Statement by Paula Coughlin, Retired Lieutenant, U.S. Navy, Member, Board of Directors, Protect Our Defenders

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Good Morning,

Thank you Senator Gillibrand, for your unwavering and passionate leadership in this fight for justice.
I would also like to thank the bi-partisan majority of Senators who stand with us – the thousands of service members and veterans, who were raped or assaulted and then retaliated against – in your efforts to end this nightmare.

When I spoke out about my assault during the Tailhook scandal in 1991, I never could have imagined that I would still be repeating the same calls to action today. It was over two decades ago that I first spoke out about the culture of misogyny and impunity within the military, in which sexual harassment and assault are tacitly condoned, and victims, like me, are told “that’s what you get” when we dare to come forward.

In response to public and Congressional outrage over the Tailhook scandal, military leaders promised me and promised this country that they had “zero tolerance,” for rape and sexual assault. This same leadership assured everyone that they had the ability to eradicate this problem — and yet, time and time again — that promise has proven to be nothing more than a hollow talking point. This crisis has only gotten worse, and victims continue to face barriers to justice at every turn.

This crisis has persisted because the military justice system is not transparent, fair, or impartial. And until that day comes – until our brave service members are afforded a justice system equal to the system afforded to the civilians they protect – this crisis will not end.

Since I first came forward, many other brave service members and veterans, who are survivors of sexual assault, have spoken out to tell their story and demand real, meaningful action and accountability. All the while, countless more have continued to suffer quietly—many silenced and sometimes abused by the very leaders charged with solving this crisis.

Protect Our Defenders hears daily from service members who have been discouraged from reporting, retaliated against, and harassed by their peers and their Chain of Command. In the few cases where their perpetrator is prosecuted, victims are put through a grueling and humiliating legal process. Their credibility is questioned at every turn. Their privacy is violated. And, their rapists’ commander is given the final say over whether they will even have a shot at justice.

No wonder most victims choose not to come forward. Sixty two percent of women report facing retaliation. Over 50 percent of victims don’t believe that anything will be done. All of this is a reflection of the structural failings of the system.

Every day that we allow the current system to persist, our servicemen and women are left struggling just to survive. This crisis comes at a huge cost to our country, to our military’s readiness and our prestige around the world. It is unjust and inhuman to allow this broken and biased system to persist. It is un-American.

This is about fairness, justice, and the right of every American—most especially those who have signed up to fight for our freedom—to have access to a transparent and legitimate system of justice worthy of our nation and in line with our values and constitutional rights. Now is the time for a professional and objective system based on evidence and the rule of law. To suggest that our sons, daughters, brothers, and sisters should willingly accept anything less is a slap in the face to those who have fought so hard in service to this country.

This is why I stand here today—why I haven’t given up. The calls from Military leaders and their supporters for more time ring hollow, and history shows that such promises are really just a veiled defense of the status quo. No more excuses. No more delays. Congress must act now. They must listen to our servicemen and women, the victims who are directly impacted by this crime, who have raised their voices and are calling for an independent, impartial military justice system. Last year, Congress passed a series of reforms, but they do not go far enough to create trust in the system. Waiting another year as some would like will not fix the fundamental dynamic fueling the crisis. As a survivor and an advocate who has waited for more than twenty years for the military to live up to their promise of zero tolerance, I urge Congress to stand with us now, and to pass the Military Justice Improvement Act.

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