Military sexual assault survivors storm Capitol Hill

Wednesday - 5/9/2012, 11:17am EDT

Jared Serbu, reporter, Federal News Radio

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The day before a key House committee was set to mark up next year's Defense authorization bill, hundreds of veterans who suffered through sexual assaults while they were in uniform made a trip to Capitol Hill Tuesday, demanding, among other things, more prosecutions of perpetrators and better services for survivors.

Draft language in the huge annual Defense bill the House Armed Services Committee will begin work on this morning includes several provisions designed to improve the military's prevention and response on sexual assault issues, including one that would require sexual assaults to be prosecuted by a special court martial panel overseen by an officer of the rank of at least captain or colonel.

But advocates for survivors and their allies on Capitol Hill say Congress needs to go much further.

"If you want to know who I am, I'm the pissed-off congressman from Iowa," one such ally, Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa) said as he began remarks to a half-day summit organized by the Service Women's Action Network (SWAN) Tuesday morning.

Angry, Braley said, because while DoD officials proclaim that sexual assault is unacceptable, there were still nearly 3,200 cases in the military last year; about 1 percent more than in 2010. He said DoD's leadership needs to be as angry about the issue as he is, and as survivors are.

"Because when they have the audacity to talk about a zero-tolerance policy toward sexual harassment and violence in the military when they aren't even close to being there, I want other people to be outraged about this problem," he said. "The time for polite conversations is over."

Plenty of outrage to go around

SWAN organized the summit of about 200 attendees from around the country ahead of one-on-one meetings later in the to discuss military sexual violence with their members of Congress. And in the morning session, there was plenty of outrage to go around.

Outrage at the stories they heard from fellow survivors: A female soldier who said she was raped, later put on a train to get an abortion, and ordered to return to work the same day. A male sailor who was raped by a shipmate, forced to return to sea with the perpetrator, then falsely diagnosed with a personality disorder and discharged from the Navy a year later.

And outrage at the difficulty of getting care or disability benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs for post-traumatic stress disorder.

When it comes to the overall category of veterans' benefit claims for PTSD, VA approves approximately 53 percent of all claims it receives, but when one looks at the subset of claims for PTSD that originated from military sexual trauma, the figure drops to 32 percent, said Michael Wishnie, who specializes in veterans law at Yale University and serves as director of the school's legal services organization.

That's because under current rules, PTSD resulting from sexual trauma is very difficult to prove, he said.

"The VA says it will accept all kinds of things as proof that a rape or sexual assault occurred, such as reports to law enforcement or rape kits, but as everyone here knows, most of that evidence is unavailable. The willingness of the VA to accept that evidence is welcome, but utterly inadequate. VA says maybe you could have made a report and there should be some paperwork in your chain of command," he said to dour chuckles from the audience. "I think not much needs to be said about the fact that requiring that reports be made through the chain of command is also wholly inadequate to the reality in the field. That's false hope."

Spotty record of documenting, prosecuting cases

In March, eight women filed suit against the Department of Defense, some of them alleging that they were threatened, harassed and discouraged by their commanders from lodging complaints. One said she was told she simply needed to toughen up, and that "this happens all the time," according to the lawsuit. Attendees at Tuesday's summit gave similar accounts.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta himself acknowledged the spotty record of local commanders properly documenting and prosecuting sexual assault cases last month when he announced DoD would begin requiring all sexual assault cases to be handled by a special court martial.

"At the local unit level, sometimes these matters are put aside and not followed up with," he told a Capitol Hill news conference. "This requires that anytime a complaint is received, it's referred up the chain of command for action."