06/05/2013 05:06 pm ET Updated Aug 05, 2013

Let's Put Victims First in Addressing Military Sexual Assault

Today there is much ado about the Senate Armed Services Committee's "Sandra Fluke moment." It's unfortunate that the visual image of the witness panel made up almost entirely of high-ranking military officials prompted many to wonder if the voices of victims would be silenced. What's even more unfortunate, however, is the language that was used, and the tensions that have emerged between Members of Congress who are trying to address this issue and military leadership.

It pains me to think of how survivors of military sexual assault must feel as they witness this ongoing debate between Congress and military officials, which will affect their fate on a deeply personal level. In the past year, according to the Defense Department, there were approximately 26,000 sexual offenses in the military. But only one in eight victims reported their attack. Perhaps most tragically, less than one percent of these cases resulted in a conviction.

We've heard personal accounts, from military women and survivors of assault, that they don't feel safe, and they don't feel supported. They tell us that they fear retaliation for reporting the crimes against them, and they lack faith in the system. Victims describe a culture of terror, and of impunity for attackers. Recently, we even learned that two military leaders who were charged with preventing sexual assault have been accused of sexual crimes.

Last week, we learned of a story at the U.S. Naval Academy, where a young woman who was incapacitated at a football party was raped by three midshipmen who then took credit for the assault on social media. When this woman decided to come forward, she was pressured not to participate in the investigation, retaliated against by the Naval Academy community and the football team, and disciplined for drinking. This kind of re-victimization of an assault survivor should not be tolerated -- and yet it was. Rather than providing much-needed support services to this woman, her community instead placed blame on the victim.

We must all be asking ourselves how we can support victims of these horrific crimes, and frankly, this year, we must all be open to brave new ideas. Military leaders tell us that recent reforms "have made progress" and "need time to take hold." But we have addressed military sexual assault again and again, year after year, including last year when numerous provisions were adopted into the National Defense Authorization Act. Secretary Panetta made it a priority during his brief tenure and Secretary Hagel has also made clear it is a priority for him as well.

It's time to put bold ideas on the table. It's time to ask the big questions. How do we block offenders from serving and make sure that those found guilty of sexual crimes don't remain in service with their victims? How do we make sure that victims have specially-trained legal and other assistance when they need it most? And the biggest question of all: how do we make sure that commanders are a part of the solution and are not contributing to the lack of accountability that has dogged efforts to stop these assaults and punish offenders? Should we establish a separate legal authority, outside the chain of command, to make key decisions about cases? I support that particular proposal but am certainly open to working with any proposals that help get us closer to the solution we are seeking -- strong accountability in the military that is not subject to the whim of individuals and the neglect of justice.

As this Congress (and future ones to be sure) wrestles with these questions -- some of the most critical we will tackle this year -- I implore my colleagues to think of the assault survivors who are watching. Think of how our words fall on their ears. Senator Saxby Chambliss caused shudders around the country at the hearing yesterday when he attributed sexual assault to young men's "hormones." And the military officials raised hackles when they seemed defensive and utterly dogmatic about their chain of command. Let's strive to reassure the 26,000 victims from this year, and countless more from previous years, that we care deeply about them. And let us think about the thousands of men and women in uniform who we can prevent from ever becoming victims of sexual assault if we -- Congress, the president, and the military leaders who testified yesterday -- act swiftly and with courage.