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Improve response to sexual assault in military

As published in: The Des Moines Register

When folks first think of our brave servicemembers, thoughts of defending our country, fighting enemies abroad and honoring their sacrifice often come to mind. Yet a significant problem that lies beneath the surface is the need to combat sexual assault within our military. That is why April — Sexual Assault Awareness Month — is an opportunity to raise awareness about the problem, renew our efforts to stop these unspeakable crimes against our servicemembers, and help these victims and survivors who are forced to deal with the unthinkable aftermath.

My more than 23-year career in the military has given me a unique perspective on this issue, and I strongly believe there should be no tolerance for sexual assault and abuse of any kind in the military. As a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, I believe that reducing and eliminating cases of sexual assault in the military is critical. The National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2016 included efforts I worked on to strengthen policy for sexual assault prevention as well as increased victim support. While these changes, as well as reforms in recent years have increased confidence in certain aspects of this fight, the mission is not over, and Congress has more work to do to protect military sexual trauma survivors.

In recent years, the Department of Defense found that 52 percent of active duty women who reported a sexual assault said they also faced some form of retaliation. This could include missing out on a promotion, forced to be reassigned to another unit, an unfavorable performance evaluation, or fellow servicemembers ostracizing the survivor. Any retaliation against a sexual assault survivor is unacceptable, and we simply cannot stand idle while so many survivors of sexual assault are being mistreated by the attacker, and then potentially retaliated against by their own fellow servicemembers.

That is why I am introducing the bipartisan Military Retaliation Prevention Act along with Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., to protect survivors who report sexual assault crimes. This new legislation will improve military response to retaliation against survivors in a few ways.

First, this bill will add a provision to the Uniform Code of Military Justice to target retaliation by military superiors against any military sexual trauma survivors. For example, if a subordinate alleges professional retaliation and an investigation substantiated this claim, then the superior could face court-martial or adverse administrative action on that basis.

The Military Retaliation Prevention Act will also require careful investigation of alleged retaliation against survivors — by professionals who have received extensive, specialized training in sexual assault trauma.

Finally, our legislation will ensure increased transparency by mandating that survivors receive timely notification of investigation results, and by requiring the DoD to issue annual reports summarizing retaliation investigations arising from sexual assaults. This data can help the DoD to better identify areas where remedial training is needed, and can help equip the military to better prevent retaliation from even happening in the first place.

Our women and men in uniform, and veterans, deserve better. They deserve the very best. That is why I have also introduced bipartisan legislation that puts veterans who are military sexual trauma survivors in control of their health care by giving them the opportunity, flexibility and discretion to choose treatment options that best suit their needs.

This legislation, the Military Sexual Assault Victims Empowerment Act (SAVE Act), affords veterans who are military sexual trauma survivors the option to seek timely health care outside the Veterans Administration system. The Military SAVE Act empowers these victims and survivors of military sexual trauma to find the specialized care they need, when they need it.

As our brave servicewomen begin to assume new roles, I remain steadfast in working to change the culture surrounding sexual assault in the military, and focus on the overall prevention of sexual assault in order to stop this trauma in the first place.

U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst of Red Oak is a Republican. Contact: