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Military sexual assaults demand justice

Independent prosecutors are best way to end scourge in our ranks


On June 4, the House of Representatives passed legislation I co-sponsored to help stop the denial of Veterans Administration disability claims to victims of military sexual trauma. The Ruth Moore Act will help support the victims of sexual assault or trauma in the military, but more must still be done to stop the crime before it happens. by: SUBMITTED PHOTO - Suzanne Bonamici.

Sadly, sexual assault has become all too common in our armed forces. One in five female service members report experiencing unwanted sexual contact while serving in the military, and a recent report shows it is a growing problem. According to the Defense Department’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, unwanted sexual contact increased by nearly a third in 2012. Appallingly, the conviction rate for these crimes is below 1 percent.

I’ve heard from Oregonians who live with the painful memory of sexual assault they experienced while serving, and veterans’ associations concerned for the safety of those who answer the call of duty. Members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff describe the problem as a “cancer within the force” that undermines unit cohesion. The need for new laws to address this problem could not be more urgent, and thankfully Congress is taking bipartisan action — but it is a complicated problem.

Under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, military crimes are handled within the chain of command. If a service member is sexually assaulted, the commanding officer is responsible for determining what actions should be taken; if further investigation is necessary; or if criminal charges and court-martial are appropriate. Commanding officers also have the authority to alter or dismiss court-martial convictions — without providing written justification.

The current system presents an obvious conflict. If a service member experiences unwanted sexual contact, she must report the crime to the same person responsible for handling her next promotion. If she was assaulted by a superior, she might be reporting the crime to an officer closely connected to the accused party. In some cases, victims are actively discouraged from reporting an incident.

The current system too frequently results in a miscarriage of justice, which is why I am working to pass legislation that would do what Israel, the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia have already done: allow independent third parties to prosecute these crimes.

One bill I’m working on is the Sexual Assault Training Oversight and Prevention Act. This bill would establish an autonomous Sexual Assault Oversight and Response Office, comprised of civilian and military experts charged with reporting, oversight, investigation and victim care of sexual assaults. This will remove these responsibilities from the chain of command. I also support the Military Justice Improvement Act of 2013, which would remove all crimes punishable by a sentence of more than one year — except those uniquely military in nature — from the chain of command.

Many of our military’s top leaders object to these changes in favor of preserving the current system of military justice. But after decades of reports on widespread sexual abuse in our military, the time for change has come. The Navy “Tailhook” convention in 1991, the Air Force Academy scandal in 2003, last month’s shocking report and many other incidents all show that the current system does not work. I look forward to working with my colleagues to pass the reforms necessary to stop sexual violence in our military and remove sexual predators from its ranks. These crimes have no place in our society or in our military.

U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, a Beaverton Democrat, represents Oregon’s 1st Congressional District, which includes the Southwest Portland neighborhoods of Ashcreek, Bridlemile, Crestwood, Hayhurst, Hillsdale, Multnomah and the Southwest Hills Residential League.