Mission: We honor, support, and give voice to the brave men and women in uniform who have been raped or sexually assaulted by fellow service members. We seek to fix the military training, investigation and adjudication systems related to sexual violence, systems that often re-victimize survivors by blaming them while failing to prosecute perpetrators.
Protect Our Defenders News Blog
Protect Our Defenders welcomes blog posts on our news page on timely topics related to military sexual assault. If you have an idea for a post, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
With 10 senators still undecided on the issue, according to Gillibrand, there was a possibility her proposal would pass the Senate.
But Gillibrand also had expected the possibility of not getting a vote on her amendment.
Last month she filed her proposal as a separate bill to preserve an opportunity for a Senate vote later this month.
“We are confident that we will get a vote,” Gillibrand’s spokeswoman Bethany Lesser said in an email. “Regardless of what happens, the senator will not go away, she will keep fighting to protect our brave men and women in uniform and to strengthen our military.”
Protect Our Defenders President Nancy Parrish is featured in this Military Times article:
Still, there is a sense of disappointment because Gillibrand had a majority of the Senate behind her plan that would have mostly eliminated command influence as a factor in courts-martial.
Nancy Parrish, president of Protect Our Defenders, said Congress “has decided to stand with the status quo and the hollow Pentagon promises of zero tolerance.”
“We see this as a minor setback on the road to fundamental reform,” Parrish said. “Service men and women deserve a professional and unbiased justice system equal to the system afforded to the civilians they protect.”
Minnesota Lieutenant Governor John Walsh backs Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s Military Justice Improvement Act (MJIA) in this op-ed from The Hill:
That’s why I support legislation sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) to remove prosecutions from the purview of military commanders — much like the Montana National Guard does. This legislation has earned widespread support on both sides of the aisle.
I recently watched the Senate Armed Services Committee hold hearings on assaults in the armed forces. I’m deeply gratified that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are working together to make changes that simply must happen for the sake of justice and safety.
For generations, too many military leaders have believed that removing these responsibilities from commanders would somehow undermine their authority on other matters. I’m confident that is not the case.
Sexual assault is a despicable and tragic crime. We must do everything we can to ensure justice for the survivors. We must fight for the women and men who fight for us. And I look forward to being part of this critical discussion.
Protect Our Defenders is featured in this Bloomberg Businessweek article:
“Congress has chosen to sidestep the most important military justice reform to come across its desk in history, once again leaving sexual assault victims devastated and betrayed by inaction,” said Anu Bhagwati, executive director of the Service Women’s Action Network and a former Marine Corps captain, whose group supports Gillibrand.
The group’s policy director, Greg Jacob, a former Marine, said in an e-mailed statement that the compromise defense measure contains more than 30 provisions that aid victims of rape and other sexual assault in the military.
Brian Purchia, a spokesman for Protect Our Defenders, a policy group, said in an e-mailed statement, “Congress has again failed to address the fundamental issue fueling the crisis — the often biased chain of command.”
Protect Our Defenders Honorary Chair Rep. Jackie Speier and is veteran Ariana Klay are featured in this Politico article:
I told Ariana that she shouldn’t let her tragic experience define her life.
And although she has become an active supporter of military sexual assault victims and calls for reform in a military she still loves, she has not made her advocacy work a full-time job. In fact, she wants it to be just a small part of who she is and how she sees herself.
Her story is one of the most remarkable I’ve heard in the almost three years I’ve been highlighting the military’s flawed justice system when it comes to sexual assault. I am not giving her story justice here but am honored to even be asked to write about someone whom I see as an inspirational leader.
Since leaving the Marines, Ariana went back to graduate school to get a master’s degree while working full time. She is now the director of programming and operations at an arts and culture center and special-event venue in Washington, D.C.
She could try to tack her proposal onto the bill through an amendment — but that would scuttle the deal to pass the measure before Christmas break, lawmakers said.
The number of sexual assaults in the military soared to more than 26,000 in 2012. Gillibrand wants to move responsibility for prosecuting such cases out of the military chain of command, to encourage more victims to step forward. Most Pentagon leaders oppose such a change.
Gillibrand’s camp said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told her he will allow a vote on her proposal. But it may not be this year.
December 10, 2013
Contact: Brian Purchia, 202-253-4330, email@example.com
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PROTECT OUR DEFENDERS PROMISES TO KEEP UP FIGHT FOR FUNDAMENTAL REFORM TO FIX BROKEN JUSTICE SYSTEM, SUPPORT MILITARY SEXUAL ASSAULT SURVIVORS AND IMPROVE OUR MILITARY
Group vows to continue fight to end epidemic of military sexual assault, put pressure on military commanders, Congress, and President Obama to enact fundamental reform to fix military justice system by removing the decision making of sexual assault cases from an often-bias and conflicted chain of command
Washington DC – Late Monday, Congress announced an agreement on the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) without giving the only measure that would address the core issue fueling the epidemic of military sexual assault a vote, the Military Justice Improvement Act (MJIA). The common sense, bipartisan effort — supported by 6 out of 10 Americans if passed, would be the critical step in the creation of an independent and impartial justice system that will protect victims of sexual assault in our military and make our armed forces stronger. The legislation introduced by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) and Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) would remove the decision to prosecute rape and sexual assault cases from a conflicted and often-biased chain of command, and put it into the hands of independent prosecutors.
“We are disappointed that this bipartisan, common sense legislation will not be included in this year’s NDAA. But, Protect Our Defenders would like to applaud Senators Gillibrand and all 53 Senators who support MJIA, the retired generals and senior officers, and more importantly the hundreds of survivors and their families who have fought so hard to bring fundamental reform to a broken military legal system. We will get a vote on the bill,” said Nancy Parrish, President of Protect Our Defenders. “Instead of listening to our veterans, those who were sexual assault victims and then subjected to retaliation by their chain of command — Congress has decided to stand with the status quo and the hollow Pentagon promises of ‘zero tolerance’ – instead of including the MJIA in the 2014 NDAA.’”
Lawmakers announced a sweeping agreement Monday to pass a long-awaited authorization bill for the Defense Department before the end of the year, but a proposed amendment to curb military sexual assault didn’t make the cut.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., had hoped to use the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) — a must-pass bill that Congress has approved every year for the past five decades — as a vehicle to advance her proposal to remove sexual assault prosecutions from the military chain of command.
Instead, the pact announced Monday would ease passage of the NDAA before both chambers adjourn for the year, but no additional amendments — including Gillibrand’s — can be added.
Protect Our Defenders is featured in this article from the The New Yorker:
This Fall Gillibrand gave interviews to Fox, MSNBC, the broadcast networks, and newspapers—all to put pressure on senators to join her in supporting the measure. It made some of them un- comfortable. Claire McCaskill, Democrat of Missouri, is a former prosecutor who specialized in sexual-assault cases; she joined the Armed Services Committee in 2007. As a candidate in 2012, McCaskill became a progressive favorite when her opponent, Todd Akin, said that women rarely get pregnant from “legitimate rape.” In that race, Gillibrand sent out an e-mail to her supporters—“We can’t let Akin win. We need to help Claire”—and gave more funds to McCaskill than to any other candidate.
Although she and Gillibrand agree on many reforms, McCaskill, like Levin, ar- gues that removing prosecution from the chain of command will make prosecu- tions even less likely, because command- ers will have less accountability. In July, the debate turned personal. The advocacy group Protect Our Defenders, which sup- ports Gillibrand’s position, ran a half- page ad in McCaskill’s home-town paper, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, featuring a letter from a Navy veteran who had been raped by a superior. It asked McCaskill, “How can you possibly be against the cre- ation of a professional, independent, im- partial military justice system?” (Gilli- brand says she did not know about the ad before it ran.)
McCaskill said that Gillibrand’s ap- proach to lobbying the issue had been very difficult for her politically. “There have been things said and things done to me around this,” she told me. “It would be very easy for me to get into a negative and con- frontational place. I’m determined not to do that.”
The San Antonio Express-News Editorial Board calls on Congress to pass the Military Justice Improvement Act:
Commanders have been part of the problem, those accused of assault sometimes are part of the chain of command. Placing the decision in the hands of knowledgeable legal experts — military prosecutors — is obviously part of the solution then.
The commanders have been lobbying hard against Gillibrand’s proposal. This is more about refusal to give up turf and authority than genuine concern for good order and discipline — as if commanders’ failure to prosecute valid cases isn’t more of a threat in this regard anyway.
The military’s failure to more meaningfully combat the problem has not earned further deference. Military leaders should consider the adage that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The Senate will return this week to take up the defense authorization bill again. It has already thoroughly debated these two amendments.
McCaskill’s proposal has good features, but its undue deference to commanders isn’t one of them.
The Huffington Post profiles Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY):
Gillibrand, 46, has approached politics with the same sense of urgency. Most recently, as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, she has pushed relentlessly to reform the military justice system, following a volley of reports showing thousands of cases of sexual assault going unpunished, with disastrous results.
It’s a stain on the military that has shown no signs of fading since 1991′s infamous Tailhook scandal. Gillibrand and most advocates believe the best solution is to remove the reporting and prosecution of such cases from the military’s chain of command, thereby taking away the incentive for officers to cover up deplorable conduct in their own units.
Gillibrand was within a handful of votes of passing an amendment designed to do just that on Nov. 21. But that was also the day that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) decided to nuke Republican filibusters of White House nominees, making collateral damage of Gillibrand’s measure.
If her colleagues grumble about her ambition in a body where freshman members are applauded for keeping their heads down, so be it. “I’m trying to fight for men and women who shouldn’t be raped in the military,” she said of her work on the sexual assault legislation. If her approach “makes a colleague uncomfortable,” she said, “that’s a price worth paying.”
But Ms. Gillibrand’s savvy has quickly brought her national prominence in a chamber in which she has served less than five years and has elevated the issues she has championed, like the sexual assault bill and gays in the military. Her relentlessness is combined with a personal warmth and charm — she steps an inch toward anyone who approaches her, not away, locking eyes as they speak — and she deftly uses outside advocacy groups and the news media to push her agenda.
“She just approaches colleagues differently than other Republicans and Democrats from New York,” said Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa. What distinguishes her, he said, is “her determination and knowledge and willingness to sit down one on one with senators and explain what she is up to.”
Eugene Fidell wrote an article Slate.com, that succinctly explains why Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s Military Justice Improvement Act (MJIA) is desperately needed, and the only legislation that would bring fundamental reform to a broken military justice system:
Civilian control of the military is part of our constitutional culture. Indeed, it is hard-wired into the text of the Constitution. Article I confers on the civilian Congress the power to “make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces.” Article II makes the civilian president the “Commander in Chief” of the Army and Navy. To be true to the founders’ vision, Congress must not uncritically accept the military’s unjustified insistence on retaining outdated command-centric features of the system the country inherited from George III.
Retired officers have every right to speak their mind. So did the incumbent service chiefs and JAGs when they testified in unison against reform before the Senate Armed Services Committee last June. By all means, let their voices be heard. But on the basic structural question of who decides which cases go to court-martial, Congress must take its own counsel and that of the public, most of which wisely favors broad systemic change of the kind Gillibrand’s measure would bring. The path to a 21st-century military justice system and improved public confidence in the administration of military justice runs through the Capitol, not the Pentagon.
Protect Our Defenders President Nancy Parrish is featured in this article from the Air Force Times:
Protect Our Defenders president Nancy Parrish said in a statement that Smith’s case “is sadly a typical example of the reckless disregard with which military leadership and health officials too often respond to reports of rape and sexual assault within the ranks. The barriers and retaliation that Airman Smith has faced are indicative of the suffering of so many unknown victims.”
Smith said in a telephone interview after the board’s decision that he was disappointed and confused by the ruling. “What kind of message are you sending when a person is assaulted, reports the assault, has emotional trauma and you kick them out?” he said.
“I’ve never been in trouble. I’m participating in a wide array of activities. I’m going to school, working on my pilot’s license,” Smith said. “Obviously, I’m willing to return to security forces. I’m willing to do anything to stay in the military. I just want to return to duty.”
Caroline Baldacci, an eighth grader and Student Council president at James F. Doughty School in Bangor, Maine calls on Senator Angus King to support Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s Military Justice Improvement Act:
Maine’s senators, Susan Collins and Angus King, are split on this key issue. Collins favors Gillibrand’s approach, while King sides with McCaskill. King has called McCaskill’s plan “a very comprehensive and far-reaching and strong proposal.” However, big victims groups such as, Protect Our Defenders and the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, have rallied behind Gillibrand’s bill.
I urge King to reconsider his decision. Mainers sent him to Congress to give a voice to the injured. Victims of sexual assault in the military are given a voice when their cases go to objective prosecutors. They are given a voice when justice can be served and there is no retaliation.
December 4, 2013
Contact: Brian Purchia, 202-253-4330, firstname.lastname@example.org
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AIRMAN AND VICTIM OF SEXUAL ASSAULT FORCED OUT OF MILITARY AFTER REPORTING ATTACK, MISDIAGNOSED WITH PERSONALITY DISORDER
Independent Forensic Psychiatrist says no evidence of a personality disorder in sexual assault victim profiled in Air Force Times series on retaliation and personality disorder misdiagnosis in the military — another example of a culture of victim-blaming as momentum continues to build for fundamental reform to an unfair military justice system
San Antonio, TX – In June 2012, 19 year-old Airman 1st Class Trent Smith was sexually assaulted by a superior non-commissioned officer while stationed at Vogelweh Air Base in Germany. Airman Smith reported his attack, not once but twice. After being assaulted by a superior non-commissioned officer, Airman Smith did everything by the book according to the Air Force Times — he reported the assault and received counseling. Instead of offering support, the Air Force focused on separating him from the career he loves and misdiagnosed him with a rare Personality Disorder (PD). Also, Airman Smith was told by the Air Force that the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) he has suffered because of his assault would not be as responsive to treatment because of his “Personality Disorder” diagnosis. Earlier today the Air Force’s Formal Physical Evaluation Board met at Randolph AFB in San Antonio, Texas and found Airman Smith unfit to serve in the military, because of the PTSD he suffered from his attack.
Airman Smith appealed his initial Personality Disorder diagnosis, and contacted Protect Our Defenders for help with his case. Through its Pro Bono Legal Network, Protect our Defenders connected Airman Smith with pro bono counsel Cacilia Kim, from the California Women’s Law Center and Elizabeth Kristen, from the Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center. Protect Our Defenders and survivors would like to thank the attorneys for being part of our Pro Bono Legal Network – giving their time and expertise to help service members fight for justice.
“It was exciting. And it was effective,” said Thomas, a soccer and football player who received no compensation for his informant work. “We got 15 convictions of drugs, two convictions of sexual assault. We were making a difference. It was motivating, especially with the sexual assaults. You could see the victims have a sense of peace.”
Through it all, he thought OSI would have his back. But when an operation went wrong, he said, his handlers cut communication and disavowed knowledge of his actions, and watched as he was kicked out of the academy.
“It was like a spy movie,” said Thomas, who was expelled in April, a month before graduation. “I worked on dozens of cases, did a lot of good, and when it all hit the fan, they didn’t know me anymore.”
The USA Today Editorial Board calls on Congress to support Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s Military Justice Improvement Act:
Prosecutions alone won’t stop rape in the military. Several preventive measures are needed. These include stronger leadership; training for bystanders in how to intervene to get their buddies out of risky situations; and training on how to avoid dangerous circumstances, a controversial step often misinterpreted as “blaming the victim.”
The Pentagon and individual services have some promising prevention programs, including one at the Great Lakes naval station. But none will be taken seriously or succeed if perpetrators aren’t prosecuted. And the current military system, in which prosecution decisions are made by commanders, simply has not worked.
The decision should be put in the hands of professional military prosecutors, as Gillibrand’s measure would require. That’s how major criminal cases are prosecuted in the civilian world and by the militaries of many U.S. allies, including Australia, Canada, Great Britain and Israel.
Protect Our Defenders Advisory Board member and Tailhook whistleblower Paula Coughlin is featured in this article from the National Journal:
Highly anticipated Senate votes on the reforms are in doubt because of an impasse over the annual defense bill and flaring tensions over divisive changes to Senate rules. The situation has reform advocates intensifying their efforts, fearful that their moment is slipping away.
“We are really doubling down our efforts,” said Paula Coughlin, who was the whistle-blower in the Tailhook scandal and now is an advisory board member at the advocacy organization Protect Our Defenders. “We are not backing down. This is not over.”
Advocates are targeting 13 key undecided senators with intense lobbying campaigns in their states and on Capitol Hill, including enlisting the personal stories of more than 400 military sexual-assault survivors, publishing editorials in key local newspapers nationwide, and reaching out to more than 10,000 followers via email and social media.
The executive director of the Women’s Center for Advancement.calls on Congress to support Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s Military Justice Improvement Act:
The Military Justice Improvement Act (MJIA), sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., would remove sexual assault reporting and prosecution from the chain of command and transfer it to a military prosecutor who is independent of the command.
While we commend both senators for their commitment to addressing this issue, the WCA strongly supports Sen. Gillibrand’s proposal. Our experience with veterans who were sexually assaulted shows that it is essential that reporting and prosecuting sexual assault in the military be removed from the chain of command under which the assault occurred in the first place.
In a recent Politico Magazine piece, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who has been on a righteous crusade as of late to change the U.S. military’s blasé cultural and institutional response to sexual assault, took a shot at Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel for what she described as a lack of leadership on her signature issue.
Speaking of Hagel, Gillibrand told Politico’s Glenn Thrush, “He has not shown leadership. … I think he has not lived up to his promises, the promises of having the passion and the drive for rooting out the scourge of sexual violence.”
“I don’t think that he has lived up to my expectations,” Gillibrand said.
Protect Our Defenders Advocacy Committee member Brian Lewis is featured in this story from the San Antonio Express-News:
Sexual-assault victim Brian Lewis, 34, of Baltimore, Md., said he received a 100 percent disability rating for major depression thanks to a Navy doctor who documented his medical record. He also was placed on limited duty due to PTSD while a petty officer third class.
“There’s long been a double standard in the VA between combat trauma and personal trauma. The VA doesn’t require that exacting standard for combat cases and it’s grossly unfair to make that standard apply to personal trauma,” said Lewis, who left the Navy in 2001 and was declared disabled a year later.
Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland lead a group of powerful women colleagues on the Senate floor on November 19, 2013, each speaking passionately about the compelling national problem of military sexual assault. Fed up with the military’s lip service and having worked on the issue for 25 years, Mikulski told the case from her first year in the Senate when a young female navy midshipman from Annapolis was chained to a urinal and taunted for three hours. Mikulski’s message: the abuse must stop!
Senator Susan Collins of Maine, noted military leaders in 2004 were dismissive of the problem and had a completely inadequate response to sexual assault in their ranks. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire said the character of the military is undermined by the plague of sexual assault and Senator Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin pleaded for greater respect of those who choose the path of military service. She identified a military woman who reported sexual and was then interrogated for hours while nothing was done to her assailant.
Last week Tailhook whistleblower and Protect Our Defenders Advisory Board Member Paula Coughlin sent the following message to supporters and survivors:
This week I traveled to D.C. to meet with Senators and their staff in support of Sen. Gillibrand’s legislation to fundamentally reform the military justice system. I sat in the US Senate gallery where I watched the historic debate begin.
Unfortunately, the debate leading up to the vote was interrupted by partisan conflict about confirmation of judicial nominations. As frustrating as the conclusion to this week was in denying us a vote on the Military Justice Improvement Act – to take major crimes, including rape and sexual assault outside the chain of command – we can’t let it hide the fact that momentum is on our side.
Over the past four months, over 400 survivors raised their voices – calling, writing and visiting their Senators. It has made a difference. This week, for the first time, we earned the public support of a majority – 53 – of our US Senators in backing the proposal. Due to filibuster procedures, 60 votes will likely be required to pass the Senate. Thirteen remain publicly undecided.
The Charlotte Observer calls on Congress to support Senator Kirsten GIllibrand’s Military Justice Improvement Act:
Gillibrand’s plan is backed by national veterans groups, victims’ advocates, 17 of the 20 female senators and a bipartisan coalition that includes not only Cruz but Democratic senate leader Harry Reid.
In a Washington Post-ABC News poll released last week, respondents also backed her approach: Nearly six in 10 people said they believe decisions in military sexual assault prosecutions should be made by an independent group instead of within the military chain of command.
When the Senate returns next month, lawmakers should give military victims of this vicious crime the best shot at justice that they can. Gillibrand’s plan does that.
Protect Our Defenders Advocacy Committee member Brian Lewis is featured in a piece by columnist Ruth Marcus:
Lewis’ experience sounds both recognizable and unfamiliar. His description of a system that ignored claims and blamed victims is sadly common. Military commanders assert that times have changed; Lewis begs to differ.
“We’ve heard the same tired refrain of zero tolerance” for years, he said. Commanders, arguing against proposals such as that by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., to take such cases out of the chain of command, insist it would compromise their authority. Still, Lewis notes, “26,000 victims per year is not good military order and discipline.”
But his is also the hidden face of the problem of sexual assault in the military. Women are more likely than men to be the victims in such cases. But in sheer numbers, more military men than women are targets of assault, mostly by other men.
An editorial from the Dallas Morning News calls on the Senate to pass Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s Military Justice Improvement Act:
Intense lobbying from the Pentagon backs the McCaskill-Levin effort. It remains to be seen how influential Reid’s support for Gillibrand’s proposal will be.
The bottom line for this newspaper: The U.S. military has a sexual assault problem, and potential victims — mostly women but some men — must believe that their coming forward will receive the serious, impartial attention it deserves. Half measures and promises to study the matter no longer suffice.
Sexual assault is an allegation not to be taken lightly. In many cases, complainants put their careers, or more, on the line. They deserve nothing less than even-handed treatment, and that’s what the Gillibrand proposal provides.
But Reid would not offer that assurance, creating a standstill on the defense authorization bill. Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, warned that the objections could jeopardize the completion of the act by year’s end.
“I can’t tell everybody in this body how disappointing it would be if we did not finish this bill tomorrow night or Friday,” Levin, D-Mich., said. “If we don’t finish this bill this week, there cannot be a conference report and then for the first time in 52 years there will not be a defense authorization bill.”
“My disappointment is that we’re just not doing any legislating here,” Reid, D-Nev., said.
An editorial from the Staten Island Advance supports Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s Military Justice Improvement Act:
But the Pentagon and the Joint Chiefs of Staff oppose assigning independent military prosecutors to make initial decisions on cases, even those of sexual assault.
They believe such an unprecedented change in the military’s chain of command would undermine order and discipline in the armed forces.
Yet the military’s policy of zero tolerance of sexual wrongdoing has failed. It is acknowledge by the top brass that many such crimes go unreported because of the reluctance of victims to step forward.
Assigning independent and impartial military prosecutors to decide on the merit of sending those cases to trial would instill new confidence in military justice.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) criticized Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) for not supporting her proposal to remove military sexual assault cases from the chain of command, saying this isn’t the first time he’s been wrong.
“I respect Sen. McCain and we are friends, but with all due respect to him, he was wrong about Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and he was wrong about sexual assault in the military,” Gillibrand said in a Wednesday interview with Fusion’s “AMERICA with Jorge Ramos.”
“Our job as members of Congress is to provide that oversight and accountability over the military, over the Department of Defense,” Gillibrand said. “And there is a growing chorus of military leaders who have even more experience than Sen. McCain who are saying, ‘This should be taken out of the chain of command.’”
Protect Our Defenders Advisory Board member and Tailhook whistleblower Paula Coughlin is featured in a report from ABC7 News in Los Angeles:
Now working with Coughlin and the organization Protect Our Defenders, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., is pushing her bill to change the system, saying seasoned military prosecutors should handle sexual assault cases, not direct commanders, who Sen. Gillibrand says still don’t get it.
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) announced his support Wednesday for Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s (D-N.Y.) sexual assault amendment to the defense authorization bill.
“I will vote in favor of her proposal,” Durbin said on the Senate floor.
The Senate is debating the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which authorizes more than $625 billion in defense spending for the Pentagon.
Some protections for victims of sexual assault were included during committee markup of NDAA, such as providing a lawyer for victims and criminalizing retaliation against victims who report assaults. But Gillibrand and most of the other female senators have said the underlying bill doesn’t go far enough.
Tailhook whistleblower and Protect Our Defenders Advisory Board Member Paula Coughlin writes an op-ed for the Huffington Post:
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s bipartisan MJIA amendment proposed for this Senate session does exactly that: it makes rape, assault, and failure to forward any complaint to the third party investigating unit a crime. It does hold commanders accountable, and it gives commanders the exact tools to convict criminals in the military. It empowers commanders to rid the armed services of serial rapists and criminals by using the JAG corps professional assault crimes unit, a third party legal professional would handle all assaults and rapes.
The Senate must act in a responsible and effective way that can put a stop to the criminal assaults that are weakening the fabric of our military. Sen. Gillibrand’s amendment does this, and no other proposals actually address this point of command influence and bias, and the lack of professional legal training.
In the several years since my attack and subsequent character attacks, in all the horror stories I have been witness to, no victim would ever support keeping the criminal investigation or adjudication in the hands of their commander. And most commanders would want to be removed from this kind of criminal process for lack of training. It is time to change the culture of the military and change the attitudes about sexual assault. I wholeheartedly urge our Senators Nelson and Rubio to support MJIA. Because, that’s not what you get.
Protect Our Defenders President Nancy Parrish writes an op-ed for Talking Points Memo:
Each of these cases clearly illustrates that commanders trust their own biased point of view over that of the judge and jury who actually sit through the trials, listen to the witness and are in the best position to evaluate the facts and who is telling the truth. They evidently do not trust or value the expertise of the prosecution, military judges, and even the court members (jurors) they nominate. Yet, somehow our military justice system is currently structured so that they have the authority to stop or overturn the process at each stage from beginning to end.
The process must be amended to allow the investigation, prosecution, and adjudication to be conducted by independent, trained, and experienced professionals, all outside of the suspect’s conflicted and often biased chain of command.
The Senate began consideration Wednesday of proposals to overhaul how the military justice system handles sexual assault, including a measure that would strip commanders of their input in such cases.
That proposal, introduced by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., had support from a majority of the Senate, according to her office. Trained military lawyers would replace commanders, revoking their authority to prosecute or toss out cases.
Nearly six in 10 Americans believe that decisions on whether to prosecute allegations of sexual assault in the U.S. military should be made by an independent group of military prosecutors instead of within the military chain of command, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.
The Pentagon estimates that as many as 26,000 service members were the targets of unwanted sexual contact last year although only 3,374 incidents of sexual assault were reported to top military officials. The rise of such cases has earned special concern from military leaders and lawmakers.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) announced his support Tuesday for Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s (D-N.Y.) bill to revamp how the military handles sexual assault cases, becoming the 50th public supporter of the measure.
Reid’s support comes hours after his Nevada colleague, Sen. Dean Heller (R), became the bill’s 49th public supporter.
Reid says he hopes to debate Gillibrand’s bill and a less-far-reaching measure from Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) on Wednesday. McCaskill’s amendment is expected to pass, but Gillibrand’s bill may struggle to get the 60 votes it will likely need to pass.
Protect Our Defenders Policy Director Miranda Petersen is featured in this PolicyMic article:
In an op-ed she wrote for Huffington Post this May, Gillibrand explained that the bill would take the jurisdiction over serious crimes outside of the victim’s chain of command and given to a trained military prosecutor. “Only when there is real accountability in the military justice system will more survivors of these crimes have the confidence to report them, and only then will these survivors get the justice they deserve,” she wrote.
Petersen, who is also a policy adviser at Protect Our Defenders, a human rights organization that works with victims of rape and sexual assault in the military, told PolicyMic that these crimes have “absolutely devastating” consequences. “These are your brothers-and-sisters in arms — you have been trained to trust these people with your life. When a sexual assault occurs it is the ultimate betrayal of that trust and that bond, and it compounds the trauma associated with the assault,” she added.
Kim Hanks, the victim of sexual assault at Aviano Air Base writes an op-ed for USA Today:
Commanders don’t need this duty; they have shown time and time again they do not handle it well. Let them focus on what’s important to them, fighting for this country and keeping the U.S. safe from harm. It’s not a lack of faith that is the reason for this change; it’s a realization that bias and conflict exists in favor of the often higher-ranking perpetrator, and victims will continue to fear coming forward.
Regardless of all the promises by military leadership and half measures offered in the name of reform nothing short of removing the prosecution and adjudication authority away from the commander and placing it with independent, military professionals outside the accused’s and victim’s chain of command will end this nightmare.
I want to thank my family, friends, and the tireless work of advocacy organizations like Protect Our Defenders, for all of their unwavering help and support during this difficult time.
Today, Protect Our Defenders Advocacy Committee member Kate Weber joined Senator Kirsten Gillibrand to share her personal story of assault, how her chain of command failed her, and called on Congress to support Senator Gillibrand’s Military Justice Improvement Act (MJIA). Kate is a fierce advocate for victims of military sexual assault. She appeared in the Oscar nominated documentary, “The Invisible War”. And earlier this year, Kate was named the 2013 California Woman Veteran Leader of the Year.
My name is Katie Weber. I am a U.S. Army Veteran and a survivor of Military Rape. I have lived with the horror of my sexual assault and the failing of my command for over 17 years. I have dealt with the PTSD, depression, anxiety, and nightmares that have resulted from my assault, retaliation and inadequate care and treatment. And, today as I work with older and younger veterans who were victims of rape and assault, and then suffered retaliation by their command, I witness first hand the human cost of this crisis. And, of the failure to provide service members an independent, impartial justice system.
At the age of 18, I was violently raped by another soldier. I had been stationed in Germany at the downsizing Nuremberg Base as part of a movement control team for less than 1 month. I was an E2. My rapist was a higher-ranking soldier in charge of finances. He had issued me a check earlier in the day, and later that night when I saw him at an event he asked me to step outside to talk to him about my paychecks. When we got outside, he attacked and raped me.The next morning, I told my battle buddy, who was older and higher ranking than me. Instead of offering help, she immediately went and told my rapist that I had accused him of rape. When I told my superiors, they simply suggested I get a “check up.” I went to the hospital, where I was examined by an O-6 Lt. Col. He noted that there was bruising on my cervix but did not conduct a rape kit examination. On my file he wrote, “alleges she was sexually assaulted.”
When I got back to my barracks that night, I found my rapist there waiting for me. He grabbed me by my neck and threatened me, saying he had a “pregnant wife.”
Although I reported my rape to multiple superiors in my chain of command, they each chose to help cover up the crime instead of initiating an investigation. When I asked for counseling and support, it was denied. Instead, I was forced out for failing my PT requirement.
When I needed help, my chain of command failed me. When I spoke up, I was ostracized and labeled “that girl” who will ruin your career if you talk to her. It has been almost 17 years since my rape and retaliation, and it has taken me just as long to recover and start living like a normal person again.
I want my fellow Americans to hear me and to know that this crisis is persisting and growing.
In addition to caring for my family, I have devoted my life to helping these young men and women whose careers were ended because they were assaulted by often-higher ranking and more valued perpetrators. Help us stop this abuse of our service men and women. They deserve a justice system equal to the system provided their fellow citizens. The current system is rotten. It is un-American.
As a victim, survivor, and advocate, I want to urge every senator to support the Military Justice Improvement Act. Senator Gillibrand has listened and addressed our explicit pleas for safety and justice. Victims of rape and sexual assault in the military have lost faith. Commanders often treat victims like they are the problem, not the person who raped them. When victims experience fallout from the rape—like I did when I failed my PT test—commanders are not supportive, but instead punish the victim and push them out of the service.
I joined the military in the wake of the Tailhook scandal thinking that the military knew about the problem of sexual assault and was committed to fixing it. Now, 17 years later, I look back and see that nothing has changed. Through my work with Protect Our Defenders and other organizations, I speak almost daily with victims who are continuing to face obstacles from their commanders and dealing with retaliation and ostracization for coming forward.
When I heard General Welsh tell congress that sexual assault was part of a “hook up” mentality, it screamed loud and clear to the entire survivor community and active duty service members that the military brass still looks to blame the victim or at the very least doesn’t get the problem. How can commanders, who don’t fully understand the problem, be expected to impartially and objectively decide how to handle a case of rape or sexual assault?
Yesterday, we delivered letters from survivors who are constituents to those Senators who are undecided. Survivors are sharing the most intimate details of the worst moments of their entire life to finally make everyone understand.
Now I am calling on our country’s leaders, to make the changes that will assure that others will not be forced to suffer as we have.
To get 60 votes, Gillibrand said she may narrow her proposal to cover only sexual offenses. Right now, it covers all criminal offenses carrying a potential jail sentence of at least a year.
“I prefer our amendment the way it’s written today,” Gillibrand said. “I think it’s cleaner to have a bright line for all serious crimes because at the end of the day every victim and defendant deserves a blind justice system, one that is not biased in any way. And they deserve to have trained military prosecutors review their cases. But if we can get to 60 with the more focused approach, I’d be willing to take that as a first step toward larger reform down the line.”
Paul Rieckhoff, Founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America write for the Huffington Post:
While this year’s National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) includes some much-needed reforms to strength prevention efforts and new initiatives to support victims of sexual assault, it does not do enough to address the military justice system. Survivors have shown tremendous courage in telling their stories. Now it’s time for the Senate to show courage and pass the Military Justice Improvement Act.
The Military Justice Improvement Act, sponsored by New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, would give experienced military prosecutors the authority to determine whether a case involving a serious crime should go to a court martial. This single decision will result in a more impartial justice system and assure both victims and the accused that their cases will get fair consideration based solely on the evidence of the case.
Gillibrand had floated the change as a way to pick up a filibuster-proof 60 votes for her amendment when it comes up for floor debate as soon as this week as part of the annual defense authorization bill. On Thursday, she told POLITICO that the idea remained in play despite warnings from several longtime supporters, including one victim advocate who complained the new “pink courts would be a great disservice to women who wear the uniform.”
Asked on ABC if her support was waning over the proposed change, Gillibrand replied, “It’s been an interesting process because what we’ve learned is having the bright line of elevating all serious crimes out of the chain of command makes sure both victim’s rights are protected and defendant’s rights for civil liberties reasons, that you need fairness and justice.”
PROTECT OUR DEFENDERS PRESIDENT, NANCY PARRISH RELEASED THE FOLLOWING STATEMENT IN RESPONSE TO SENATOR MCCASKILL’S RECENLTY ANNOUNCED ADDITIONAL PROPOSED CHANGES TO THE NDAA REGARDING MILITARY SEXUAL ASSAULT
Washington DC – “Senator McCaskill and others who oppose fundamental reform keep tinkering around the edges. While some of the changes they are proposing will do some good, none will provide for fundamental reform of the currently conflicted and frequently biased system. And they will not substantially address the lack of trust in the current system, which has led victims to opt out of reporting or seeking justice. Real reform is needed to end this crisis and embolden victims to come forward to hold their perpetrators accountable.”
The current debate is, at its heart, about the way in which our military justice system currently works, and the fundamental changes that are needed in order to bring it into the 21st century. We currently have a military justice system that is a holdover from the 17th century. Since World War II, there have been many important improvements to our military justice system, and leaving the accused commanders (with the convening authority) in charge of the judicial system is an anachronism. The military now has professional investigators, prosecutors, and judges, in addition to an appellate court process. Placing a conflicted and often-biased commander in control of the judicial process is nothing more than a fossilized holdover from King George the III.
Posted by Nancy Parrish, POD President, November 17th, 2013
The WaPo reports:
A broad cross-section of the U.S. Senate renewed its push Wednesday to dramatically overhaul how the Defense Department handles allegations of sexual assault even as the proposal’s lead sponsor admitted she is still well short of garnering the votes needed to pass the measure.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) forcefully defended her plan to remove decisions on whether to prosecute cases of sexual assault, rape and similar crimes from the military chain of command by establishing an independent team of military prosecutors to review the cases. The proposal is expected to be introduced as an amendment to the annual defense authorization bill whenever debate on the omnibus measure begins in the next two weeks.
Posted by Nancy Parrish, POD President, November 15th, 2013
The NY Daily News published an op-ed recently by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand on the issue of military sexual assault. Senator Gillibrand writes:
Our long bipartisan fight to create an independent military justice system that will give survivors of sexual violence a fair shot at justice will soon come to a head on the Senate floor.
Our men and women in uniform put everything on the line to defend our country. But too often, they find themselves in the fight of their lives not on some far-away battlefield — but right here on our own soil, as victims of horrific acts of sexual violence.
In fact, the Defense Department estimates there were 26,000 cases of rape, sexual assault and unwanted sexual contact in 2012 — yet there were only 302 prosecutions.
Victims advocate groups like Protect Our Defenders get a number of questions from parents concerned about their sons and daughters enlisting now, according to Nancy Parrish, head of the organization.
“We’re giving them the statistics. And the DOD’s own numbers speak fairly loudly as to the challenge young servicemen and women are facing when they join,” Parrish said.
Potential recruits and their parents’ awareness of the issue will only likely grow, according to those familiar with the problem.
“I still think they have several years of growing skepticism about the safety of new recruits,” said Kirby Dick, director of ‘The Invisible War,’ an Oscar-nominated documentary about sexual assault in the military. “There are more reasons to really address this, to make some major systemic changes to get this under control.”