At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing today focused on efforts to stop sexual assaults in the military, Air Force Chief of Staff General Mark Welsh praised the success of an Air Force pilot program that provides victims with a military lawyer to assist sexual assault victims through the legal process. A key provision in the Combating Military Sexual Assault Act, introduced by Senators Patty Murray (D-WA) and Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) on May 7, would expand the successful Air Force program to all service branches by providing victims of sexual assault with a Special Victims’ Counsel – a trained and certified military lawyer to assist the victim throughout the process.
In response to a question from Senator Ayotte, General Welsh testified that responses from victims regarding the Air Force’s Special Victims’ Counsel pilot program have been “overwhelmingly positive.” He testified earlier in the hearing that he intends to recommend the continuation of the program.
Senator Ayotte stressed the need to ensure that victims of sexual assault are able to report incidents without fear of retribution and urged the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, to provide Special Victims’ Counsel to victims in all military services.
“I want to make sure that every victim of sexual assault gets the support that they need in the system….there’s a group of people that are not coming forward because they fear how they are going to be treated in the system. So I think knowing that there’s a representative that represents them, and will represent their rights and respect their rights within the system…is very important,” she said.
“It’s a very encouraging sign to hear General Welsh highlight the successes of the Special Victims Counsel program, which is at the heart of our bill,” said Senator Murray. “Our legislation builds on these successes and affords victims in the other branches with the protections they deserve through a dedicated counsel that is with them every step of the way through what is without question a deeply personal and painful process. Sexual assault among our men and women in uniform is a tragic epidemic that seems to get worse by the day. Up until this point, we have not taken meaningful steps to give victims a place to turn. We need to create a system where the protection and safety of victims is unquestionable.”
The Murray-Ayotte Combating Military Sexual Assault Act (S.871) takes additional steps aimed at reducing sexual assaults within the military and helping the victims of these crimes. The legislation would address a number of gaps in current law and policy and would build upon the positive steps the Pentagon has taken in recent years to address this problem. The Murray-Ayotte bill currently has 37 bipartisan cosponsors.
The Combating Military Sexual Assault (MSA) Act of 2013 legislation would:
- Provide victims of sexual assault with Special Victims’ Counsel (SVC) – a military lawyer who will assist sexual assault victims throughout the process.
- Enhance the responsibilities and authority of DoD’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (SAPR) Office so that it can better oversee efforts to combat MSA across the Armed Forces and regularly track and report on a range of MSA statistics, including assault rate, number of cases brought to trial, and compliance with appropriate laws and regulations within each of the individual services.
- Refer cases to the general court martial level when sexual assault charges are filed or to the next superior competent authority when there is a conflict of interest in the immediate chain of command.
- Bar sexual contact between instructors and trainees during and within 30 days of completion of basic training or its equivalent.
- Ensure that Sexual Assault Response Coordinators (SARC) are available to members of the National Guard and Reserve at all times and regardless of whether they are operating under Title 10 or Title 32 authority.
ADDITIONAL KEY EXCERPTS FROM TODAY’S HEARING:
Air Force Chief of Staff, General Mark Welsh:
“Feedback from the victims has been very, very positive. We believe the program is working very well for us, we’re excited about where it’s going….I’m going to recommend to my Secretary that we continue the program…”
“The positive return rate is about 95 percent on these surveys, overwhelmingly positive about the benefits of having someone who understood the legal process, who was by their side supporting them primarily the entire time, who shielded them from unnecessary questioning, who helped them understand the intricacies and the confusion and the tax law of the legal system that they're now in.”
“The special victims counsel, in my mind, is one of the set of game-changing things that can help us in this area across the spectrum of issues related to sexual assault. Right now it's the only one we have found that is really gaining traction.”
Colonel Jeannie Leavitt, Commander, 4th Fighter Wing, U.S. Air Force:
“The special victims’ counsel…gives the victim a voice.”