02/01/2013 10:26 am ET Updated Apr 03, 2013

Fighting the 'Invisible War'

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.

I first began working on the issue of sexual assault in the military in late 2007 when I learned of the tragic story of Lance Corporal Maria Lauterbach (USMC). Maria was a young woman from southwest Ohio who was honorably serving her country when she was allegedly sexually assaulted by a senior enlisted servicemember. Eight months later, she and her unborn child were murdered by the same accused servicemember.

Sexual assault in the military is a critical issue that strikes at the heart of force readiness, morale, and significantly erodes trust between servicemembers. The pervasiveness of the problem and the systematic burden placed on the victims rather than the offender in many of these cases is alarming. The systems in place to prevent and respond to sexual assault within our military need to be improved, and the culture that surrounds this crime need to be fundamentally changed. The young men and women serving in our military place great trust in our nation and their commanders and should be afforded the same in return.

This past year, Congresswoman Niki Tsongas of Massachusetts and I created the bipartisan Military Sexual Assault Prevention Caucus with the intent of educating Members of Congress on the serious problem of sexual assault in the military. Over the past several years prior to the forming of the caucus, the full House Armed Services Committee has worked to transform policy and create laws to help address the cultural and climate problems that lead to sexual assault while providing protection for victims.

Collectively, we have taken a victim-based approach to ensure legislative protections are afforded to our men and women in uniform. Servicemembers now have increased access to resources including sexual assault prevention officers and victim advocates. In addition to access of resources, correspondence between a victim and their advocate now remains private and privileged.

There is now a mandate that the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO) Director maintain the rank of General. It is required that Military Protective Orders (MPO) be made standing orders and that civilian authorities be notified when an MPO is issued and affects off-base personnel. Finally, it is now Department of Defense policy to allow victims the right to transfer units while elevating the disposition authority of sexual assault cases to the colonel level. These provisions and others like them, are just a few of the actions taken by Congress as we continue to educate leaders on the harsh realities faced by our servicemembers.

Recently, the United States Air Force announced the full implementation of a pilot program, which builds upon the right to legal counsel. These recent changes along with years of work with the House Armed Services Committee have begun to change how this issue is dealt with inside our military. For far too long, the issue of sexual assault had gone unchecked.

I must commend the efforts of Pentagon leaders, including Secretary Panetta, as well as U.S. Air Force Secretary Michael Donley and U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff General Mark Welsh for their continued efforts on behalf of our servicemembers.

I would also like to thank Mary Lauterbach and Kori Cioca for their commitment to this issue. Their bravery, exhibited in their willingness to publicly share their horrific personal experiences, has also helped in raising awareness and bringing attention to this serious and important issue. It is with their determination, that we have been able to influence and create laws that will hopefully improve military culture and provide a safer environment for our men and women in uniform.

By combating the issue of sexual assault in the ranks, we are strengthening the morale and readiness of our bravest citizens. I hope through the story of Maria and The Invisible War, we can continue on a path towards ending the crime of sexual assault in our military.