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Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand Headshot

The Voices of the Victims of Sexual Assault in the Military Must Be Heard

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For the victims of sexual assault in the military, and all those who want to finally see real transformational change made within the broken military justice system, it was extremely disappointing when The Military Justice Improvement Act (MJIA), our bipartisan legislation to achieve this goal, was removed from the annual Defense Bill last month by the Senate Armed Services Committee. Our legislation creating an independent and objective military justice system is not only common sense, it is what all the victims have told us is required to end this crisis.

According to the Defense Department, in 2012, there were 26,000 unwanted sexual contacts, assaults and rapes throughout the U.S. military, but of those, only 3,374 were reported. This troubling low rate of reporting of sexual assaults is due to the lack of confidence that the victims have in the military justice system. The victims have told us over and over again they have no hope for any chance of justice when their commanding officer, essentially their boss, has the sole decison-making power over whether their case moves forward for prosecution. In fact, they have very good reason to believe it is they, not the perpetrator of the sexual assault, who will be punished through a system of retaliation that has often ended with the victim having to leave the military with a dishonorable discharge. The reality is the perpetrator of a sexual assault is often the victim's superior officer, and when any single victim of sexual assault is forced to salute his or her attacker, clearly our system is broken.

Even the current military leadership admits "the system has failed" and victims don't come forward because, "They don't trust the chain of command." Yet these same military leaders claim this one decision-making point must remain within the chain of command in order to maintain good order and discipline. As I said in a Senate hearing I chaired, with an estimated 26,000 cases of unwanted sexual contact last year, how can they say they have "good order and discipline" now?

The military has pledged "zero tolerance" for sexual assaults spanning over two decades and they have failed to solve the problem on their own. And while the sexual assault provisions that were passed out of committee last month are a step forward, it was not the leap forward required to sufficiently address this epidemic.

According to Senate leadership, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) could be on the floor for a vote by the full Senate in the coming weeks. Along with our growing bipartisan coalition of 35 senators, I will continue to fight to pass the Military Justice Improvement Act as an amendment to the NDAA. One thing has become clear -- the victims' voices must be heard by their lawmakers in this debate.

We've been here once before, of course. Remember the arguments against repealing 'Don't Ask Don't Tell'? We heard phrases such as "good order and discipline" and "unit cohesion" to justify inaction, the very same arguments the military uses today to argue against reform to crack down on the scourge of sexual assaults. Yet here we are, two years into repeal, and the fact that our brave servicemen and women can be open about whom they love has had no negative impact on the day to day functions of our military. In fact, I would argue it has improved unit cohesion by allowing our gay and lesbian military men and women be honest about who they are. Likewise, I believe the military will benefit from the Military Justice Improvement Act by reforming the military culture that perpetuates these assaults and keeps victims from coming forward.

Just as we defied the odds by successfully repealing the corrosive 'Don't Ask Don't Tell' policy, I believe we can succeed in this fight to implement real reform changing the way the military handles these crimes. But just like three years ago, I'll need your activism and your voices to make the difference.

Here's how you can help:


Patrick Murphy's MSNBC OpEd: Why Senator Gillibrand Is Right About Military Sexual Assault

Washington Post: Congress Kills Reforms To Prevent Sexual Assault In The Military

New York Times: A Failure On Military Sexual Assaults


Sign our petition calling for passage of the MJIA on the floor of the Senate.


Write, call and tweet your senators and ask them to support the Military Justice Improvement Act on the Senate floor.

The 35 co-sponsors of the MJIA are listed here, with your help we can make this list grow.

Lend your voice and join our Thunderclap in support of The Military Justice Improvement Act.


As former U.S. Army JAG lawyer and Pennsylvania Congressman Patrick Murphy said in a recent MSNBC OpEd, "By taking sexual assault cases out of the chain of command and handing them to an independent, unbiased military prosecutor, we can curb the rising rates of sexual assault and simultaneously restore faith in the military criminal justice system."

I couldn't agree more. I hope I can count on you to help us pass this important piece of legislation.