I’m appalled by stories of sexual assault I hear from our service members. One woman was attacked by a fellow Marine in her barracks. No one heard her cries for help. The next day, she reported the assault to her superiors.
The military launched an investigation that lasted months. The woman was alienated by her peers, who called her derogatory names. Her Sergeant Major told her the assault was her fault, that she must have encouraged the attacker. The investigation went nowhere. Nobody was held accountable.
Unfortunately, sexual assault cases are not isolated incidents. Just last week, the Department of Defense released a report estimating that more than 26,000 service members were sexually assaulted in 2012.
And equally alarming – just 13 percent of incidents that occurred in 2012 were reported.
I will not stand for sexual assault in our military. Service members risk their lives around the world as they engage our enemies on the battlefield; they should not have to worry about their personal safety on our bases at home and around the world.
Women who have served on military bases in Afghanistan, a dry, desert climate, told me they limit their water intake during the day in order to avoid using the latrines at night, when they face an increased risk of being assaulted.
When our servicemembers are at war, facing threats from all directions, I want them focused on serving our country and getting the job done safely. They have too much on their plates to wake up wondering, “Will today be the day I become a victim of sexual assault?”
Unfortunately, the staggering number of military assaults each year justifies those fears. Even worse is that, according to the Department of Defense, half of all sexually assaulted servicemembers fear retaliation if they report the crime. They fear the military won’t maintain their confidentiality or that the military justice system will fail them.
Sexual assault victims in the military also believe reporting the crime will jeopardize their careers. They fear losing opportunities for career advancement that they’ve earned through years of hard work. This is unacceptable. The men and women of our armed forces deserve better.
At a high-level White House meeting last week, I joined colleagues from both parties to discuss concrete steps we can take to protect victims and address the epidemic of sexual assault in our military. Last year’s Defense Authorization Act included provisions to do just this. That law established independent review boards to examine how the military handles sexual assault; created a special victims unit; ensured convicted offenders are kicked out of the military; and improved the military’s data collection for sexual assaults.
But talk is not enough when it comes to fixing this crisis. During his confirmation process, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel assured me he would fully implement these directives, and last week I requested that he report to Congress immediately on his progress.
There are some who say this problem can’t be fixed. They chalk the problem up to the culture in our military. But I won’t accept that for our men and women in uniform. Our servicemembers have put their lives on the line to protect us, and we simply cannot wait another day to step up to protect them.