05/29/2012 07:20 pm ET Updated Jul 29, 2012

Properly Addressing Sexual Assault in the Military

Last year, an Army sergeant was raped by one of her comrades while she was serving in Afghanistan. She pursued a criminal charge against her assailant but feared she would be forced to serve side-by-side with him while the investigation was pending. Both the victim and her commanders were unaware of a new law that Congress passed providing victims with the right to request a transfer to a different unit or base in the aftermath of an assault. Fortunately, my office was able to work with her and see that she was granted the transfer request entitled to her.

Prior to being raped, this sergeant had glowing evaluations and a promising future in the military. As she set about moving forward and continuing her career in her new unit, however, she discovered that several negative performance assessments and unfounded counter-accusations had been entered into her service record after she reported her assault. She learned that her record had been flagged preventing all favorable actions, including re-enlistments, participation in promotion boards and further career development training.

Unfortunately, she is not alone in this experience. Another survivor informed my office that when she sought counseling after being attacked, her commander threatened to discharge her on the basis of a personality disorder. We have also seen several reports in the media about other survivors who were discharged under similar conditions, and whose permanent service records were altered.

Retaliatory gestures and intimidation techniques have for years had a chilling effect on the willingness of victims of sexual assault in the military to come forward. This reality is reflected in the alarming statistics that reveal that as many as 1 in 3 women leaving military service have experienced some form of Military Sexual Trauma. By the Pentagon's own estimate though, as few as 13.5 percent of these assaults are reported.

As a member of the Armed Services Committee, I have been working with a core group of legislators to correct this injustice. Our efforts culminated recently when Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta came to Capitol Hill to speak with members of the Military Sexual Assault Prevention Caucus which I co-chair with Congressman Michael Turner (R-OH). Along with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey, Secretary Panetta announced a new commitment to combat sexual assault in the military saying, "we believe that we have developed a set of initiatives that fundamentally change the way that the Department deals with this problem."

The initiatives he announced included a requirement that any reported sexual assault against a military service member will now be subject to action by an officer no lower than the rank of Colonel or Naval Captain. Elevating this review will help remove the bias that may exist within the immediate chain of command. It will also help to ensure that these cases are handled at a level commensurate with the seriousness of the crime and ensure that our military leaders retain accountability when assaults occur.

The Secretary also announced that each service branch would form Special Victims Units that will dedicate greater resources and expertise to sexual assault investigations and the prosecution of these offenses. The recent formation of Special Victims Units in the Army has allowed more prosecutors to bring sexual assault cases forward but demand for these services far exceeds the current manpower and resources of this unit. Providing the means necessary to expand the reach of these units will help bring offenders to justice, serve as a deterrent against future incidents of sexual assault, and is an important acknowledgement of the unique nature of these crimes.

Taken together, these substantive changes underscore a new-found resolve at the Department of Defense to address this crime in a more comprehensive and transparent manner. Congress also came together late last year to place a General at the head of the DoD's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, grant victims the right to a base transfer, the right to legal counsel, and the right to confidentiality when seeking assistance from an advocate. And, just last week, the House of Representatives passed the National Defense Authorization Act that would for the first time require each branch of the service to help victims correct their records if negative marks were recorded on their otherwise honorable service in retribution for reporting a sexual assault.

The military must continue to build on these efforts to address the unacceptably high incidence of this crime, and Congress must continue to exercise its necessary oversight role to hold our military leaders accountable as we did last week.