Protecting Our Women in Uniform
Last year, I sat in my Washington office and listened to five women tell painful stories of how they had been sexually assaulted while in uniform. Each one of them had been a committed professional, each one had dreamed of a career in the military, each one had dedicated their life to serving our country. Each one was not only the victim of an assault, but also a victim of a very flawed system for responding to these attacks.
I had heard this kind of story too many times. These women had tried to get disability benefits, but it was too hard to prove the attack had occurred. It’s very difficult to prove sexual assault within the current system, making it hard for victims to qualify for the benefits they need. It’s truly a case of adding insult to injury.
The VA’s standards of proof for veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) because of a sexual assault are unreasonable, and much higher than the standard of proof for combat related incidents of PTSD. And PTSD is only one potential result of a sexual trauma; victims often suffer from depression or anxiety.
It’s absolutely outrageous that the men and women who sign up to defend our country end up being victims of sexual assault in the first place. For us, as a country, to then deny them the benefits they need to recover is simply unacceptable.
Victims often won’t report incidents because they don’t feel safe, or they think that when they do report them, it will likely be swept under the rug. That shouldn’t be a reason for their benefits to be denied. There isn’t any reason for their benefits to be denied.
I knew we couldn’t let the members of our military, who give so much to our country, get so little back in return at the moment they needed it most. I’ve been fighting to change these standards and make sure that members of our military have access to the protections, treatment and benefits they need and deserve.
It’s been the focus of the Military Sexual Assault Caucus to correct these problems. And our work has paid off. This week some of my colleagues and I met with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to discuss the proposed changes to the official military policy on sexual assault. These changes won’t make sexual assault in the military go away, but they are a good first step.
All military sexual assault cases will now be dealt with at a special court martial proceeding. This takes the incident out of the unit where the alleged abuse occurs which is a crucial step to securing a fair trial; currently these incidents are reviewed at the unit level, where the alleged attacker is often well known and popular.
In addition, a Special Victims Unit will be created, and it will be solely dedicated to investigating sexual assault. These specially trained investigators are much better suited to dealing with these unique and sensitive cases. And, all personnel will be required to undergo training within two weeks of joining the military and all units will be required to conduct an annual review of potential sexual assault problems.
These military men and women are true American heroes who should never be forced to suffer these kinds of attacks. In the event that they do, our policy needs to make help readily available and I think these proposed changes are a great first step in tackling this problem.
Chellie Pingree represents the first district of Maine in the U.S. House of Representatives.
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