WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree and U.S. Sen. Susan Collins called on military and elected leaders to take more decisive steps to combat the problem of sexual assault in the armed forces following a meeting between lawmakers and top Obama administration officials.

The White House meeting was held several days after Pentagon reports showed a 37 percent jump since 2010 in the estimated number service personnel who were sexually assaulted. The report, combined with several high-profile scandals involving sex abuse in the armed forces, appears to have breathed additional life into an issue that many say the military has been too slow to address.

Zero tolerance

Collins, a Republican, said afterward that the military’s “policy of zero tolerance for sexual harassment and assault must become a culture of zero tolerance.” Pingree, D-1st District, said she was encouraged by the meeting but said it probably will take both administrative and congressional action to address the issue.

“I think we all wanted to hope that things were getting better,” Pingree said in an interview, “but based on the number of calls that we get and the number of people we hear from … we don’t see the signs that things are changing.”

The Pentagon’s own report, which was based on anonymous surveys of more than 100,000 service personnel, estimated that 26,000 people in the armed forces were sexually assaulted last year. That is up from 19,000 in 2010. Fewer than 3,400 victims reported the crimes, however, underscoring the contentions of reform advocates that most victims remain silent out of fear of retaliation, concern about effects on future promotions or a general distrust in leadership’s willingness to investigate complaints.

Meeting with administration

The 16 lawmakers — 14 women and two men — met Obama senior adviser Valerie Jarrett; first lady Michelle Obama’s chief of staff, Tina Tchen; and a number of other representatives from the administration. According to a White House official, the group discussed various legislative proposals as well as steps the administration could take to “hold offenders accountable, improve the reporting process, support victims and work towards the prevention of sexual assault.”

Collins, a Republican, and Pingree both have been vocal on Capitol Hill in addressing sexual assault in the military. Both of New Hampshire’s senators — Democrat Jeanne Shaheen and Republican Kelly Ayotte — also were involved in Thursday’s meeting.

“To be sure, the vast, overwhelming majority of our military personnel are honorable, conscientious, and respectful individuals, not rapists or harassers,” Collins said in a statement after the meeting. “It is for their sake that the pattern of covering up, blaming the victim, and failing to provide even the most basic protections that has been all too common for far too long must end.”

Congressional efforts

Several legislative initiatives — including one authored by Pingree — are moving forward this spring, and congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle are promising to continue focusing on the issue.
Pingree’s bill, named for Maine veteran Ruth Moore, of Milbridge, would make it easier for veterans to qualify for benefits for mental health problems tied to sexual abuse that occurred during their time in the military. The policy shift would apply the same evidentiary standards now required for post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, to mental health problems because of “military sexual trauma.”

The bill passed in a House committee earlier this week and is headed to the full House for consideration. Collins is signed on as a co-sponsor of the companion Senate bill.

After Thursday’s meeting, Pingree said administration officials were “very receptive” to her suggestion that the White House take action on the issue with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

“It was a good chance to emphasize to the White House that while a lot of the emphasis has been on prosecution (of offenders), the VA side is critical,” Pingree said. “And this is something that the White House can direct the VA to do without legislation.”

Pingree is married to S. Donald Sussman, majority shareowner of MaineToday Media, which publishes the Kennebec Journal, the Morning Sentinel and the Portland Press Herald.

Focus on prevention

Collins, meanwhile, has pushed successfully for stronger sexual assault prevention and response training programs in the armed services. She was an original sponsor of a measure that is now law that requires the armed services to offer sexual assault victims access to confidential advocates, to lawyers and to expedited transfers away from the accused attackers.
Several recent scandals have helped draw both the public’s and Congress’ attention to the issue in recent months.

Big scandals

There is an ongoing investigation into more than 30 Air Force instructors accused of sexually abusing trainees at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. Decisions to high-ranking officers to overturn military convictions for sexual abuse have sparked further outrage and prompted cries to overhaul the way the military’s judicial handling of such cases. Just this week, the man in charge of the Air Force’s sexual assault prevention program was arrested for allegedly groping a woman.

The award-winning documentary “The Invisible War,” in which Pingree appeared, also has helped raise public awareness.

Two lawmakers at Thursday’s meeting — Reps. Niki Tsongas, D-Mass., and Mike Turner, R-Ohio — are proposing stripping an officer’s authority to change or dismiss a court-martial conviction in major cases, such as sexual assault. Their bill also would require that an individual found guilty of rape, sexual assault, forcible sodomy or an attempt to commit any of those offenses be either dismissed or dishonorably discharged, The Associated Press reported.

Victim advocate

Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Ayotte have introduced legislation to provide any victims with a special military lawyer who would assist them throughout the process, prohibit sexual contact between instructors and trainees during and within 30 days of completion of basic training or its equivalent, and ensure that sexual assault response coordinators are available to help members of the National Guard and Reserve, according to the AP.

“I appreciated the Administration’s invitation today to discuss efforts to prevent sexual assault in the military and ensure victims have the resources they need and deserve,” Ayotte, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement. “We must strengthen existing laws and policies so that perpetrators face justice and victims can come forward without fear of retribution and with confidence that they will receive the support, care, and justice they deserve.”

Kevin Miller — 317-6256
[email protected]
Twitter: @KevinMillerDC

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.