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Rep. Niki Tsongas Headshot

A Cultural Change Is Needed

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Last week, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta lifted the ban preventing female soldiers from officially serving in combat -- a decision that raised the urgency on efforts to address the festering crisis of sexual assault within the U.S. military. That crisis -- which claimed more than 50 victims of sexual assault a day in the latest year of Defense Department data -- is the subject of the Oscar-nominated 2012 documentary Invisible War. In this series, The Huffington Post invites victims and advocates to speak out about sexual assault in the military.

Retired Air Force Technical Sergeant Jennifer Norris sat in front of the House Armed Services Committee hearing this week and courageously spoke out against the sexual assault epidemic plaguing our armed forces. Norris, who was sexually assaulted while serving at a Mississippi Air Force base, described the retaliatory reactions and breakdown of justice that she views as inherent within the military.

As a member of the Armed Services Committee, I also participated in this hearing, which focused on the sexual assault incidents and investigation at Lackland Air Force Base, as well as the broader military sexual assault crisis. During my interaction with U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff General Mark A. Welsh III and General Edward A. Rice, Jr., USAF Commander, Air Education and Training Command, I described how a chance meeting with a young female soldier opened my eyes to this sprawling problem.

Shortly after I was elected about five years ago, I attended a Wounded Warrior event. I approached a female soldier standing to the side of the room and asked her if sexual assault in the military was as prevalent as I was being told. She had been deployed several times and herself had never been sexually assaulted but responded by saying, "Ma'am, I am more afraid of my own soldiers than I am of the enemy." She described the small knife that she carried at all times for personal protection while on base.

Numerous other instances were highlighted in the film The Invisible War, a stark and moving documentary that was nominated recently for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

Without a doubt, sexual assault crimes across the branches of our armed forces are occurring with shocking regularity. Clearly, change is necessary at every level, from training, to the judicial process, to aftercare. But in order for practical changes to take hold and be effective, they must be accompanied by a universal culture change.

During the HASC hearing I asked General Welsh and General Rice how they planned to implement this much-needed cultural change within the military. In particular, how change was going to not only occur at the top officer level, but among enlisted members, who make up roughly 80 percent of the Air Force.

I believe the Air Force is beginning to understand how critical it is that more be done to address the prevalence of sexual assault in the military. However, they must fully accept that the current culture allows for these horrific crimes to continue. It is not just one little piece of the culture but rather a systemic problem that must be addressed from the top, down and the bottom, up.

In Congress we have provided the military with a new set of tools to utilize in this cultural rebuilding. The FY2013 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) builds upon the strides taken in previous years' NDAA provisions and aims to hasten the much-needed cultural change.

For example, the 2013 NDAA created special victims units for the investigation, prosecution and victim support in connection with child abuse, serious domestic violence or sexual assault offenses under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, adding a level of expertise and taking a step toward more successful investigations and prosecutions. The bill also includes a provision that will allow better oversight and the tracking of prior steps taken by the Department of Defense to ensure that sexual assault provisions from prior Defense Authorizations are enforced as strongly as possible.

These new oversight tools will hold the services accountable and help ensure the full implementation of NDAA provisions from this and past years; new policies, resources and services will add layers of protection and support for those who have experienced sexual assault.
By 2025 it is expected that 25 percent of the military will be comprised of women, and this week Secretary Leon Panetta announced he is lifting the ban on women serving in combat roles, opening the door to thousands of new opportunities for women in the armed forces. A shift in culture is not only fair, it is also necessary.

The military must find a way to incorporate its changing demographics in order to best utilize this talented, diverse new pool of soldiers, as well as how best to keep them safe - male and female.

A military unit succeeds or fails based on its members' ability to trust and cooperate with the men and women standing beside them. By tolerating military sexual assault, the military is depriving itself of valuable assets and squandering resources in a way that we simply cannot afford. It is time to uproot this deep-rooted cultural failure. It is not only a matter of honor and integrity that we do so; it is a matter of national security.