04/12/2011 05:59 pm ET Updated Jun 12, 2011

Lawmakers To Introduce Bill To Expand Legal Rights, Protections To Military Victims Of Sexual Assault

WASHINGTON -- Lawmakers will introduce a bipartisan bill Wednesday that for the first time would provide expanded legal rights and protections for service members who have been the victims of sexual assault while serving in the military.

The Defense STRONG (Sexual Trauma Response, Oversight and Good Governance) Act comes at a time when the Pentagon is being sued for turning a blind eye -- or not doing enough -- to combat sexual misconduct in the military.

A growing number of women soldiers are returning home as victims of sexual trauma inflicted on them by their own comrades in arms. Recent studies reveal that as many as one in three women leaving military service report they have experienced some form of military sexual trauma, or MST. But the Pentagon estimates that as few as 13.5 percent of sexual assaults are reported. And while 40 percent of sexual assault allegations in the civilian world are prosecuted, just 8 percent of similar allegations are brought to justice in the military.

The legislation, co-sponsored by Rep. Niki Tsongas (D-Mass.) and Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio), would provide victims with the right to legal counsel and the right to transfer to another base. It also would allow them to maintain confidentiality when speaking with victim advocates. In addition, the bill would mandate increased training on sexual assault prevention for troops.

Advocates for women in the military have applauded the legislation, but its fate remains uncertain in a Republican-dominated House consumed with the fight over the federal budget.

“Military rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment are at a crisis point, posing a significant threat to military personnel, mission readiness and national security,” said Anu Bhagwati, a former Marine captain who heads SWAN, the Service Women’s Action Network. “Despite decades of trying, the military has failed to implement policies to protect service members or to defend the basic rights of survivors. With 19,000 service members assaulted last year, there is an immediate need for this crucial legislation,” she said.