11/11/2013 04:02 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

To Honor Veterans, Help Those Fighting the Invisible War

It's Veterans Day 2013 -- a time to honor our veterans -- and to help those among them fighting the invisible war of military sexual assault.

As President Obama said at Arlington after placing a Veterans Day wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns, the war in Afghanistan is ending but our service to veterans is not: "Our time of service to our newest veterans has just begun." Then our Commander in Chief declared, "This is how we will be judged: not just by how well we care for our troops in battle but how we treat them when they come home and by the America we build together."

That time of judgment begins this week as the Senate returns to Washington after Veterans Day parades and proclamations with a choice to make: when they consider the National Defense Authorization Act, (NDAA) will they perpetuate the broken military justice system or will they fix the problem by prosecuting crimes, punishing offenders, and supporting survivors?

We know the facts: A staggering 19,000 U.S. military service men and women are sexually assaulted every year. But 86 percent of them never report their assault -- too often because they believe that seeking justice threatens their safety, their job security and their future.

As the Academy-Award nominated documentary The Invisible War chronicled all too painfully, from a remote post in Alaska to the elite Marines at the White House, people are afraid to report within their chain of command because they have seen others suffer reprisals, recrimination, abuse and because they fear their adjudicator will not be impartial. When you have people afraid to report, you don't have any way to move forward on prosecutions. Without prosecutions, perpetrators act with impunity and criminal acts increase.

This military rape culture traumatizes tens of thousands of military sexual assault survivors and taints millions of honorable law-abiding service members. It must end. Some say the military should operate by special rules -- that relieving commanders of a duty for which they are not qualified or trained would somehow undermine morale. We have heard that in civilian society too: the victim-blaming conspiracy of silence in the Boy Scouts, the Catholic Church, and sports communities from Penn State to Steubenville. All share a common thread: the unpunished heinous actions of a few traumatizing the lives of many and tainting the tainting the honor of millions.

The Pentagon's institutional resistance to change is no excuse for rape culture -- and in fact perpetuates it. That is why thousands of activists, including many brave veterans from across America, are urging the Senate to change the military justice system as our U.S. allies have by removing sexual assault crimes from the chain of command. Under their proposal, commanders will still adjudicate all crimes involved with mission readiness and mission execution; they just will no longer oversee sex crimes (which commanders are neither trained nor qualified to oversee). I have prosecuted sex crimes perpetuated by strangers, family members and mentors of the victims. Sexual assault is a delicate, distinct body of jurisprudence that takes special training which military commanders presently do not have.

The legislation is carried in the Senate by Kirsten Gillibrand whose amendment to the NDAA is the only piece of legislation that will take the adjudication of these crimes outside the chain of command and give military prosecutors, rather than accusers' commanders, the power to decide which cases to try. Senator Claire McCaskill is pushing legislation that does not go as far -- her measure would strip commanders of their ability to overturn jury verdicts and mandate dishonorable discharge or dismissal for anyone convicted of sexual assault. But it would keep control of court-martial proceedings within the chain of command.

Senator Barbara Boxer would exempt victims of sexual assault from having to testify at what the military calls Article 32 pretrial hearings, which can include cross-examinations of victim that are so intense they frighten many victims from coming forward.

The Boxer amendment appears to have the necessary votes to pass; unfortunately the commanders are opposing the Gillibrand amendment and their Senate supporters have threatened a filibuster.

It should be noted that the Pentagon says removing this power from commanders will effect "good order and discipline" but clearly 49 rapes a day with minimal prosecutions is not an order that is either "good" or "disciplined." Moreover, I would argue that military sexual assault is akin to incest -- the victim joins "the family" and is subsequently abused then shamed for speaking out against one family member to another. Then isolation, guilt, continued abuse all combine to break down trust and moral cohesion -- the seeds of "good order" and "discipline."

We can look to the future with some hope from the past. The military resisted desegregation, women, and gay and lesbian patriots, each time insisting it would disrupt "good order and discipline," but each time overcame that resistance to reach enhanced and strengthened ranks. Fixing the broken military criminal justice system will yield immediate, positive and lasting results for active servicemembers and veterans. Increased prosecutions set a new standard: no more military rape culture in the service and no more stigmas for survivors.

We have the power this Veterans Day to use more than words but deeds to honor veterans. Our time of service begins with acknowledging that far too many service members past and present are fighting an invisible war from PTSD and military sexual assault. Veterans service organizations, medical care professionals, counselors, activists, and military families are doing heroic work in this invisible war but survivors need your help. So today, please think the veterans in your life and in your community -- then urge your Senators to help servicemembers and veterans fighting the invisible war.