By David Montgomery
South Dakota’s representatives in Congress all are calling for reforms in response to reports of tens of thousands of sexual assaults in the U.S. military.
Bills working their way through Congress have taken some steps to crack down on sexual assault in the armed forces, but Rep. Kristi Noem said the House version doesn’t go far enough.
“More has to be done,” Noem said. “Our military men and women put themselves in harm’s way to defend our country’s freedom. They should be able to feel safe when they’re surrounded by fellow soldiers. In light of all the recent news stories, it’s clear this safety is being jeopardized.”
Noem, a member of the House Armed Services Committee’s subcommittee on military personnel, called Thursday for three specific reforms:
? Standardizing the process for investigating sexual assault claims.
? Establishing new requirements for individuals in sexual assault prevention positions, some of whom recently have been accused themselves of committing sexual assaults.
? Developing standardized sexual assault prevention plans for the entire military rather than letting each branch produce its own.
Noem said she’s still on the fence about one proposed reform, to take sexual assault cases out of the military chain of command. The House version Noem voted for doesn’t go quite as far, keeping sexual assault cases in the chain of command but removing the authority of commanders to reduce or dismiss major court-martial convictions.
That stems from a case that stoked widespread outrage on Capitol Hill, when an Air Force general overturned the conviction of a lieutenant colonel because he said he found the defendant more believable than the alleged victim.
Sen. John Thune and Sen. Tim Johnson both also endorsed new reforms.
“The vast majority of our men and women in uniform are honorable, respectful individuals who have devoted their lives to defending our country,” Thune said in a statement. “However, the alarming increases in sexual assault in the military are unacceptable. We must provide protections to all of our troops who serve to ensure they do not fall victim to these terrible acts by fellow members of the military.”
Thune endorsed a bill that would enhance prosecution of sexual assault in the military and provide victims with a military lawyer.
Johnson said he supported reforms, although he is reviewing specifics.
“This behavior is unacceptable,” Johnson said. “In recent weeks, many legislative proposals have come forward to address this problem. I am reviewing these bills and will work with my colleagues on efforts to end this epidemic and ensure perpetrators are brought to justice.”
A Pentagon report released earlier this month estimated that up to 26,000 military members might have been sexually assaulted last year and that thousands of victims still are unwilling to come forward despite new oversight and assistance programs aimed at curbing the behavior.
The report showed that the number of sexual assaults actually reported by members of the military rose 6 percent to 3,374 in 2012. But a survey of personnel who were not required to reveal their identities showed the number of service members actually assaulted could be as high as 26,000, but they never reported the incidents. That figure is an increase over the 19,000 estimated assaults in 2011.
Noem said she’s talked with military commanders on several occasions about the assaults and thinks they recognize a serious problem.
“They talk a lot about the culture, that they need to change the culture in the military,” Noem said. “I think they recognize that this hasn’t been the focus of their attention in years past, and it needs to be now.”
The military commanders haven’t “necessarily embraced” Noem’s proposed reforms, she said, but she’s “not getting any resistance from them,” either.
Both the House and Senate are moving forward on military sexual assault reforms, which have general bipartisan support and are expected to pass in the coming months.