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Senator Boxer seeks “citizen cosponsors” for landmark legislation to protect sexual assault victims

June 1, 2013 (Washington D.C.) – The House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday is expected to hear the Military Justice Improvement Act, a bill sponsored by 17 members of Congress including Senator Barbara Boxer (D-California), who is asking the public to support  the measure by becoming citizen cosponsors here.

The number of sexual assaults in the U.S. military rose by 35% from 2010 to 2012, according to a Defense Department report which found 26,000 members of the military had been victims of sexual assault – 70 assaults a day. Yet only 10% were even reported, and far fewer were prosecuted. 

Demands for reform have been fueled by two assaults in May in which military sex prevention officers were themselves charged with sexual abuse and other cases in which general overturned guilty verdicts in sexual assault cases.

The bill would take decisions about whether to go to trial out of the hands of senior commanders and put them in the hands of military prosecutors. It would also stop senior commanders from being able to unilaterally overturn a judge's or jury's conviction.  The measure applies to all crimes, not only sexual assault, except for military crimes such as disobeying orders or being absent without leave.

Senator Boxer, in a letter to constituents, recalls that “there was not a dry eye I the room” when Stacey Thompson, a Marine Corps veteran and sexual assault survivor, shared her harrowing study publicly for the first time.

“Stacey told the stunned room how she was drugged by her sergeant, raped in his barracks, and then dumped onto a street outside a nightclub at 4:0‌0 a.m., “ Senator Boxer said. “I wish I could tell you that this tragic story ended with her rapist being punished and Stacey getting the help she needed and deserved. But none of that happened.”  Instead,  the rape survivor was investigated for drug use that night and discharged.

“ It was the rape survivor herself -- and not the rapist -- who was treated as a criminal," Boxer said.” It was a travesty -- and it must end.”

Senators Kirsten Gillebrand (D-New York and Susan Collins (R-Maine) are among the bill’s bipartisan sponsors. Gillebrand has said that many victims report fear of retaliation if they report sexual assaults.

A female Army veteran, now deceased, told this reporter that a commanding officer threatened to send her into a combat area if she refused to perform a sexual act.  Another veteran, Wendy Barranco (photo left), told ECM that she had frequently been a victim of sexual harassment  including by a surgeon in Iraq and by a military recruiter, but she did not report it for fear that she would not be believed.  

A male veteran, Joseph Rocha, told ECM of sexual abuse and torture at the hands of his commanding officer while in training to become a dog handler in the Middle East. A female officer who tried to intervene and protect him was threatened and ultimately committed suicide. A public records search found that the officer who assaulted him had more than 90 complaints of abuse filed by numerous military members.

The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-California), however has voiced doubts over the legislation is necessary, Military.com reported on May 16.

President Barack Obama has said he expects quick action to punish sex offenders in the military. “I don’t want just more speeches or awareness programs or training…We have to e4xponentially step up our game to go after this hard,” he said. “Sexual assault is an outrage. It is a crime, and that’s true for society at large. And if it happens inside our military, whoever is carrying it out is betraying the uniform that they’re wearing.”

General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel have reportedly been summoned to the White House by the President, who has demanded action to crack down on military sexual abuse.

Dempsey has  said he believes the stress of multiple deployments in the long Iraq and Afghanistan Wars are factors in the rising incidents of sexual assault, Armed Forces Press Service reported.  “This is not to make excuses,” Dempsey said, but added, “We should be better than this. In fact, we have to be better than this.”

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