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Lawmakers propose new protections for military sexual assault victims

WASHINGTON — New military sexual assault legislation introduced Wednesday would give all victims access to legal services, a chance to transfer jobs away from their attacker, and a promise that their private counseling sessions won’t be used against them in court.

Victim advocacy groups say it’s ridiculous that they don’t already have those protections.

“[Sexual assault victims] are given few privileges, and barely any freedom of movement to flee their perpetrators,” said Anu Bhagwati, executive director of the Service Women’s Action Network. “In a system that is entirely built on rank and intimidation, it is no wonder that survivors do not come forward more often about the most brutal and horrifying experience of their lives.”

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The legislation, sponsored by Reps. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, and Niki Tsongas, D-Mass., mirrors previous unsuccessful measures introduced in the House in recent years and copies some initiatives already recommended internally by a Pentagon sexual assault task force.

Under the bill, all troops who report being sexually assaulted would be given access to military legal services, to better understand their rights and options. Currently, only those who file unrestricted reports — cases in which the victim publicly accuses an attacker of a crime — are given confidential access to military lawyers.

Victims are not given an immediate opportunity to transfer out of their unit when their attacker serves alongside them, a situation Turner described as dangerous and absurd. His measure would change that.

And the legislation would make more reporting and counseling sessions confidential, and inadmissible in court. Other provisions would make it easier to share sexual assault records with Veterans Affairs medical services, and provide more comprehensive training for military victim advocates.

“These are not radical proposals,” Turner said. “These are common sense policies that most people already think should be in place. This is how you protect a victim.”

More than 3,150 military sexual assaults were reported in 2010, down about 2 percent from 2009 figures, according to Department of Defense statistics.

But Pentagon officials estimate that less than 14 percent of sexual crimes against military personnel are reported. In 2010, VA medical staff treated more than 68,000 veterans who reported some sexual trauma during their military service. Nearly 40 percent were men.

In past years, similar initiatives to reform the Defense Department sexual assault rules have run into opposition in the Senate and the Pentagon. Tsongas said her office has reached out to several senators to move the issue along this year, and received support from Defense Secretary Robert Gates in principal on some of the provisions.

In addition on Wednesday, Rep. Bruce Braley, R-Iowa, introduced separate legislation to strengthen the punishment for military sex crimes, and strengthen training within the military to prevent such assaults from taking place.

shanel@stripes.osd.mil

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