Senators keep focus on military sexual trauma: Baucus, Tester offer legislation

Great Falls Tribune

by Jenn Rowell

Montana Sens. Jon Tester and Max Baucus are keeping the spotlight on military sexual trauma.

This week, the Democratic senators introduced legislation to reform the Uniform Code of Military Justice to improve the treatment of sexual assault survivors during the pre-trial process, or Article 32 proceedings.

According to Tester and Baucus, the bill would bring Article 32 hearings more in line with the civilian process.

The bill would limit the scope of Article 32 proceedings to the question of probable cause. Currently, the proceedings serve as a discovery tool, according to the senators. The bill would require all Article 32 proceedings to be presided over by a trained military lawyer and ensure the presiding officer has the authority to take charge by requiring their rank to be equal to or higher than the defense counsel; require the proceedings to be recorded and a copy of the recording and a transcript be made available to the victim and their counsel on request; prevent crime victims from being forced to testify during Article 32 hearings.

“No one should have to relive the trauma they endured in order to seek justice. This bill will strengthen our work to combat sexual violence in the military by creating an environment where survivors can come forward without fear of intimidation,” Baucus said in a release. “We must double down on our efforts to protect survivors and prevent violence from happening in the first place.”

According to the Department of Defense, an estimated 26,000 cases of sexual assault occurred in the military last year, but only 3,374 of them were reported.

Judge Advocate General for the U.S. Air Force, Lt. Gen. Richard Harding, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in March that nearly 30 percent of sexual assault survivors who had originally agreed to help prosecute their alleged offenders changed their minds before trial.

Harding also noted that many survivors feel re-victimized by the investigative and judicial processes in the military.

“Protecting survivors when they come forward to report a crime is a critical step in holding perpetrators accountable,” Tester said. “We need to make sure everyone has equal access to justice without fearing retaliation, especially the men and women who serve in our armed forces.”

The senators also released statements this week regarding a report by the Service Women’s Action Network, SWAN, that shows from 2008 to 2012, the Department of Veterans Affairs approved PTSD disability benefit claims for survivors of military sexual trauma at a lower rate than PTSD claims unrelated to military sexual trauma.

“This disturbing news shows that we still have much more work to do to make sure survivors of military sexual trauma are treated the same as other veterans. I appreciate the Service Women’s Action Network’s efforts to support sexual assault survivors, and I will continue to fight to get all veterans the benefits they deserve,” Tester said in a release. SWAN obtained the information through a Freedom of Information Act request of VA records.

According to the data SWAN obtained, the approval rate for military sexual assault related PTSD claims was 16.5 to 30 percent lower than PTSD claims unrelated to military sexual trauma. The report also showed that a higher percentage of men have their claims denied and that there is a strong variation in how VA regional offices treat disability claims.

“Seeking justice is not just about prosecuting offenders, but also making sure survivors have the support they need to recover. After fighting for our country, sexual assault survivors shouldn’t have to fight for the resources they need. They deserve to know their country has their backs,” Baucus said in a release. “We’ve got to do more to encourage folks to come forward and stop sexual violence from taking place.”

According to the DOD, there were more than 3,500 reports of sexual assault in the military from October 2012 to June 2013 – nearly a 50 percent increase over the same period from the previous year.

Earlier this year, Tester introduced the Ruth Moore Act to make it easier for survivors of military sexual trauma to get veterans disability benefits.