WASHINGTON – U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree and Sen. Susan Collins of Maine called on military and elected leaders Thursday to take more decisive steps to combat the problem of sexual assault in the armed forces, after a meeting of lawmakers and top Obama administration officials.
This week, the Pentagon reported a 37 percent jump since 2010 in the estimated number of service members who were sexually assaulted. The report, combined with several high-profile scandals involving sexual abuse in the armed forces, appears to have breathed additional life into an issue that many say the military has been too slow to address.
Collins, a Republican, said afterward that the military’s “policy of zero tolerance for sexual harassment and assault must become a culture of zero tolerance.” Pingree, a Democrat, said she was encouraged by the White House meeting, but it will likely take both administrative and congressional action to address the issue.
“I think we all wanted to hope that things were getting better,” Pingree said in an interview. “But based on the number of calls that we get and the number of people we hear from … we don’t see the signs that things are changing.”
The Pentagon’s report, based on anonymous surveys of more than 100,000 service personnel, estimated that 26,000 people in the armed forces were sexually assaulted last year, up from 19,000 in 2010.
But fewer than 3,400 victims reported the crimes, underscoring reform advocates’ contention that most victims remain silent for fear of retaliation, concern about effects on future promotions or a general distrust in leadership’s willingness to investigate complaints.
Sixteen lawmakers — 14 women and two men — met Obama’s senior adviser, Valerie Jarrett, first lady Michelle Obama’s chief of staff, Tina Tchen, and other representatives of the administration.
According to a White House official, the group discussed various legislative proposals and steps the administration could take to “hold offenders accountable, improve the reporting process, support victims and work toward the prevention of sexual assault.”
Collins and Pingree have been vocal voices on Capitol Hill for addressing sexual assault in the military. Both of New Hampshire’s senators — Democrat Jeanne Shaheen and Republican Kelly Ayotte — were also at Thursday’s meeting.
“To be sure, the vast, overwhelming majority of our military personnel are honorable, conscientious and respectful individuals, not rapists or harassers,” Collins said in a written statement after the meeting. “It is for their sake that the pattern of covering up, blaming the victim, and failing to provide even the most basic protections that has been all too common for far too long must end.”
Several legislative initiatives — including one by Pingree — are moving forward this spring, and congressional leaders in both parties are promising to continue focusing on the issue.
Pingree’s bill, named for Maine veteran Ruth Moore, would make it easier for veterans to qualify for benefits for mental health problems tied to sexual abuse that occurred during their time in the military. The policy shift would apply the same evidentiary standards now required for post-traumatic stress disorder to mental health problems because of “military sexual trauma.”
The bill was endorsed by a House committee this week and is headed to the full House for consideration. Collins is signed on as a co-sponsor of the companion Senate bill.
After Thursday’s meeting, Pingree said administration officials were “very receptive” to her suggestion that the White House take action on the issue with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
“It was a good chance to emphasize to the White House that while a lot of the emphasis has been on prosecution (of offenders), the VA side is critical,” Pingree said. “And this is something that the White House can direct the VA to do without legislation.”
Pingree is married to S. Donald Sussman, majority share owner of the Portland Press Herald.
Collins has successfully pushed for stronger sexual-assault prevention and response training programs in the armed services. She was an original sponsor of a measure, now law, that requires the armed services to offer sexual assault victims access to confidential advocates, to lawyers and to expedited transfers away from the accused attackers.
Several scandals have helped draw the public’s and Congress’ attention to the issue in recent months.
• More than 30 Air Force instructors are accused of sexually abusing trainees at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas.
• Decisions of high-ranking officers to overturn military convictions for sexual abuse have sparked further outrage and prompted cries to overhaul the military’s judicial handling of such cases.
• And just this week, the man in charge of the Air Force’s sexual assault prevention program was arrested and accused of groping a woman.
The award-winning documentary “The Invisible War,” in which Pingree appeared, also has helped raise public awareness.
Two lawmakers who were at Thursday’s meeting — Reps. Niki Tsongas, D-Mass., and Mike Turner, R-Ohio — are proposing to strip officers of the authority to change or dismiss court-martial convictions in major cases, such as sexual assault. Their bill would also require that an individual found guilty of rape, sexual assault, forcible sodomy or an attempt to commit any of those offenses be dismissed or dishonorably discharged, The Associated Press reported.
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