WASHINGTON — The U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday passed a bill named for a Maine woman that aims to make it easier for veterans who were sexually assaulted to receive compensation.

House passage of the bill — which was sponsored by Maine Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District — represents the first policy victory this year in either chamber of Congress for veterans’ groups and lawmakers pushing for a more aggressive military response to sexual assault within the ranks.

“I’m beyond pleased,” Ruth Moore, a sexual assault survivor and the bill’s namesake, said Tuesday after the House approved the bill on a voice vote. “It is bittersweet, of course. But this is going to make a difference for so many veterans. Now we just need to get it through the Senate.”

The House action came on the same day that the nation’s top military brass, assembled in a Senate hearing, used words like “crisis” and “cancer” to describe sexual assaults that they say threaten to undermine morale and military readiness. But the generals and admirals pushed back against sweeping changes to the military’s internal judicial system, the most contentious of which would strip unit commanders of the decision on whether to prosecute more serious crimes, including sexual assaults.

“The role of the commander should remain central,” Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “Our goal should be to hold commanders more accountable, not render them less able to help us correct the crisis.”

Pingree’s bill has been comparatively non-controversial, passing the House without a roll call vote. The measure had bipartisan support from leaders of the House Veteran’s Affairs Committee, including Maine Rep. Mike Michaud, D-2nd District, the top-ranking Democrat. A Senate committee is slated to hold a hearing on a companion bill next week.

The Ruth Moore Act of 2013 aims to help victims of military sexual trauma qualify for disability benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs. Bill supporters argue that disability claims for mental health conditions linked to a sexual assault should be treated the same as claims for post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, from combat. The VA receives thousands of claims linked to sexual assaults every year. However, advocacy groups contend the approval rate is too low, in large part because many veterans never report the assaults out of fear of retaliation, or the documentation has been lost or destroyed.

The version of the bill that passed the House would not require the VA to make policy changes but uses the threat of onerous reporting requirements to nudge the department in that direction. Mandating a policy change would have carried a hefty price tag requiring a congressional offset.

“This bill doesn’t create any new benefits. This bill doesn’t give special treatment to survivors of sexual assault,” Pingree, who has been leading the charge for the policy change, said on the House floor just before passage. “This bill just levels the playing field and makes it easier for survivors to get the benefits they are owed.”

Pingree is married to S. Donald Sussman, who is a majority share owner of MaineToday Media, which publishes the Portland Press Herald, the Morning Sentinel in Waterville and the Kennebec Journal in Augusta.

Moore, the bill’s namesake, is a Milbridge resident who fought for more than 20 years to receive treatment and disability compensation for sexual attacks she suffered as a young Navy enlistee serving overseas in the 1980s. She was raped twice by a superior officer — the second time in retaliation for reporting the initial attack to a chaplain. The incidents and lack of treatment took an emotional toll on Moore that lasted for decades after her discharge from the Navy. She went public with her story for the first time last year, in news reports and in congressional testimony, and has since become a national voice for the issue.

As the House passed the Ruth Moore Act, senators at the Armed Services Committee hearing were grilling top officers from the five branches of the military about how they are responding to what has been described as an “epidemic” of sexual assault.

“You have lost the trust of the men and women who rely on you,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. “They are afraid to report. They think their careers will be over. They fear there will be retaliation.”

Gillibrand and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, are co-authors of a proposal that would remove from the military chain of command decisions about whether to prosecute sexual assaults and other alleged crimes. Instead, trial counsel would make such decisions. Gen. James Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps, said addressing sexual assault is “front and center” for him and top commanders. Recent changes, Amos said, have increased Marines’ willingness to report incidents, strengthened training to prevent sexual assault and held commanders accountable.

Amos, like the other heads of the military branches, suggested that commanders should retain the ability to decide whether to pursue a court martial for sexual assault cases. He urged Congress to proceed cautiously when considering changes to the military judicial system.

“Commanders never delegate responsibility,” Amos said. “They should never be forced to delegate their authority.”

A recent Pentagon report estimated that 26,000 service members experienced incidents of “unwanted sexual contact” last year, an increase of more than 30 percent from two years earlier. At the same time, service members actually reported fewer than 3,400 incidents.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat and leading voice on Capitol Hill for addressing military sexual assault, called on the Pentagon to better define “unwanted sexual contact,” which could mean anything from sexual harassment to rape.

But McCaskill also said that the military will be able to prove success in combatting sexual assault when two things happen simultaneously: the number of total incidents fall even as reports rise because more service members are willing to step forward.

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

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