In May, the Pentagon reported that the number of servicemembers who experienced some form of unwanted sexual contact rose from 19,300 in 2011 to about 26,000 in 2012, with many of those going unreported. Over the last month, we have also seen embarrassing reports of officials tasked with fighting MST themselves accused of sexual misconduct.

Unfortunately, the Senate Armed Services Committee, led by Chairman Carl Levin, this week missed a critical opportunity to protect survivors from intimidation and to give them every opportunity to pursue justice.

The committee rejected a much-needed proposal to ensure that commanders can't interfere with MST reporting and judicial proceedings. This change -- proposed by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and supported by a number of veterans groups including IAVA -- is intended to prevent crimes, especially sexual assaults, from being covered up by commanders who opt against pressing charges in such cases. It would also help protect those who report, who may otherwise fear retribution.

Senator Gillibrand has said she will fight to include her proposal in the defense bill when it is debated on the Senate floor, and we will strongly support her in that effort.

At the very least, the Committee understood that doing nothing was not an option. The Committee adopted other provisions to address the growing MST problem, including:

  • Criminalization of retaliation for reporting sexual assault and other crimes in the military
  • Creation of Special Victims Counsels to advise and serve the interests of victims in sexual assault cases.
  • Elimination of the authority of commanders to overturn most court-martial convictions.

While not the bold change for which we have advocated, these constitute a step in the right direction and a move away from the broken system that has gotten us where we are today.

This week's Senate Armed Services Committee mark-up is the start of a long process to change the way the military prevents sexual assaults and supports survivors.

The outrage to the growing problem in the military will not abate. This is a critical issue to those who currently serve and previously served to protect the country, and most importantly, to the survivors who cannot be forgotten.

As the president himself told Naval Academy graduates: "Those who commit sexual assault are not only committing a crime, they threaten the trust and discipline that makes our military strong. That's why we have to be determined to stop these crimes, because they've got no place in the greatest military on Earth."

As Congress and the military continue to debate this issue, servicemembers continue to be victimized by unwanted sexual contact. Survivors must know there are places they can turn. IAVA works with a number of organizations, including the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), to assist survivors of military sexual trauma. For more information, including available resources and support networks, please visit

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