Bill seeks to ensure counseling access for victims of military's nude-photo scandal

by Rebecca Kheel, The Hill

A bipartisan pair of senators and a Democratic congresswoman have introduced legislation to make sure active-duty troops and veterans targeted in the military’s nude-photo-sharing scandal and other cyber sexual harassment have access to the same benefits and care as sexual assault survivors.

“The fact that anyone in uniform has to deal with sexual assault or harassment during the course of their service to our country is unacceptable,” Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), ranking member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said in a statement. “We owe it to every woman and man affected by these awful acts to ensure they have access to the best possible care and the benefits they need.”

Right now, victims of online sexual harassment are not eligible for the same Veterans Affairs counseling and other services provided to veterans and active-duty troops who are survivors of military sexual assault.

The bill introduced by Tester and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) would change that by specifying in law that the services are available to victims of “cyber harassment of a sexual nature.” Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) introduced a companion bill in the House.
The bill is being offered in the wake of the scandal. Naval Criminal Investigative Service is investigating allegations that Marines shared nude photos and personal information of female Marines and veterans in a private Facebook group, called Marines United, without their consent.

Though the scandal started with the Marines, the investigation has reportedly spread to the rest of the military.

Some photos were allegedly taken and posted without the women’s knowledge or were meant to remain private. Comments on the page reportedly included rape threats.

“I was outraged by accounts that certain members of the US Marine Corps displayed inappropriate photographs of fellow Marines on social media sites. This action was not merely harmful to the Corps, it was deeply hurtful to the victims of this gross and inappropriate conduct,” Murkowski said in statement. “This legislation provides the tools necessary for victims of sexual trauma in the military to seek justice, and cope with the aftermath of such suffering.”

The bill would also codify VA policies that increase the number of ways veterans can prove their sexual assault or harassment when submitting claims for related post-traumatic stress disorder. It would also expand standards of evidence to include any mental health disorder resulting from sexual violence.

Finally, it would require military officials to educate service members of VA services for military sexual trauma survivors.

“Tragically, military sexual trauma not only remains a reality but has taken on new forms, as we saw with the recent cyber harassment against dozens of female service members on Facebook,” Pingree said in a statement. “While we should do everything in our power to prevent these crimes and hold perpetrators accountable, we also need to ensure that their victims receive the benefits they need and have earned.”