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A call for military justice reform

By RICHARD BLUMENTHAL and LAURA CORDES

Publication: The Day

Published July 14. 2013 4:00AM

Yolande was a sergeant in the Marine Corps, hoping to make a career out of the service she loved.

Then she was raped repeatedly by her now ex-husband, also a Marine, and began to experience sexual harassment from her superior. She wanted the abuse to stop, but saw what happened to other female Marines who reported their victimizations: They were stigmatized, hospitalized with "personality disorders" and discharged from the service. They lost their careers while their abusers continued to serve unpunished.

Fearing the military could not provide her justice, Yolande, who lives in Connecticut, did what too many female service members do in the face of abuse. She suffered in silence until earning an honorable discharge. The military lost a well-trained and dedicated Marine.

We have the strongest, best-trained military force in the history of the world. Service members deserve a military justice system worthy of their excellence. Unfortunately, when it comes to military sexual assault, our current systems fall dreadfully short.

Sexual violence thrives in communities that fail to hold perpetrators accountable. According to Department of Defense estimates, more than 26,000 incidents of sexual assault or unwanted sexual contact occurred in the military in 2012, but only 238 incidents resulted in convictions. A separate DOD report estimated that more than one in five women reported experiencing unwanted sexual contact while serving. Far too many incidents continue to go unreported, a product of a system that fails to protect the rights and needs of victims.

The current military legal structure is designed to balance the rights of the accused with the need for supposed good order and discipline in the unit. Unfortunately, in doing so, the rights and needs of victims are overlooked, ultimately undermining, not advancing, good order and discipline.

From the very start, the decision to bring a case to a special or general court-martial is made by commanders who may be responsible for supervising both the victim and the alleged perpetrator. The rights of the victim too often are secondary to general order and discipline of the entire unit.

Additionally, a victim's credibility is scrutinized. By coming forward, victims open themselves to charges of alcohol use or adultery.

Unlike in civilian court, a victim must testify twice at trial and face cross examination. Even if found guilty, there is no requirement that the perpetrator be discharged. In cases where a victim is assaulted by a superior, survivors must continue to salute their assailant, even after he has been found guilty.

Our service members deserve a justice system that honors their heroic service to this country - one that supports and respects victims' needs and reins in the high number of incidents of unwanted sexual contact.

To accomplish that, we must pass the Military Justice Improvement Act to remove from the chain of command key decisions about the prosecution of serious crimes and to give that discretion to experienced military prosecutors.

Also, we call for several measures to be included in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2013, including a requirement that a person found guilty of sexual assault receive, at a minimum, a punishment of punitive discharge. Further, the act should provide for of a Crime Victims' Rights Ombudsman to handle complaints against DOD employees who fail to protect legally-established victims' rights.

We also call for a compensation mechanism for victims of sexual assault, for victims to be provided the option of submitting sworn testimony rather than in person, and for Appellant Courts to cease judging the credibility of witnesses.

If these provisions had been in place during Yolande's service, she - and many other military men and women - would not have had to choose between safety and service. The brave men and women of the United States military give so much for our country.

By passing the Military Justice Improvement Act and improving the National Defense Authorization Act, we can give them the justice they deserve.

Richard Blumenthal is a U.S. Senator from Connecticut. Laura Cordes is executive director of Connecticut Sexual Assault Crisis Services.

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