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Omaha World-Herald

Midlands Voices: Sexual assault in military necessitates common-sense reforms (Nov. 20, 2013)

By Deb Fischer

Throughout the past several months, I’ve had the privilege of working closely with a number of my Senate Armed Services Committee colleagues on proposals to address sexual assault in the military.

The substantive reforms passed this year by the committee and included in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) are the result of a transparent, deliberate process. Open hearings were conducted in both the Military Personnel Subcommittee and the full committee — a truly historic milestone and a testament to just how seriously the Senate has considered the issue.

While I am deeply concerned about a number of issues facing our military — including severe fiscal pressures, dangerous readiness shortfalls and an aging nuclear deterrent — the problem of sexual assault is particularly insidious. Such violations are an egregious breach of faith in a unique institution built upon a foundation of trust, tradition and training.

Whether it’s within the classrooms of our nation’s service academies or in foxholes halfway around the world, service members have every right to expect they will be treated with respect and dignity. It’s not just women who suffer. The Pentagon has suggested that 53 percent of victims are men.

It’s clear more must be done, and there’s no time to waste. Notably, both Congress and the Department of Defense agree that the current situation is unacceptable.

I’m proud to have supported several aggressive measures to bolster the legal rights of service members. The reforms already adopted by the Armed Services Committee, and pending approval of the full Senate, would strengthen the rights of victims and improve the accountability of offenders.

During the committee’s mark-up process, I worked across the aisle with Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., to ensure victims are aware of their basic rights to be informed, present and heard at critical stages of trial.

I also cosponsored an amend- ment by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., requiring higher standards for those appointed to all Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (SAPR) offices. The committee adopted both of these amendments unanimously in May, in addition to other key provisions.

As result of this bipartisan effort, the current bill would provide victims with a Special Victims Counsel to make certain they are receiving unbiased, independent legal advice. It strips commanders of the ability to overturn jury convictions, makes retaliation against victims a crime, requires dishonorable discharge or dismissal for those convicted of sexual assault, and provides critical civilian oversight.

Despite achieving these unprecedented reforms, my colleagues and I continued to explore ways to better confront sexual assault after the committee process concluded.

Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., and I introduced an amendment last week to expand upon the committee’s progress. Our bipartisan amendment would extend current protections to service academies, boost evaluation standards for commanders, allow victims increased input and eliminate the “good soldier” defense in most cases.

These changes — both in our amendment, and in the whole NDAA — are significant.

But importantly, they are also serious and thoughtful. They are based on sound policy, not political sound bites. Any changes to the Uniform Code of Military Justice should come after a careful, public process with feedback from all sides. While our amendment is the product of such an effort, other proposals fall short of this standard.

The debate on sexual assault is often miscast as a so-called “women’s issue” and, unfortunately, one side is often wrongly portrayed as shielding the military from reform. Such descriptions do not accurately reflect the thought and debate that has driven this process.

The women of the Armed Services Committee have led this legislative effort, but it’s my firm belief that sexual assault is not a gender issue. It’s a violence issue, and it’s a threat to our military’s readiness.

Although senators disagree on other proposals, there is a widespread consensus that the steps already taken by the Armed Service Committee are indeed historic. The status quo is not preserved in this bill; these reforms are real and they will make a difference.

I encourage my colleagues to support our common-sense, bipartisan measures to protect our men and women in uniform from these violent crimes within their own ranks.

The writer, a Republican, is the junior U.S. senator from Nebraska.

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