WASHINGTON — With broad support from Republicans and Democrats, a House committee Wednesday approved legislation to tackle the growing problem of sexual assault in the armed forces by taking away the power of military commanders to overturn convictions in rape and assault cases.
The bill passed by the House Armed Services Committee also requires that anyone found guilty of a sex-related crime receive a punishment that includes, at a minimum, a dismissal from military service or a dishonorable discharge.
"The word should go out clearly and strongly that if you commit a sexual assault in the military, you are out," said Rep. Michael Turner, R-Ohio. Turner and Rep. Niki Tsongas, D-Mass., wrote many of the provisions in the House bill.
By stripping commanders of their longstanding authority to reverse or change court-martial convictions, lawmakers are aiming to shake up the military's culture and give victims the confidence that if they report a crime their allegations won't be discounted and they won't face retaliation.
Frustration has been building on Capitol Hill for weeks over the Defense Department's failure to staunch sexual assaults in the ranks.
The Pentagon estimated in a recent report that as many as 26,000 military members may have been sexually assaulted last year, up from an estimated 19,000 assaults in 2011, based on an anonymous survey of military personnel. While the number of sexual assaults that members of the military actually reported rose 6 percent to 3,374 in 2012, thousands of victims were still unwilling to come forward despite new oversight and assistance programs aimed at curbing the crimes, the report said.
"The military has obviously been unable to solve this problem independently," Tsongas said.
The legislation is part of a sweeping defense policy bill that the Republican-led Armed Services Committee pulled together during a daylong session. The $638 billion measure for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 included $86 billion for the war in Afghanistan as well as contentious provisions on the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and nuclear weapons.
The full House is expected to vote on the bill next week.
Despite the congressional clamor to cut the deficit, the committee bill rejects several Pentagon attempts to save money. It spares a version of the Global Hawk unmanned aircraft, rebuffs attempts to increase health care fees for retirees and their dependents, and opposes another round of domestic base closures.
In fact, the panel didn't just say no to more base closings, it went as far as including a provision barring the Pentagon from even planning for another round.
That drew ridicule from Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., who offered an amendment essentially eliminating the prohibition on the Pentagon thinking ahead. Smith said it made no sense to tie the Pentagon's hands as it faces smaller budgets.
"I don't think this committee has the luxury of being so darn parochial anymore, to say every single time any one of the (military) services comes into our state and says, `Look, we've got to rearrange,' that we're going to fight tooth-and-nail to stop them," Smith said.
But Smith's amendment was soundly rejected, 44-18. Several Republicans argued that they didn't want the Pentagon wasting time planning for an effort that Congress would never accept.
The committee approved an amendment to provide $140 million as a down payment to install ground-based interceptors at a new missile defense site on the East Coast to expand the country's defenses from a potential ballistic missile attack by Iran. The measure would require the site at a yet-to-be-determined location to be ready by 2018.
Overall, the bill fails to acknowledge the automatic, across-the-board spending cuts that Washington has grudgingly accepted. The cuts of $41 billion hit the Pentagon on March 1 and forced the military to furlough workers and scale back training.
The Pentagon faces deeper reductions in projected spending of close to $1 trillion over a decade, but the bill did not reflect that reality for next fiscal year. The Pentagon likely will have to cut $54 billion to meet the numbers dictated by the so-called sequester.
The committee's action on sexual assaults came one day after a high-profile Senate hearing during which senators grilled military leaders about the scourge in their ranks. The leaders conceded that they have been less than diligent in dealing with the problem, but pushed back against far-reaching legislation to give the authority to level charges to a military prosecutor rather than the victim's commander.
Military leaders are more receptive to the House provisions, would strip commanders of the discretion to reverse a court-martial ruling, except in cases involving minor offenses. Commanders also would be barred from reducing a guilty finding by a court-martial to guilty of a lesser offense.
The measure also would require that anyone found guilty of rape, sexual assault, forcible sodomy or an attempt to commit any of those offenses receive a punishment that includes a dismissal from military service or a dishonorable discharge.
The legislation eliminates the five-year statute of limitations on trial by court-martial for sexual assault and sexual assault of a child. It also establishes the authority for military legal counsel to provide legal assistance to victims of sex-related offenses and requires enhanced training for all military and civilian attorneys involved in sex-related cases.
Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., applauded the committee's action. But she said she would continue to push for even broader changes to better protect victims.
Speier has introduced separate legislation that would take the reporting and investigation of sexual assaults out of the military's normal chain of command. The bill would create an autonomous Sexual Assault Oversight and Response Office comprised of civilian and military experts. Speier said she will offer her bill as an amendment on the House floor.
"Unless we increase the number of prosecutions and the number of convictions, they we have not achieved the goal," she said. "We have not sanitized the military of sexual predators."
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'Full Battle Rattle'
Rebekah Havrilla, out on patrol in Afghanistan. The former Army sergeant and Explosive Ordnance Disposal specialist enlisted in 2004, seeking out job training, education, "some patriotic element" after 9/11 and a way out of South Carolina. "I went in with the idea of making a career out of it," she says. "I thought, I can't be Special Forces, I can't do Rangers because I don't have a penis -- closest thing I can get to actually doing that type of job is EOD [Explosive Ordnance Disposal]."
Havrilla crouches in the remnants of a "demolition shot" she and her team did of a "bunch of captured enemy munitions" outside of Forward Operating Base Gardez, in Afghanistan. "It's a very male dominated, hypermasculine environment, so you've got to be the tomboy, kind of, 'let's play cowboys and indians. And soldiers,'" she says. But to some, this also meant persistent sexual harassment and even assault.
Havrilla says intense nightmares kept her from sleep, night after night, after she got back from Afghanistan -- until recently, when she moved to New York. Though Havrilla says that at first she suffered from the kind of hyper-vigilance described by fellow combat veterans in urban settings, she loves the city -- namely because it is so different than where she grew up, in a conservative Christian family in rural South Carolina. She is getting her Masters and working for the Service Women's Action Network (SWAN).
An early photo of Tia Christopher, who joined the Navy at age 18 in 2000 and was out just under a year later, honorably discharged with a "personality disorder."
Tia Christopher and her friend Aston Tedford at a women veterans retreat in Arizona several years ago. Christopher now works as an advocate for veterans, in particular victims of MSA, and has written guidance on the subject.
Tia Christopher in a favorite photo.
'I'm Beautiful Despite The Flames'
Tia Christopher sent this photo of her recently completed tattoo Friday, Sept. 28. Written in Arabic, she says "her motto" -- which covers scars from her assault -- more literally translates: "Despite the flames that devoured my flesh, I am still beautiful."
Claire Russo in a childhood photo.
Claire & Coconut
Claire Russo pictured at 10 years old, in 1989 with "Coconut." Russo grew up near Washington, D.C., and worked on the Hill. "I was sort of -- well no, a really privileged middle-class kid," she says. "I was just fascinated with the debate, and the decisions the government was making … And I remember a very strong desire to serve."
Claire Russo Salutes Her Cousin
Claire Russo in 2004 at Quantico, right after being commissioned, saluting her cousin Tom Winkle, a Navy lieutenant and pilot. Russo lived with Winkle in San Diego, and was with him the night of her assault, at the Marine Corps Ball. It was Winkle that reported Russo's assault; she did not want to report, being afraid for her career.
Claire Russo (right) with her roommate at The Basic School in Quantico, Va., after finishing a field exercise. Russo says that one of the 30 females in the class of 180 was raped in the barracks while she was at The Basic School.
Claire Russo in a courtyard in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2006, when she served as the targeting officer for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. She deployed two weeks after testifying at the discharge hearing of the serviceman who raped her, Douglas Alan Dowson -- he was already in prison.
'Citizen Of Courage'
Claire Russo (front) salutes the flag during the national anthem, before she was given the "Citizen of Courage" award from the San Diego District Attorney's office in 2006. Behind her is San Diego District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis and First Marine Expeditionary Force (IMEF) Commanding General John Sattler, who Russo says is the "only commander to ever apologize to me for what I experienced."
Russo And San Diego DAs
Deputy District Attorney Gretchen Means, Claire Russo and District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, after Russo received the "Citizens of Courage" award from the San Diego District Attorney's office at Camp Pendleton in 2006.
Down The Aisle
Claire Russo at her wedding to Josh Russo. Lt. Josh Russo was stationed at Camp Pendleton, some 40 miles north, at the time of Russo's assault in 2004. He remains in the military.
Claire And Josh Russo
Claire and Josh Russo on their wedding day, with friends from the Marines.
Russo And Her Motorcycle
"Me on my Russian Minsk 120 cc dirt bike, in Laos. This was one day on an 8 month trip/honeymoon Josh and I took. We rode motorcylces through SE Asia, Australia and went to Africa," Russo describes in a recent email.
Claire Russo in Afghanistan near the Pakistan border, on a mission with the 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry Army Paratroopers. "I spoke with the district governor that day about how we could help to get a woman working for the Ministry of Womens Affairs working in his district," Russo writes.
Claire, Josh And Genevieve Russo In Paris
Claire Russo and her husband, Josh Russo, and their baby Genevieve, here four weeks old, in Paris. Josh serves in the U.S. Army.
"My 4 week old daughter Genevieve and I in front of a painting of Saint Genevieve, the patron saint of Paris, who saved the city from the Huns," Russo writes.
Marti Ribeiro In Front Of Village
Marti Ribeiro served with the Air Force, Army, Navy and Marines over eight years as a combat correspondent.
As a combat correspondent, Marti Ribeiro accompanied medical convoys to remote areas without local doctors. Such clinics were set up in specific locations, so the locals needed significant advance warning of their arrival. When one such convoy came under attack, Ribeiro returned fire, earning her a <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/14/women-at-war-unseen_n_1498291.html#slide=964342">Combat Action Badge</a>, though as a female, she officially should not have been in a position to take fire.
'Afghan Girls On Rooftop'
A photograph of Afghan girls, taken by Marti Ribeiro during her deployment.
Ribeiro In 2006
Marti Ribeiro and an Afghan boy in 2006.
'Soaked To The Bone And Miserable'
Marti Ribeiro titles this photo -- taken in Afghanistan in 2006 -- as "soaked to the bone and miserable."
Marti Ribeiro And Her Daughter Bela
Marti Ribeiro and her daughter, Bela, in San Antonio, Texas.