Enough Already: Pass the STOP Act

200 survivors of unpunished military rape and sexual assault speak out

There is a crisis in our military and, while Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has done more than his predecessors in acknowledging the crisis, he is fundamentally failing to fix the problem. So today our veterans are going to our nation's capital to demand change.

More than 19,000 service members were raped or sexually assaulted in 2010, according to the Department of Defense, but only 13.5% of the incidents were reported. Why? Because victims fear career ending retaliation. Victims in the military are required to report their assault to a superior, not law enforcement or medical personnel. This has been and remains a recipe for disaster.

The Pentagon has tried to cover up this epidemic for decades. Congress has the power to fix the problem, but they have not.

A new film, The Invisible War, shows the personal stories behind the shocking statistics. If you haven's seen the documentary you should. And then tell your elected officials to support the Sexual Assault Training Oversight and Prevention Act -- or STOP Act -- and take the reporting of sexual assault out of the chain of command.

Until their stories were captured in The Invisible War, Coast Guard veteran, Kori Cioca, former Marine Corp Lieutenant Elle Helmer and Airmen 1st Class Jessica Hinves, were just a few of those statistics. The hard truth is there are an estimated half million male and female veterans who are military rape and sexual assault survivors. Like Kori, Elle and Jessica, these service members endured not only the terror and pain of being violently attacked and raped, they also had to endure the humiliation of being blamed or retaliated against by their commanders and their commander's commander. They were denied care and ultimately denied justice by a system that often punishes the victim and fails to prosecute the perpetrator. Our troops deserve better.

Today, veterans will take the fight to Congress, delivering a letter signed by 200 survivors urging the House to pass H.R. 3435, the STOP Act to every representative.

This effort represents the first time survivors have come together as a unified group to demand action. As they highlight in their letter, "Congress has held 17 hearings over 25 years and demanded that the Department of Defense fix the problem. DoD's own official reports make it abundantly clear that they have not."

The military is not going to solve this problem on its own. Over the last year Secretary Panetta has announced several half measures, like bumping the reporting of rape and sexual assault further up the chain of command. But, this does little to address the problem. Many survivors have made it abundantly clear that senior commanders are just as capable of covering up the assaults and frequently do. Sometimes they even commit the crimes.

For real change to take place, Congress must legislate fundamental reform. The STOP Act addresses the core issue. It removes the reporting, oversight, investigation, and victim care from the normal chain of command and places jurisdiction in an autonomous and unbiased office comprised of civilian and military experts.

Secretary Panetta has acknowledged the breadth and scope of the problem of military rape and sexual assault, calling it "a silent epidemic." His recognition of the scope of the problem is encouraging. But they're only words. Enough is enough. And, it's not just about the crime. It's about why 87% of victims fail to report and what happens to those 13.5% that do.

Every day that goes by without fundamental reform is another day where rapists are allowed to attack and terrorize fellow service members with impunity.

With the nationwide release of The Invisible War and the uniting of hundreds of survivors with a single plea: pass the STOP Act -- it is my hope that Congress will finally do the right thing.

Demand your representative support our troops and pass the STOP Act. Join them in the fight. Watch and share stories of survivors on Protect Our Defenders.