With so many victims coming forward, and so much heartbreaking evidence of sexual assault and rape in the military, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and the U.S. Congress must take urgent action to address this epidemic of violence to women, and to many men, in uniform.
These are not isolated cases; these are not cases of "he said, she said." These are horrifying statistics that harm the credibility and mission of our military. There is a pattern of violence here that cannot be denied, one that subjects its victims to injustice, inaction, denial and retribution.
But now the silence has been broken. These brave victims have stepped forward to say, "No. Not again." Given their courage, can our national leaders find the same strength to finally face the truth and demand a solution?
We believe the answer is yes. Now that this terrifying reality can no longer be ignored, urgent action must be taken.
Even one victim would be too many. Sadly, we know the actual numbers of women and men in uniform who have been sexually assaulted -- and continue to be subjected to these horrendous activities -- number in the hundreds of thousands.
We salute U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-NY, new Chair of the Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel, for her promise to hold an important hearing on what she has labeled this "reprehensible problem." The hearing is believed to be the first since 1997 for Congress to take testimony from victims and military officials. That's right; there has been Senate silence for the past 16 years.
Sen. Gillibrand has vowed to find solutions, telling the media: "We have 19,000 sexual assaults a year happening -- and only a small handful of perpetrators being prosecuted and discharged.
"The committee not only can shine a light on military sexual trauma, more importantly we want to develop a response to reduce and eliminate whatever level of tolerance there is for this type of behavior."
We agree. And like Sen. Gillibrand, we insist that real action be made to resolve this violence, to give the victims some sense of closure and to prevent future harm.
One issue often overlooked is how to fairly compensate the hundreds of thousands of veterans who have suffered the consequences of sexual assault and rape. Many have had their lives ruined. Many are haunted by their experiences and can no longer make a living due to related injuries of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and other debilitating illnesses.
With nowhere else to turn for help, these victims -- who proudly served in Iraq and Afghanistan, who fearlessly left behind families in service to their nation -- often come to us as a last resort. They come for some kind of resolution, for closure, for help.
We are here, then, to bear witness to their plight. We are lawyers who speak for these injured veterans who tragically have nowhere else to go.
Some of these veterans call us from homeless shelters; others phone from cars that have become their homes. Some send us handwritten notes because they don't have access to a computer. Others are driven to endless research, day and night, searching the global Internet for support and validation. Each individual story is gut-wrenching.
This is wrong. This is immoral. This is unjust.
This is not the way America should treat its warriors. This is not how America should honor those who put themselves in harm's way, in service to our great nation and in preservation of our freedoms.
When we ignore their pleas, when we turn our backs on their tragedies, we debase the integrity of our military. In our scandalous silence, we allow a subset of predatory, power-crazed men to manipulate the system and to get away with sexual violence. And in our silence, we nurture that cruel system and allow it to destroy the lives of our military men and women.
What these veterans seek, and what we intend to bring them, is acknowledgement, justice and reforms.
Our fights are just beginning in the courts around this country. We believe a tsunami of claims is imminent as judges awaken to their duty and power to provide a remedy to the men and women who have sacrificed so much for our freedoms and democratic form of government and then been ignored. Ironically, the very veterans who fought for our rights find that their own constitutional and civil rights are being systematically violated.
We must develop a strategy to redress the wrongs that have been done to these soldiers, sailors and marines. Our nation -- and these male and female survivors of sexual violence -- cannot afford piecemeal, expensive, time-consuming litigation. This is doubly true because so many victims of rape and sexual assault who have come forward have told us of being forced to endure endless bureaucratic battles and cultural abuse from the very government they served.
The damage is real: Their benefits are denied, evidence is lost, and the excruciating delays -- perhaps done purposefully -- in processing these claims allow additional crimes to be committed, with impunity.
Surely as Americans, we can figure out a way to provide some modicum of relief to these injured veterans. So many Americans have served in the military or have relatives who have fought and died in wars to defend this nation.
You know these veterans; they are members of your family. They are your daughters, your mothers, your sons, your fathers. They are your neighbors, your colleagues, your friends. We ask you to join our fight to obtain justice for them and to end this systematic pattern of sexual violence in the military.
First, issue a public apology to those who have been harmed. Second, make an appropriation to allow some redress of the financial hardships that have been shouldered. Third, establish a claims process without delay for eligible veterans who have been raped, sexually assaulted and subjected to other forms of violence.
This three-pronged remedy is not unique, nor is it unrealistic. The same model is being used to redress discrimination inflicted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture on black, Hispanic and women farmers.
It's a model that can easily be adopted to bring justice and a sense of closure for those veterans weary from battle and desperate to be acknowledged.
A public apology, reasonable payment made directly to each harmed veteran and a reform of the military investigatory system are all steps in the right direction. We now have a class of Americans, our brave and selfless veterans, who feel betrayed, hurt and ignored. But true to their warrior spirit, they remain hopeful.
This remedy also will avoid endless courtroom battles for these veterans, who honestly have endured enough battlefields for a lifetime. Let's not make them fight again at home.
We cannot give back what was brutally taken from the veterans raped and assaulted while serving this nation. But we can apologize for what they have lived through, and we can make a deserved gesture of compensation.
Money will help these veterans get the care, education, housing and stability they need and deserve. A public apology and acknowledgment will validate their plight. And more: it will salute their bravery in coming forward with their stories and it will serve to speed much-needed reforms in our military justice system.
Our veterans deserve no less.
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