Washington, DC – Protect Our Defenders (POD), the only national organization solely dedicated to ending the epidemic of rape and sexual assault in the military, today announced the launch of a national campaign to help end the crisis of military sexual assault ahead of the 2020 presidential election. Led by a community of courageous military sexual assault survivors including Air Force veteran Harmony Allen, whose rape case is set to appear before the Supreme Court, and Tailhook Whistleblower Paula Coughlin, the campaign asks candidates running for President to sign the Presidential Candidate Pledge committing to fundamental military justice reform.
Fundamental reform would remove prosecutorial authority from the chain of command for non-military crimes such as rape and murder, and empower experienced military prosecutors. Senator Warren, Senator Sanders, Senator Klobuchar, Tom Steyer, Andrew Yang, Governor Weld, and Mayor Buttigieg are among the majority of the presidential candidates who already support fundamental reform.
Pentagon estimates of sexual assault and rape of active duty members have skyrocketed by 38% and the rate of assault for servicewomen has increased by 50% since 2016. Military women who report sexual assault are 12 times as likely to experience some form of retaliation as to see their attacker convicted of a sex offense. Despite decades of promises from military leadership, the problem continues to grow.
“I was raped two decades ago while serving in the Air Force. And while I’m grateful for the progress I’ve made in my own case, with relentless effort and support from Protect Our Defenders, most survivors never get the chance at justice,” said Harmony Allen, Air Force veteran and military sexual assault survivor. “The epidemic of sexual assault is just as bad — if not worse — than when I first entered the military. The next President of the United States must protect the women and men who serve our country by committing to fundamental military justice reform.”
Fundamental military justice reform would professionalize military prosecution of serious crimes such as sexual assault, murder, and domestic abuse by empowering independent, trained military prosecutors, rather than commanders, with the authority to prosecute non-military offenses. Doing so would help prevent sexual harassment, assault and retaliation, and take a vital step towards removing the systemic barriers that survivors of military sexual assault face when coming forward to report crimes. It would also free commanders of conflicting responsibilities and better enable them to maintain good order and discipline.
“This is not a problem with an ambiguous solution — we know how to address the military sexual assault crisis,” said Col. Don Christensen (ret.), the former Chief Prosecutor of the United State Air Force and President of POD. “Protect Our Defenders and countless brave survivors have been fighting toward that end for years, but we need our lawmakers, and particularly the next Commander-In-Chief, to take action. Until we institute true reform and put serious crimes in the hands of trained professionals, the epidemic of sexual assault will persist.”
This campaign represents a groundbreaking step towards achieving significant reform and giving military survivors a fair chance at justice. In addition to the 2020 Presidential Candidate Pledge, the campaign also involves an online Change.org petition, digital and social media efforts, and local events to demand that each presidential candidate commit to empowering trained prosecutors to lead the military justice process. The military veterans and sexual assault survivors leading the campaign include Air Force veteran Harmony Allen, Tailhook Whistleblower and former US Naval Helicopter pilot Paula Coughlin, Army veteran and CEO of the Women Veteran Social Justice Network BriGette McCoy, Army veteran Terri Odom, and Navy Veteran Heath Phillips.
“We cannot rely on the military to institute its own reform — I certainly could not rely on the military in the wake of my assault,” said Coughlin. “The time has come to demand real, lasting change. I am heartened that the majority of presidential candidates have signed the pledge. I hope every candidate recognizes what it means to be Commander-In-Chief, and the role they must play in protecting our armed forces. Our service members deserve a fair justice system that protects everyone and is equitable to our civilian courts.”
Today’s announcement comes at a pivotal time for the military justice system. In November 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court announced that it would hear an appeal from the Justice Department to review US vs Mangahas, a military court decision that reversed decades of legal precedent and established a 5-year statute of limitations for rape in the military, ultimately setting free or stopping the prosecutions of dozens of rapists. Harmony Allen, one of the survivors leading the POD campaign, is one of the three survivors whose case will appear before the Supreme Court. Earlier this January, Allen filed an amicus curiae brief with POD’s assistance.
To ask the 2020 presidential candidates to commit to fundamental military justice reform, please visit: http://change.org/