Last month, the Department of Defense reported that there had been 3,374 reported sexual assaults in 2012. As shocking as these numbers are, they do not scratch the surface of the stunning estimate that 26,000 assaults occurred in the Armed Forces last year alone.
It’s difficult to even begin to express the outrage I feel as a military parent at the thought that our nation’s sons and daughters face a threat from their very own. That’s why I am shaken to my very core - just as every parent is - when brave survivors come forward and report that they have been the victim of one of the most horrible crimes imaginable and that the perpetrator was someone who should have had their back.
As a country, we have a moral responsibility to protect those who protect us. Zero tolerance must have meaning, victims must be cared for, and the predators that carry out these crimes must be brought to justice. The Secretary of Defense and our military leaders must take swift and decisive action and make it crystal clear that the chain of command will not tolerate these crimes.
However, after years of ineffective response, it is past time for a cultural change.
That is why as a member of the House Armed Services Committee and the bipartisan Military Sexual Assault Prevention Caucus, I worked on a bipartisan basis to approve critical steps in the House of Representatives last week to combat these horrific crimes.
More action is needed, but these steps are significant and critically important to protect our sons and daughters.
To bring perpetrators to justice, the bill strips commanders of the authority to dismiss or reduce a conviction; establishes a mandatory minimum sentence and dishonorable discharge for anyone convicted of these crimes; and prohibits commanders from using their position to abuse a subordinate.
To care for victims, it requires a specially trained lawyer to be provided; allows victims to request a permanent change of their duty location or a unit transfer; and allows commanders to remove or reassign alleged perpetrators.
These are essential steps. But they are only first steps. The decision regarding whether and how to prosecute these crimes must be removed from the chain of command and put in the hands of trained prosecutors.
It is utterly unacceptable that roughly 87 percent of assaults went unreported in 2012 and 62 percent of service members who reported an assault believed they faced retaliation for reporting the crime. This cannot continue.
I am proud of the significant steps that have been taken this week, but we as a country must ensure that all those who serve our nation are safe within their own ranks. Anything less than immediate, effective, and decisive action to end the epidemic of sexual violence in our Armed Forces would be a breach of faith with our men and women in uniform.
Dave Loebsack represents Iowa’s Second District in the U.S. House of Representatives. This column originally ran in the June 18 Iowa City Press-Citizen.