SHAHEEN: WE HAVE TO ADDRESS CRISIS OF MILITARY SEXUAL ASSAULT WITH MEANINGFUL REFORMS

On Senate floor, Shaheen calls for passage of the Military Justice Improvement Act

November 15, 2013

(Washington, DC) - U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) took to the Senate floor to call for much-needed reforms to the military justice system in order to better protect sexual assault survivors.  Last night, Shaheen called on the Senate to pass Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s (D-NY) legislation the Military Justice Improvement Act that would remove sexual assault cases from the chain of command to help encourage survivors of sexual assault in the military to report the abuse and remove fear and stigma from the process. Shaheen is an original co-sponsor of the legislation.

Senator Shaheen’s remarks as prepared for delivery are below: 

Mr. President, in the past several years we have all become increasingly aware of the prevalence of sexual assault in our military.

Personally, I am outraged that one of our nation’s proudest institutions is afflicted by this level of criminal violence.

In 1989, Secretary of the Navy H. Lawrence Garrett, III established a policy of “zero tolerance” for sexual harassment and sexual assault. 

Two years later the Tailhook scandal happened at a convention attended by the Secretary and the Chief of Naval Operations.

On June 2, 1992, Secretary Garrett wrote a memo to his military leaders that said: “While each individual must be accountable for his or her own actions, commanding officers have a unique responsibility for leadership in ensuring appropriate behavior and attitudes of those under their command." 

In the end, the Tailhook scandal resulted in 90 victims (83 women, 7 men), 140 officers facing possible punishment and zero criminal prosecutions for incidents of assault.  All of these events occurred under the same “zero tolerance” policy that military leaders espouse today.

The Tailhook scandal was only the beginning of our awareness of the “silent crisis” within the military.  Since that time, there have been numerous scandals in every Service.

Yet, twenty years later we are not only told that the system works, but that the status quo is vital to solving the problem.

This of course ignores the reality of the sexual assault crisis.  

In fact, according to the Department of Defense Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, 26,000 of cases of unwanted sexual contact and sexual assault occurred in 2012, an increase of 37 percent since 2011.

Clearly, something must change.  And something must change now.

Thanks to the hard work of Senators Gillibrand, Boxer, Blumenthal, and Hirono, along with all of our supporters on both sides of the aisle, this issue is back at the forefront of our national debate.

We now have an historic opportunity.

Not only to make meaningful, commonsense reforms to our military criminal justice system.

But to also send a powerful message to the tens of thousands of victims, many of whom have been suffering quietly for decades, that what happened to them is unacceptable, it’s criminal, and it will no longer be tolerated.  

The Military Justice Improvement Act of 2013 addresses what victims tell us is the number one problem in the current system.

Victims elect not to report because they fear their commanding officers will not take the issue seriously and they will be retaliated against.

According to the Department of Defense’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, 50% of female victims state they did not report the crime because they believed that nothing would be done with their report.

25% of women and 27% of men who received unwanted sexual contact indicated the offender was someone in their military chain of command.

Our legislation addresses the “chain of command” issue.  It removes the decision of whether to go to trial from the chain of command and puts it into the hands of experienced prosecutors.    

This is a straightforward change designed to promote transparency and accountability in the prosecution of these violent crimes.

It would also ensure that impartial individuals specifically trained to handle these cases determine whether they move forward, which permanently eliminates the conflicts of interest that exist in the current system.

We need all victims to know that if they come forward, their cases will be handled fairly and impartially.

Mr. President, several days ago we celebrated Veterans Day.  Many of us returned to our states to honor the men and women throughout our history that have served in uniform.  

Our military’s traditions of honor and respect are too important to continue to be plagued by this issue.

That is why I urge my colleagues to support the Military Justice Improvement Act.

We strengthen our military when victims of sexual assault have the confidence to come forward and report crimes, and we remove fear and stigma from the process.

We strengthen our military when we are able to deliver fair and impartial justice on behalf of victims. 

Every man and woman who wears the uniform deserves these rights. 

After twenty years of waiting, it is time we come through for them. 

Thank you Mr. President, I yield the floor.