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Jun 01 2012

"Combating Sexual Assault in the Military"

Weekly Column

            In May of 2007, Marine Lance Corporal Maria Lauterbach - a 19-year-old woman with the desire to serve her country and the courage to do so during a time of war -- was raped by a superior officer at Camp Lejuene in North Carolina.
            Rather than investigate the crime, military authorities questioned her truthfulness, warned her of the damage she would do to her career if she pursued the case, and even denied her a transfer to another base.  Rather than give up, however, she followed the advice of her mother, Mary, who urged her to keep fighting for the sake of her "sister Marines."
            In December of that year, the unacceptable became the unimaginable.  Maria Lauterbach, then eight months pregnant, was murdered.  Her remains, and those of her unborn child, were found buried in the yard of the rapist.  He has since been convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.
            This is an extreme case, but one that shines a much-needed spotlight on the crisis of sexual assault in the military.  Last year, nearly 3,200 cases of sexual assault in the military were reported, and that is only the tip of the iceberg - the true number of assaults may be six times higher. While one in six women will experience sexual assault in her lifetime, as many as one in three women leaving military service report that they have experienced some form of sexual trauma while serving in the military. And while 40 percent of sexual assault allegations in civilian life are prosecuted, the number in the military is a staggeringly low eight percent.
            To be sure, the vast, overwhelming majority of our military personnel are honorable, conscientious, and respectful individuals, not rapists or harassers.  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.  I am pleased to report that significant progress has been made.

            Recently, I was among four members of Congress - two Senators and Representatives from each party - who were presented the Lauterbach Award from the Service Women's Action Network for our bipartisan work to reduce the incidence of sexual assault in the military and to strengthen victim protections.  It was an honor to receive an award named for a brave Marine who stood her ground and to meet the determined mother who has carried on in her memory.
            Last year, as a member of the Senator Armed Services Committee, I introduced, along with Senator John Kerry (D-MA), the STRONG Act, which was designed to implement many of the recommendations made by the Defense Task Force on Sexual Assault in the Military.  Key provisions in our bipartisan bill were incorporated into the 2012 Defense Authorization Act that has been signed into law.  Because of these provisions, survivors of sexual assault can now seek the assistance of advocates with genuine confidentiality; they now have guaranteed access to a lawyer; and - under a common-sense provision that could have saved the life of Lance Corporal Maria Lauterbach -- they can now request expedited consideration to be transferred far away from the location of their assailant.
            At the awards ceremony, I also had the opportunity to meet two Maine women who serve as powerful reminders of what is at stake.  Temple Davis of Canaan and Jennifer Norris of Rumford both joined the military to serve our country.  Both were victims of sexual harassment and assault, and both sought justice.  Instead, both were labeled as troublemakers, denied advancement, and left the service.  Today, they are outspoken and determined advocates for change.
            We are making progress, but more must be done to ensure that no woman or man who joins the military is denied the justice and the protections available to civilians.  Ultimately, the military's policy of zero tolerance for sexual harassment and assault must become a culture of zero tolerance to prevent these crimes from occurring in the first place.
            As we combat sexual assault, we seek to strengthen, not tear down, the institutions that protect our nation.  The Commandant of the Marine Corps addressed this subject directly in a recent letter sent to every Marine.  He wrote: "The Marine Corps has not spent the last ten years defending our nation's high principles abroad only to permit this type of behavior within our own ranks."
            I could not agree more, and I will continue to work with my colleagues and our military leadership to end this scourge.  If we provide the legal protections for victims and their advocates, and if we guarantee support for the victims of sexual assault, we can take the fragile and reversible gains in the fight against military sexual trauma and turn them into sustainable and irreversible progress for our men and women in uniform.