Jennifer Norris of Rumford wipes away what she said were tears of joy on Thursday in Washington, DC, as she discussed legislation that would revamp the way the military prosecutes sexual assault cases. Norris said she was raped and sexually assaulted several times during her Air Force career, including during her time with the Maine Air National Guard.
WASHINGTON – Lawmakers from both parties are backing legislation co-authored by Maine Sen. Susan Collins that would revamp the military's judicial system to address an "epidemic" of sexual assault in the armed forces.
The proposal introduced Thursday comes as the Pentagon finds itself under increasing pressure from Congress, an impatient White House and veterans' groups to more aggressively address an issue that continues to plague the military, despite increased awareness and training.
On Thursday President Obama summoned top military officials and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to the White House to discuss the issue. After the meeting, Obama said military leaders were ashamed of the recent incidents and vowed to continue focusing on the issue.
The meeting came one week after a report estimated that 26,000 service personnel experienced sexual assault or abuse in 2012 and followed several embarrassing incidents in which officers responsible for sexual assault prevention were themselves accused of crimes.
"This epidemic of sexual abuse cannot stand," said Collins, a Republican and prominent voice on Capitol Hill, on military sexual assault issues. "We must take these allegations seriously and, most of all, we must ensure that justice is swift and certain for the criminals who have perpetrated these crimes."
The bill written by Collins and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., would make broad changes to the way the military handles crimes punishable by jail terms of one year or longer, which are crimes generally classified as felonies in civilian courts.
Instead of allowing commanders to decide whether to pursue a case, the decisions would be handled by military prosecutors and lawyers. Crimes that are uniquely military in nature, such as absent without leave or disobeying orders, would still be handled by the military chain of command.
The proposal would also revoke military commanders' ability to overturn convictions or lessen penalties for sexual assault crimes, The changes, long sought by advocacy groups, have gained momentum in Washington following several high-profile reversals.
Gillibrand said the plight of military sexual assault survivors has attracted national attention as a result of a "series of incredibly hard-to-fathom events," highlighting the need to change a judicial system that she said is a holdover from George Washington's time.
"We have to seize this opportunity and act now so that we can move towards a true, zero-tolerance reality in the armed services," Gillibrand said. "Words are not enough at this point. We need action."
Maine resident Jennifer Norris was among the sexual assault survivors who spoke during Thursday's news conference. An Air Force veteran, Norris said she was raped, sexually assaulted and retaliated against on numerous occasions by four individuals, over a period that included her time with the Maine Air National Guard.
Norris did not report the rape or initial assaults because she said she had seen other women kicked out of the Air Force for reporting incidents. Two of her superior officers were eventually allowed to resign in lieu of administrative hearings, thereby avoiding a public record.
Norris was medically retired from the Air Force as a result of PTSD related to the sexual assaults.
Norris, who now works with the Military Rape Crisis Center and the organization Protect Our Defenders, said the current system is "rigged against the victims" and that commanders are often biased in favor of perpetrators who outrank an accuser.
"Until we fix the system and make it safe for victims to report and remove command bias and conflict of interest from the process, and take reporting and adjudication out of the chain of command, the military will continue to be plagued by rape and sexual assault," Norris said.
The Gillibrand-Collins bill and its companion measure in the House are among a long list of proposed legislative fixes to the sexual assault issue pending with Congress. Collins and other lawmakers are also working on a bill that would require a mandatory dishonorable discharge for perpetrators convicted of rape and sexual assault.
Gillibrand said she expects her bill -- or pieces of it -- to be considered for inclusion in the omnibus defense spending authorization bill.
On Monday, the House is expected to vote on a measure sponsored by Maine Rep. Chellie Pingree -- and named for Maine veteran Ruth Moore -- that aims to help "military sexual trauma" victims qualify for disability benefits. The bill would apply the same evidentiary standards for mental health problems from sexual assault as applied to combat veterans seeking disability benefits for post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
Pingree discussed the issue with Obama during a recent meeting at the White House. On Thursday, she and Sen. Jon Tester of Montana -- lead sponsor of the Ruth Moore Act in the Senate -- sent a letter to the president urging him to implement the procedural changes at the U.S. Department of Veteran's Affairs without waiting for congressional action.
"In 2010, the VA relaxed evidentiary standards to make it easier for combat veterans suffering from PTSD to get the disability benefits they need," Pingree and Tester wrote. "It is past time the VA make a similar regulatory change for (military sexual trauma) survivors. And you can direct them to do so."
The Pentagon report released last week estimated that, based on anonymous surveys of more than 100,000 personnel, 26,000 service members experienced sexual assault or unwanted sexual contact in 2012. That represented a 37 percent increase from two years earlier. In actuality, fewer than 3,400 sexual assault or abuse cases were reported in 2012.
In remarks made after meeting with military officials Thursday, the president said leaders at the table had expressed "that they're ashamed by some of what's happened." The president indicated his administration would continue to work with Congress to address the issue. Defense Secretary Hagel will also hold weekly meetings to find solutions to the issue.
"There's no silver bullet to solving this problem. This is going to require a sustained effort over a long period of time," the president said, according to White House press pool reports.
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Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, was among legislators Thursday unveiling a bill to revamp how the military handles sexual assault complaints.