Friday, May 17, 2013

Lawmakers Urge Obama To Bypass Congress To Confront Sexual Assault In The Military

The military’s sexual assault crisis has been in the headlines consistently for the past two weeks, leading two members of Congress to call on President Obama to take executive action and fix it.

Sen. John Tester (D-MT) and Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME) introduced the Ruth Moore Act of 2013 earlier this year to help the victims of sexual assault receive benefits once they leave the military. At present, the burden of proof for victims of rape and sexual assault to qualify for disability benefits for conditions related to their trauma, including treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder, is shockingly high, leaving many men and women unable to receive the care they need. A scheduled hearing on the bill was meant to take place on Wednesday, but has instead been delayed until June 3.

Rather than waiting for the Ruth Moore Act to pass, the bill’s sponsors sent Obama a letter on Thursday calling on him to use his authority as president to act now:

We commend your willingness to work with Congress to address the prevalence of sexual assault in the military. However, given the increasing rate of these assaults and the dramatic implications they are having on our service members, veterans, and their families, we strongly urge you to take further action to confront this crisis. In particular, you have the ability to provide justice for thousands of survivors of service-related sexual trauma by calling for more fairness in the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) disability claims process, and increasing their ability to access the benefits they desperately need. [...]

Our legislation continues to garner support in Congress and has been endorsed by every major veterans’ service organization. Legislation, however, is not necessary to keep faith with these veterans. In 2010, the VA relaxed evidentiary standards to make it easier for combat veterans suffering from PTSD to get the disability benefits they need. It is past time the VA make a similar regulatory change for MST survivors. And you can direct them to do so.

Sexual assault and rape culture in the military has reached a tipping point in the last two weeks, with multiple stories about officials in positions to prevent assaults being charged or investigated for sexual assault themselves. “We’re losing the confidence of the women who serve that we can solve this problem,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey said on Thursday. “That’s a crisis.”

Obama invited Dempsey, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, and several other military officials to the White House on Thursday to discuss the crisis. “The issue of sexual assault in our armed forces undermines that trust,” Obama said following the meeting. “So not only is it a crime, not only is it shameful and disgraceful, but it also is going to make and has made the military less effective than it can be. And as such, it is dangerous to our national security.” However, Obama warned, “there’s no silver bullet to solving this problem.”

Along with the Ruth More Act, several other pieces of legislation meant to address sexual assault in the armed services are pending on the Hill. Members of both parties and from both Houses of Congress signed on to co-sponsor the Military Justice Improvement Act, a bill seeking to revise the convening authority that officers previously used to overturn juries’ sexual assault convictions against their subordinates. The likewise bipartisan Combating Military Sexual Assault (MSA) Act of 2013 would reorganize the military’s support system for sexual assault victims, providing Special Victims Counsel to all victims.

In its most recent report, the Pentagon estimated 26,000 instances of sexual assault occurred against servicemembers last year, a twenty-seven percent increase over the previous year. Several polling experts, however, recently warned that the estimate may be off, as in their view it may be, as Bloomberg reported, “based on scanty response rates, questionable data and broad definitions of what constitutes abuse.”

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