(Washington, D.C.) – Today, as the Senate debates the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) joined a bipartisan group of female Senators on the floor to speak out against sexual assault in the military and call on her colleagues to support some of the historic changes being made to prevent this scourge. Sen. Murray also highlighted her legislation with Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), which has been included in the NDAA bill, to provide trained military lawyers to victims of sexual assault in all service branches.
“When our best and our brightest put on a uniform and join the United States Armed Forces, they do so with the understanding they will sacrifice much in the name of defending our country and its people. But that sacrifice should never have to come in the form of abuse from their fellow service members,” said Senator Murray in her speech. “Thanks to bipartisan cooperation, the work of thousands of dedicated advocates, and the voices of countless victims who have bravely spoken out we are poised to make a difference on an issue that women everywhere have brought out of the shadows.”
In August, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel directed immediate implementation of several measures to “gain greater consistency of effort and enhance oversight, investigative quality, pretrial investigations and victim support” in cases of military sexual assault. Among other measures, the directive includes implementation of trained lawyers to provide victims in all branches with guidance through the legal process, similar to the legislation introduced by Senators Murray and Ayotte.
Full text of Senator Murray’s speech below:
“I first want to thank Senator Mikulski and Senator Collins for helping to bring many of us to the floor today to discuss an issue that: cuts across partisan lines, has plagued our nation’s military, and has gone unaddressed for far too long.
“Military Sexual Assault is an epidemic. And it has rightly been identified as such by the Pentagon. It is absolutely unconscionable that a fellow servicemember, the person you rely on to have your back and to be there for you, would commit such a terrible crime. It is simply appalling they could commit such a personal violation of their brother or sister in uniform. But, what’s worse, and what has made change an absolute necessity - is the prevalence of these crimes.
“Recent estimates tell us that 26,000 servicemembers are sexually assaulted each year. And just over 3,000 of those assaults are reported. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, about one in five female veterans treated by VA has suffered from military sexual trauma. One in five.
“That is certainly not the act of a comrade. It is not in keeping with the ethos of any of the services. And it can no longer be tolerated. And that is why the women of the Senate have been united in calling for action.
“There has been much made of the fact that there are now 20 women in the Senate – a historic number that I think we all agree still needs to grow. But it’s also important to remember that the number alone should not be what’s historic. Instead, it is what we do with our newfound strength to address the issues that are impacting women across the country. With this bill, the first Defense Authorization of this Congress, we are doing exactly that.
“We are taking historic action to help servicemembers access to the resources they need to seek justice without fear. And, one way this bill will help do just that, how it will: protect our servicemembers, assist victims, and punish criminals -- is through the inclusion of a bill I introduced, across party lines, with Senator Ayotte.
“Our bill, which is included in the base bill, creates a new category of legal advocates, called Special Victims’ Counsels, who would be responsible for advocating on behalf of the interests of the victim. These SVCs would also advise the victim on the range of legal issues they may face.
“For example, when a young Private First Class is intimidated into not reporting a sexual assault by threatening her with unrelated legal charges -- like underage drinking -- this new advocate would be there to protect her and tell her the truth.
“Since January, the Air Force has provided these advocates to over 500 victims through an innovative new pilot program. Ten months later, the results speak for themselves: 92% of victims are “extremely satisfied” with the advice and support their SVC lent them throughout the military judicial process, 98% would recommend other victims request these advocates, 93% felt that these advocates effectively fought on their behalf.
“In describing their experience with an advocate, one victim shared that, “Going through this was the hardest thing I ever had to do in my life. Having a Special Victim Counsel helped tremendously . . . No words could describe how much I appreciate having one of these advocates.”
“Through our bipartisan efforts the Defense Authorization bill will also enhance the responsibilities and authority of DoD’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office – also known as SAPRO.
“This improvement will help to provide better oversight of efforts to combat military sexual assault across the Armed Forces. SAPRO would also be required to regularly track and report on a range of MSA statistics, including assault rates, the number of cases brought to trial, and compliance within each of the individual services.
“Some of this data collection and reporting is already being done.
“So this requirement would not be more burdensome, but it would give that office authority to track and report to us on the extent of the problem.
“I believe the great strength of our military is in the character and dedication of our men and women who wear the uniform. It is the courage of these Americans, to volunteer to serve, that are the Pentagon’s greatest asset. I know it is said a lot, but take a moment to really think about it.
“Our servicemembers volunteer to face danger, to put their lives on the line, to protect the country and all its people. When we think of those dangers, we think of IEDs. We think of battles with insurgents, we shouldn’t have to focus on the threats they encounter from their fellow servicemember.
“And we should never, never allow for a culture in which the fear of reporting a crime allows a problem like this to fester year after year.
“These are dangers that cannot be accepted, and none of our courageous servicemembers should ever have to face. Earlier this year when I asked Navy Secretary Ray Maybus about the sexual assault epidemic, I was glad that he told me that “concern” wasn’t a strong enough word to describe how he feels about this problem. He said he is angry about it.
“And I know many of us here, particularly many of my female colleagues who have dedicated so much time to this issue, share this feeling and want to put an end to this epidemic. So, I am hopeful that we can work quickly to do right by our nation’s heroes.
“Because when our best and our brightest put on a uniform and join the United States Armed Forces, they do so with the understanding they will sacrifice much in the name of defending our country and its people. But that sacrifice should never have to come in the form of abuse from their fellow service members.
“I’m proud that the women of the Senate have taken this issue head on. And what should never be lost in the effort to enact the many changes that have been proposed, is that for too long this was an issue that was simply swept under the rug. That’s no longer the case.
“Thanks to bipartisan cooperation, the work of thousands of dedicated advocates, and the voices of countless victims who have bravely spoken out -- we are poised to make a difference on an issue that women everywhere have brought out of the shadows.”