05/08/2012 12:10 pm ET Updated Jul 08, 2012

Telling the Truth and Demanding Justice

Today, more than 250 advocates, supporters, lawmakers, family members and survivors of sexual violence in the military will come to Washington, D.C., in a first-of-its-kind event that will inform, empower and move forward critical efforts to eliminate sexual violence within the military.

"Truth and Justice, the 2012 Summit on Military Sexual Violence" is being presented by the Service Women's Action Network (SWAN). SWAN is a groundbreaking civil rights organization that focuses on the needs of service women and veterans. This innovative event will include remarks from several members of Congress, panel discussions from veteran survivors telling their own stories of resilience and reintegration, and military law and policy professionals discussing challenges and strategies for changing the culture and climate around the issue of sexual violence in the military.

SWAN is also recognizing lawmakers who have played a key role in getting military sexual assault policy reforms passed into law over the past year. Sens. John Kerry and Susan Collins and Reps. Mike Turner and Niki Tsongas will receive the "Maria Lauterbach Award for Truth and Justice" for their work in getting essential victims' protections enacted into law last year. The award has been established in remembrance of Maria Lauterbach, a young Marine who was murdered by her alleged rapist after her unit failed to adequately protect her. This year's inaugural award will be presented by Maria's mother, Mary Lauterbach.

Veterans who attend the Summit will also be making visits on Capitol Hill to share their experiences with members of Congress and ask that they take a stand and help end sexual violence in the military. These visits are happening the day prior to the House Armed Services Committee's mark up of the National Defense Authorization Act. As it has in the past, the NDAA for 2013 contains critical changes and much-needed reforms to military sexual assault policies. Many of these changes were announced recently by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, and the NDAA would codify them into federal law.

Secretary Panetta's recent policy announcement would move sexual assault case disposition to a much higher level and require senior ranking, more experienced officers to handle sexual assault cases. Panetta is also establishing "special victims units" in all the services, staffed with trained specialists to conduct sexual assault investigations and prosecutions.

This remarkable move by the secretary is the culmination of dedicated research, education and advocacy by SWAN. It is a significant process change for the military, but it is only one step forward in what will be a long march to make the military a safe workplace in which to serve. SWAN's legislative team has spearheaded reform efforts on the Hill, utilizing a strategy that focuses on introducing legislation that increases parity between the military justice system and the civilian justice system in three key areas: establishing similar protections for victims of military sex crimes available to civilians; ensuring that investigations of military sex crimes are handled appropriately and prosecutions result in convictions that carry significant punishments; establishing parity by opening up redress for service members in the civil courts in order to provide the same avenues for justice that civilians enjoy. There is no reason why a victim of a sex crime in the military should be treated like a second-class citizen.

This three-fold approach has met with much success. In April of 2011, the case disposition language proposed by SWAN was first introduced as a bipartisan bill by Iowa Rep. Bruce Braley. If the phrase "Special Victims Unit" sounds familiar, it is not only due to a popular TV show, but because many jurisdictions that see high rates of sexual assaults have adopted this model years ago. The victims' protections that the Maria Lauterbach Award recipients passed last year give service members the same right to legal counsel and confidential communications with victims advocates and providers that are readily available in the civilian world. The next step forward will be opening civil courts to service members who have been victims of sex crimes. The criminal courts are limited in the justice they can dispense to a sexual assault survivor; they are primarily designed to protect the rights of the accused. It is only through exercising the constitutionally provided federal court system that the victim has an opportunity to see justice served.

SWAN will continue to work with the DOD and Congress to ensure that step by step, the military continues to march down the road to becoming the absolute best it can possibly be, and service members are able to honorably serve their nation in a workplace that can systematically ensure real justice for all.