Ending a Culture of Willful Denial

A new plan makes unprecedented changes to stem sexual assault in the military.

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Ground security forces at Bagram have been able to reduce the number of attacks on the base by 47 percent in the last year, but there is a still a threat from the outlying community.

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In 2009, the Department of Defense released an alarming report on sexual assault in the military that was largely ignored by the media and military brass alike. Four years later, after a shocking documentary and a string of high-profile incidents where military commanders and supervisors abused their authority or allegedly committed the crimes they swore to protect against, everyone is paying attention.

For the past several years, regardless of how intense the public spotlight was, a group of us in Congress has been taking on this issue, which has wide-ranging implications for our military's culture, its justice system and how the victims themselves are treated. Multiple bills were enacted that demanded accountability and transparency, and in doing so, ultimately revealed a flawed military culture. Congress responded with force and put in place new tools to combat this crime and support those affected.

This year's annual defense bill contains the most potent and historic changes to date, upending the status quo and demanding action from a military that has failed to effectively address this longstanding problem. This bill, which provides major resources to survivors and makes unprecedented, substantial changes to a commander's authority, is on its way to becoming law. We are working now to get it across the finish line.

[See a collection of political cartoons on women in combat.]

The 2014 National Defense Authorization Act, containing provisions authored by our bicameral, bipartisan group of lawmakers, was passed by the House of Representatives on June 14th and will soon come before the Senate. Once it becomes law, those convicted of sexual assault will, at a minimum, be dishonorably discharged or dismissed from military service. And, more significantly, this is the first successful bipartisan effort to make meaningful changes to the powers held by a military commander. Commanders will no longer have the ability to dismiss court martial convictions for serious offenses, including sexual assault.

Stripping commanders of this authority upholds the sanctity of jury decisions and sends a strong message to perpetrators, victims and all service members: Congress will not tolerate a culture of willful denial. A system that seeks to protect criminals, and revictimizes those affected by this heinous crime, is unacceptable. Our legislation makes significant progress toward fixing the flaws in the command structure.

To be sure, the vast majority of our military personnel are honorable, conscientious and respectful individuals, not rapists or harassers. But given the recent high profile incidents at every level of the armed forces, it has become painfully evident that this is a complex systemic problem. Accountability is needed at every level – officer and enlisted alike.

[VOTE: Should Military Sexual Assaults Be Dealt With By Commanders?]

With 62 percent of military sexual assault victims saying they were retaliated against for reporting the assault, action is being taken to better protect those who come forward to report these crimes. To create an environment that encourages victims to report, and to support them when they report these crimes, our legislation builds upon previous bills to require the military to provide qualified and specially trained lawyers to victims of sex-related offenses. Survivors will have a dedicated legal specialist by their side to shepherd them through the legal process and improve their ability to seek justice more effectively.

This legislation is an unprecedented and powerful step to combat sexual assault in the military. These significant reforms offer considerable momentum toward changing the deep-rooted and flawed culture that has allowed sex crimes to pervade our armed forces. But they will not be the last. This bill is not a ceiling, but rather a robust foundation upon which we will continue to build.

We face the stark reality that no one piece of legislation will solve this problem, but continued scrutiny and diligence will lead to continued change. Other well-intended measures are being considered before Congress and an independent review panel is set to begin an intensive examination of the systems used to investigate, prosecute and adjudicate sexual assault crimes under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. These top legal, military and sexual assault experts will provide an impartial and informative guide on further reforming the current system and help us ensure future changes provide the utmost benefit to survivors.