May 20, 2013

Our View: Bills offer right response to military sex abuse crisis

Bipartisan efforts to treat victims better are good, but prevention measures are still needed.

Rape and sexual abuse perpetrated against members of the military by fellow service members have reached epidemic proportions and are a national disgrace.

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An estimated 26,000 members of the military were sexually assaulted by fellow service members in 2012, according to an extensive anonymous survey released last week, but because of fear of retaliation and effects on career advancement, fewer than 3,400 reported the crimes.

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Despite several years of increasing public awareness, these crimes against women and men serving their country happen even more frequently, abetted by a command structure that lets rapists get away with their crimes and discourages victims from coming forward. According to an extensive anonymous survey released last week, an estimated 26,000 members of the military were sexually assaulted in 2012, up from 19,000 in 2010. But fewer than 3,400 victims reported the crimes, out of fear of retaliation and effects on career advancement.

As appalling as these figures are, it's heartening to see a bipartisan consensus forming in Congress to take action. And members of the Maine delegation in both the House and Senate are taking leadership roles in making that happen.

Sen. Susan Collins is co-sponsor with Sen. Kristen Gillibrand, D-N.Y., of a bill that would make much-needed reforms to the military justice system. Under the current code, commanding officers can override a court's verdict and reinstate service members even after they've been convicted. This keeps victims from reporting the offenses.

The Gillibrand bill would put serious sexual assault accusations under a special prosecutor and would take away the commander's ability to reverse a verdict.

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, of Maine's 1st District, has a bill named for Maine native Ruth Moore, which would make it easier for veterans to qualify for mental health benefits for problems resulting from having been sexually assaulted. (Pingree is married to S. Donald Sussman, majority share owner of the Portland Press Herald.)

Both of these bills would be small steps in the right direction, but further steps are needed.

In a Washington Post column, Monica Medina, a former Pentagon official, recommended steps to prevent these crimes. She calls for the military to "get serious" about drug and excessive alcohol use, which are involved in most of these crimes. She also recommends recruiting and promoting more women as senior officers to change the military culture.

Mainers can be proud of the work done by Collins and Pingree, but there is still much to be done.

 

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