The military needs to provide the same victim protections as civilians

Originally published as an Op-Ed in the Boston Globe, February 27, 2011

Written By Congresswoman Niki Tsongas (D-MA)

MORE THAN a dozen veterans who were victims of sexual assault while serving in the US military, including two from Massachusetts, recently filed suit in federal court alleging that the Pentagon did not take adequate steps to protect them. Their complaint is reflective of the deep frustration and sense of betrayal that many victims feel with our military leadership, which seems to be unwilling to forcefully confront the issue of sexual assault within the ranks and which has not provided sufficient resources, rights, and legal protections to victims.

Last year, there were 3,230 reported sexual assaults against members of our armed forces. However, the Pentagon estimates that as few as 10 percent of such assaults are actually reported.

Among those victims who do report an assault and subject themselves to the public disclosure and scrutiny that accompanies such an accusation, fewer than 8 percent will actually confront their assailant in court. In most instances, defendants are not charged, and victims must continue to serve in the same unit with their attacker.

Both the underreporting and the prevalence of sexual assault in the military require the Department of Defense to provide far better support for victims as well as better training throughout the armed forces to help prevent these crimes.

Earlier this year, President Obama signed into law legislation that required the Defense Department to develop a comprehensive policy on sexual assault prevention and response and submit it to Congress. The law also established a central point of authority for sexual assault prevention and response at the Defense Department, making Congress better-equipped to conduct oversight.

But additional action is urgently required to ensure that the department is appropriately prosecuting perpetrators and bringing them to justice.

Victims of sexual assault in the military almost universally claim that they are unaware of their rights and fear public ridicule, blame, or repeat offenses if they file a report against a fellow service member. In order to encourage greater reporting of these crimes, victims must be given access to a military lawyer so they can be advised of their legal options.

Instead of providing access to a military attorney, the Defense Department typically directs victims to victim advocates, who serve as the equivalent of a rape crisis counselor in the civilian world. While a victim advocate can be an important ally, the conversations that a victim has with an advocate are not confidential and can be subpoenaed in court. The fact that these conversations can be used against them is a major deterrent in encouraging victims to come forward. In the civilian world, 36 states have established a privilege between victims and victim advocates, and similar rights must be afforded to service members.

At a recent House Armed Services Committee hearing, Defense Secretary Robert Gates indicated that granting a privilege for communications between a victim and the victim’s advocate seemed like a “reasonable action.’’ This would mark a major breakthrough in the effort to get more victims to come forward and the Defense Department should follow through.

In addition to supporting victims, better training is required throughout the services in order to prevent these crimes from occurring with such frequency. It is critical that commanders take sexual assault prevention and response as seriously as the training of soldiers in other aspects of military life. The Defense Department must ensure that commanders are upholding the rights of victims, and should remove those commanders who choose to ignore this obligation. Additionally, the department should require service members to receive this training not just when they join the military, but as they move up the ranks.

We ask our men and women in uniform to sacrifice so much for our country. They shouldn’t fear their fellow service member or feel betrayal by their own leadership. The military must build on its efforts to address the unacceptably high incidence of this crime. Should it continue to abdicate this responsibility, Congress must exercise its necessary oversight role to hold the military accountable.

US Representative Niki Tsongas represents the Fifth Congressional District of Massachusetts and is a member of the House Armed Services Committee.

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