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Washington Memo: Military sexual trauma has reached a crisis point

Congress and the American people are rightly outraged by the ongoing epidemic of sexual assault within our military.

From widespread misconduct at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, to military commanders overturning sexual assault convictions, military sexual trauma has reached a crisis point.

Until we fix this problem, it will continue to endanger our men and women in uniform, undermine the readiness of our armed forces and tarnish the reputation of the most distinguished military the world has ever known.

Despite maintaining an official zero tolerance policy for more than 20 years and investing in the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office for more than seven years, the military has seen no marked decrease in sexual assaults or increase in convictions.

In 2010, 19,000 service members were victims of sexual assault. The Department of Defense estimates that less than 15 percent of survivors in these cases reported their assaults.

In fiscal year 2011, more than 3,000 military sexual assaults were reported. Of these, only 1,518 were considered actionable, and less than 8 percent actually went to trial.

These numbers are staggering. Yet we know that many of the worst cases and saddest stories are those we’ll never know about – the countless men and women who have been sexually abused but won’t step forward for fear of retaliation.

These victims are not just statistics. Behind every case is a soldier, seaman, airman or Marine who volunteered to serve our country.

They’re people like Jennifer Norris, one of the 59 victims at Lackland Air Force Base. Growing up, Jennifer’s father taught her that she was equal to her brothers, and she applied her confidence and determination to achieving the American dream. At 18, she joined Lackland Air Force Base as a new recruit, only to be raped soon after and then assaulted a second time at Keesler Air Force Base.

This is a young woman who left a loving family and sacrificed greatly to serve her country – and then this. Sadly, we know there are thousands like Jennifer for whom this nightmare is a reality.

Our military leadership, the chain of command and our government have failed to protect Jennifer and thousands of others. We can and must do everything in our power to prevent future crimes by securing justice for these victims and holding every attacker accountable for his or her actions.

No single policy can prevent every sexual assault in the military. Ultimately, a broader cultural shift is needed to break the damaging pattern of cover-ups and looking the other way. But that’s not an excuse for inaction, particularly when there are common-sense, bipartisan steps we can take.

First, Congress must continue to conduct oversight and aggressively investigate any misconduct in the military. We must also prioritize funding for the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office to prevent future assaults and help victims come forward.

Additionally, Congress needs to work with military leadership to secure justice for every victim. To do so, we should enact serious reforms to protect whistle-blowers and facilitate the reporting of these crimes.

And for the service members and veterans we have failed to protect, we must ensure that personnel at the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs have the training and resources necessary to provide the counseling, medical care and support needed by sexual assault survivors.

We owe it to every victim of military sexual assault to take these actions. I’m proud that so many of my Democratic and Republican colleagues have joined forces to address this epidemic head-on. I am committed to continuing this bipartisan work to help the heroic men and women of our military prevent, prosecute and recover from military sexual assault.

(Democrat Annie Kuster represents New Hampshire’s 2nd District in Congress. She serves on the House Veterans Affairs Committee.)

We constantly here the same type words "holding every attacker accountable for his or her actions". The problem is no one holds them accountable. Article quotes widespread misconduct and military commanders overturning convictions, so why are follow up charges not brought. The problem does not get much better because people keep blaming agencies, departments, states or some other group. If one is to really address this epidemic head-on then people’s names have to be attached to what was done and actually hold them responsible. Seriously, it's 2013, is Ms. Kuster saying the military needs more money to tell its soldiers not to sexually assault each other.

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