Amid a seeming epidemic of military sexual assault — the Pentagon estimates that such incidents have increased 35 percent over the past two years, while at least two military officials assigned to sexual assault prevention units have themselves been charged with inappropriate sexual conduct — Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, a Democrat from Maine, is pushing President Barack Obama to "take further action to confront this crisis."
In a letter dated May 16, Pingree and US Senator Jon Tester (D-Montana) asked Obama to direct the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to relax evidentiary standards for military sexual trauma survivors to receive disability benefits. The VA made that change for PTSD patients in 2010.
"The current standards are difficult, if not impossible, to meet, and they do an injustice to veterans who have honorably served their nation yet suffered a horrific trauma," the letter reads.
Pingree and Tester are sponsors of the Ruth Moore Act of 2013, named for a Maine Navy veteran who fought for 23 years to get disability benefits after a sexual assault left her suffering from a sexually transmitted disease and depression.
The bill essentially shifts the burden of proof away from the victim. It would allow for a survivor's testimony to serve as sufficient evidence that an assault occurred (as opposed to requiring corroborating data such as a record of the assault — which is unlikely to exist, given that 85 percent of all military sexual assaults go unreported). It was passed with bipartisan support out of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs earlier this month. The full House was supposed to vote on the bill this Monday; that vote was postponed and has not yet been rescheduled. (Pingree spokesman Willy Ritch doesn't think the postponement is based on "anything untoward.")
In a move that reads as something of an extended middle finger to the military's ineffective action so far, the bill also requires that until action is taken, the VA must provide a monthly report to every veteran who has filed a claim or been treated at a VA facility (for any condition, not just sexual assault) explaining when the department will act.
"We want the VA to make these changes quickly, and every month they don't they're going to have to explain directly to the nation's veterans why they haven't," Pingree said in a statement.
Meanwhile, also last week, US Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York) and Barbara Boxer (D-California) introduced the Military Justice Improvement Act, which would change the way military crimes, including sexual assaults, are prosecuted, moving the authority to determine which cases are sent to trial, as well as the selection of judges and juries, to legal professionals as opposed to military commanding officers. It would also limit a commander's ability to overturn or otherwise dismiss a court-martial conviction.
"Under the current military justice system, commanding officers maintain the authority to control criminal cases as they move through the military courts," according to a press release issued by the Service Women's Action Network, which worked with Gillibrand and Boxer on the bill (and also with Pingree and Tester on theirs). "This has led to a system that does not provide justice for victims or proper due process rights for the accused. This has been seen recently in the military's consistent mishandling of sexual assault cases."
According to Pentagon reports, there were an estimated 26,000 sexual assaults in 2012, up from 19,000 in 2010. Only 3374 were reported, and of those, 302 prosecutions resulted in 191 convictions.