Military Sexual Assault Survivors Applaud Congress For Numerous New Bills

Survivors applaud holistic congressional approach to handling sexual assault in the military.

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Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., has introduced the latest in an onslaught of legislation that is intended to change the culture surrounding the military and the horrific commonality of sexual assault in the armed forces.

[BROWSE: Political Cartoons on Women in the Military]

Gillibrand unveiled the Military Justice Improvement Act Thursday, one of the most drastic steps lawmakers have taken to date in order to curb the staggering number of sexual assaults that occur in the military each year.


"Too often, these brave men and women find themselves in the fight of their lives not off on some far-away battlefield, but right here on our own soil, within their own ranks and commanding officers, as victims of horrific acts of sexual violence," Gillibrand said.

Under the legislation, discretion on whether to prosecute sexual assaults and other crimes punishable by more than a year in prison would be given to military prosecutors instead of their commanding officers. Gillibrand argues that victims need to know that the merits of their case will be considered by a law professional and not a supervisor.

[READ: Army Investigates Sexual Assault Prevention Worker Accused of Sexual Assault]

"Our bipartisan bill takes this issue head on by removing decision-making from the chain of command, and giving that discretion to experienced trial counsel with prosecutorial experience where it belongs. That's how we will achieve accountability, justice and fairness," Gillibrand said.

In the past, the military's top brass have been reluctant to allow such a drastic change, but lawmakers on Capitol Hill are pouring on the pressure as multiple reports of sexual assaults grab national headlines.

Gilibrand's bill is just one of many introduced this spring as the Department of Defense's annual report showed there were 26,000 sexual assaults in the military in 2012.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., introduced a bill earlier this month that would provide sexual assault victims with a military lawyer to help guide them through the complicated process of filing claims and would require DoD to keep better records on assault statistics.

[READ: Military Sexual Assault: Who Prevents the Preventers?]

Another bill, the Ruth Moore Act, introduced by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, would cut the red tape that prevents sexual assault victims from getting the disability benefits they are entitled to.

It is a lot of action on an issue that received relatively little media coverage or congressional scrutiny in years past and advocacy groups say they welcome the new momentum.

"The military has traditionally been playing Whac-a-Mole," says Greg Jacob, the policy director for the Service Women's Action Network. "There has not really been any attempt before to have systemic reform. This is one of the first times that we have so many people looking at the process."

Despite all the political grandstanding in Congress, Jacob says this is an issue that seems to have broken through the partisan noise.

[ALSO: Military Sexual Assaults Skyrocket as Hagel Announces News Plan of Attack]

"This has gotten bipartisan and bicameral traction. This is probably one of the toughest sessions of Congress since the Civil War in trying to get stuff done, but everyone is aware of this issue and there is a real effort and a real sense that there needs to be something collectively done," Jacob says.

For Ruth Moore, who was sexually assaulted by her supervisor more than 25 years ago, each bill offers an important step to give victims more options to report crimes. Moore argues that a holistic approach is the only way to stop the crimes.

"I think of it like a medical problem. While the Band-Aid approach is more focused, the problem is more like a systemic infection and the use of a broad spectrum antibiotic is the only way to treat it effectively," she says.

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