The Next Step in Curbing Sexual Assaults in the Military

Addressing retaliation needed in overhauling Uniform Code of Military Justice

The freedoms we are lucky enough to enjoy in America are because of the brave men and women who step up and say, “take me – I am willing to give my life for my country.”  

And while the potential for conflict is a natural element of life in our armed forces, those men and women deserve a military system that protects them from violence within the ranks.  

With that goal in focus, over the past few years, Congress has ushered in historic, sweeping reforms overhauling the way our military handles the heinous crime of sexual assault.  

Those more than 30 reforms include stripping commanders of the ability to overturn convictions, giving every survivor who reports an assault their own independent lawyer to protect their rights, requiring civilian review if a commander declines to prosecute a case, eliminating the statute of limitations and eliminating the “good soldier” defense. These and a host of other bipartisan reforms have already made tremendous progress overhauling the Uniform Code of Military Justice.  

We have seen significant progress since greater attention was focused on this issue. According to the Military Investigation and Justice Experience survey, 80 percent of survivors who interacted with a Special Victims’ Counsel/Victims’ Legal Counsel were satisfied. In addition, 77 percent of survivors said they would recommend others to report.  

But even as the number of assaults has dropped and reporting by victims has gone up, one systemic issue remains unchanged. We are still seeing stubbornly high rates of survivors who report retaliation by their peers after coming forward to report a crime.  

While we have taken big steps to get more survivors out of the shadows and empowered, a fear of retaliation remains one of our most pressing obstacles. If victims know that they will be re-victimized if they come forward, they may be tempted to stay in the shadows, leaving sexual violence rooted in place.  

Anyone who knows us knows we do not back down when we see a stubborn obstacle that needs to be overcome. That is why we have introduced the Military Retaliation Prevention Act, to better protect survivors who report such crimes from retaliation.  

Our bill would:

    • Strengthen the military response by making retaliation its own unique offense under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
    • Increase transparency by requiring victims to be notified of how their complaint was decided — and requiring the Pentagon to collect and publish extensive data on retaliation complaints.
    • Require specific training for investigators, including all military criminal investigators, IG investigators, or any personnel assigned by commanders to investigate the complaints.
  • Ensure each of the services adopts best practices by establishing metrics for measuring the outcomes of their efforts to prevent and respond to instances of retaliation. 

Our plan to combat retaliation was informed by recommendations made by independent experts, including the Judicial Proceedings Panel — chaired by former congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman, author of the federal rape shield law and a former member of the Response Systems Panel — as well as the Military Justice Review Group.  

We bring a combination of experience as a courtroom prosecutor of sex crimes and years of service to this country in the Army National Guard, and we know firsthand the importance of protecting those who serve this country — particularly those who have been victimized.    

We have changed the law; now we have got to keep working to change the culture surrounding sexual assault in the military, and this bill is the next step in that fight to ensure all survivors are protected. Our men and women in uniform deserve no less.  

McCaskill, a Democrat from Missouri, is a former courtroom prosecutor of sex crimes. Ernst, a Republican from Iowa, is the first female combat veteran to serve in the Senate. Both serve on the Armed Services Committee.