(Photo: Reuters/Larry Downing)
With only five days remaining on the congressional schedule before legislators depart Capitol Hill for their home states, two competing Senate bills aiming to transform how the United States Armed Forces handle sexual assault cases might get lost in the shuffle.
Advocates for victims of sexual assault in the military are lobbying for the Senate to take action after the Pentagon revealed that 26,000 service members reported being victims of sexual assault in 2012.
The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights released its Statutory Enforcement Report, Sexual Assault in the Military, in July and found that "… 23 percent of women and 4 percent of men reported experiencing unwanted sexual contact since enlistment.
"… Based on this survey, the DoD estimates that approximately 26,000 Service members experienced some form of unwanted sexual contact, ranging from sexual contact crimes such as groping, to rape in 2012.
The report continues, "The anonymous survey data from 2012 also revealed that many victims were being targeted by a Service member with superior rank and about half were targeted by a co-worker …"
Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) have proposed two different and competing proposals they are pushing to get through before the close of the first session of the 113th Congress.
Both Senators' proposals are amendments attached to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which has already been blocked once in the Senate. And Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), is not expected to give much time to consider amendments on the annual defense authorization bill.
If the Senators can't get their amendments added to the NDAA, they can try to bring their bills for a Senate vote separate from the NDAA.
The Gillibrand bill has been filed under a procedure known as Rule 14, which would allow Senate leaders to expedite it and bring it directly to the floor for action.
Gillibrand's amendment would remove a commander's authority to decide whether or not to prosecute cases of alleged sexual assault, but keeps the judicial process within the military system. McCaskill's proposed reform, however, would keep prosecution authority within the military chain of command but expands protections for service members who report sexual assault and prohibits the "good soldier" defense for those accused of crimes, among other provisions.
Paula Coughlin, the whistle-blower in the Navy Tailhook scandal who is now an advisory board member at the advocacy organization Protect Our Defenders, recently told The Christian Post that she fully supports the Gillibrand amendment over McCaskill's, because, as she explained, "to think that the commanding officer of any command could possibly serve without any undue influence when they have both the accuser and the accused working for them, it's just completely unreasonable. If you would overlay that into the civilian sector, it's basically unconstitutional."
Coughlin told CP that her Navy career ended after being a victim of sexual assault 20 years ago. While working as an Admiral's aide, she was assaulted walking down a hotel hallway during the annual naval aviation symposium, known as Tailhook.
She said the morning following her assault she took her complaint to her commanding officer, but was told, "That's what you get for walking down the hallway full of drunk aviators."
"Ultimately, this is about the worst betrayal somebody could experience in the military. With the exception of possibly of the betrayal I experienced the next morning when I told my boss, my commanding officer, about my assault and he told me that's what I get," Coughlin recalled.
Based on her experience, navigating through the military chain of command and fighting to get complaints heard and investigated is not beneficial for victims of sexual assault.
"Fortunately, this has given me an insight and a perspective to understanding the damage that's done from a sexual assault or any assault in the military," she added. "And, it's also really been the driving force for me, and any other victim, in trying to eradicate assault in the military."
In June, the House passed, by a 423-0 vote, a bill by Rep. Jackie Walorski, R-Ind., that is identical to a provision included in the House version of the 2014 defense authorization bill and is similar to McCaskill's proposal -- which many believe does not go far enough -- but would require independent investigations if military rape or sexual assault victims allege retaliation for reporting the crimes, and would strip commanders of their ability to overturn jury convictions and mandate dishonorable discharge for those convicted.
Coughlin told CP that she's been disappointed by the slow movement in passing these measures in the House and Senate, and will continue to advocate for the Gillibrand bill in January 2014 if it doesn't pass this session.
"[O]nce you're victimized, I think that you have a choice whether to fight that force or that dynamic that allowed it to happen, and somehow you get peace of mind, or it crushes you. And I think I'm with most members of the military that fight back and say, 'This should not happen to another person.' That's been a path I first got thrown onto and then resented it, and now I just understand that it's an experience that I'm going to make the best out of," she said, noting all of the House and Senate offices she's gone to to meet with military affairs legislative assistants.
What's most compelling, Coughlin said, is when service members share their personal account of what happened to them and then to describe the breakdown of the system after the assault. "That is what gets people's attention."
"For me, in particular, I describe my account and how it happened over 20 years ago, and the exact same exceptionally dysfunctional dynamic remains intact. And now, this Senate has an opportunity to really make a change," she commented. "That's what we're trying to eliminate -- that you can keep going the way you've been going since my assault came forward."
What's needed, Coughlin asserted, is, "A real and lasting change in the way these court cases or these assault cases are brought forward. The victim has got to be able to come forward without fear of retribution, and the commanding officers have got to be able to process a complaint with a real, professional prosecution team. That's what the Gillibrand amendment is going to offer, is an opportunity for real prosecution, real conviction, and protection to the victims."
Coughlin further commented that she doesn't understand why members of Congress are hesitant to transform the military's policy on reporting and investigating sexual assaults, and believes that the resounding push back from the Pentagon is what is stopping this Gillibrand amendment from moving forward.
"The Pentagon is pushing back so hard," she said, "and there are members of the Senate and House that are clearly aligned with the Pentagon because of their longstanding relationship. This old, good ole' boy club of, 'Hey, don't change anything, it's good the way it is. We've got a handle on this problem.'"
"I try and figure out why this dynamic exists. Where members of the House and Senate would want to align themselves with the Department of Defense, when the DoD, for the 22 years I've been into it, has failed miserably on trying to eradicate rapists from their ranks."
She continued: "What I think is a mindset in our military and our Senate leadership is that they are capable of handling this situation, because – and I've actually heard [that] the admiral in charge of the Judge Advocate General Corps. wrote a letter and said, 'Because I said so, should be reason enough for a commanding officer to handle this kind of criminal element in the military.'"
"They still believe that they have a handle on the problem. And it stems from them not understanding the scope of the problem, and it comes from not understanding the depth and the detriment of the problem," according to Coughlin. "Those people who have a misunderstanding of the nature of this crime are the ones who think they can still fix it."