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Politics & Government

New Bill Targets Sexual Assault Offenders In The Military

Alexander Nordby

As sexual assaults in the military increase, supporters of a bill aiming to protect victims are working to drum up support. 

Between 2014 and 2013, the number of reported sexual assault cases in the military jumped 11 percent, and 2013 numbers were 53 percent higher than in 2012, according to the latest numbers from the Department of Defense.

The Military Justice Improvement Act, which was first introduced in 2013, would restructure the chain of command when reporting sexual assaults, resulting in more disciplinary action taken against offenders.

The current judicial system gives authority to the commanding officer and he or she decides the punishment and repercussions. Critics of the current system say it’s problematic because officers often lack qualifications to appropriately deal with the situation, or worse, they are the ones committing the crime.

The bill is an amendment that would assign sexual assault cases outside the “normal” chain of command, and give it to military investigators who specialize in sexual assault cases, including assisting victims and prosecuting offenders.  

Helen Gerhardt was stationed in Iraq in 2003 and 2004 and said she considers herself lucky to not have been assaulted while serving, but said victims would benefit from the bill.

“They deserve a basically fair judicial process that is carried out by military professionals, by military prosecutors rather than commanders who do not have the experience, the expertise and often they don’t have the objectivity to be able to deliver basic justice,” Gerhardt said.

In 2014, more than 20,000 service members were sexually assaulted, according to the DoD report and one-third of those victims said they believed reporting the crime would hurt their career, or face repercussions themselves. The new legislation aims to allow victims to report a crime without fear of punishment or harassment from their fellow service members or superiors.

“What we have is an ineffective, biased, and retaliatory chain of command justice system that allows horrific sexual crimes to go unpunished,” said Ginny Hilderbrand with the Pittsburgh group Stop Sexual Assault in the Military.

Hilderbrand took part in a rally at Station Square on Thursday to increase awareness of the issue. Hilderbrand joined other supporters of the bill in asking Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey to vote for the Military Justice Improvement Act. When the bill was introduced to the Senate last year, Toomey voted against it.

Senate members are expected to vote on the bill next week.