DAYTON, Ohio (MCT) — U.S. Rep. Mike Turner said Monday that he will explore greater protections from sexual assault for civilian employees on military bases such as Wright-Patterson.
Turner, R-Dayton, and U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas, D-Mass., met with Wright-Patterson leaders to learn how the base and Hansom Air Force Base in Tsongas' home district, have reacted to legislative changes enacted in three major bills backed by the two lawmakers. The reforms tackled preventing a military commander from overturning a sexual assault conviction, ordering the dismissal from the military of a sexual assault perpetrator, and giving military-provided legal counsel to victims.
Turner and Tsongas co-chair the Military Sexual Assault Prevention Caucus in the House of Representatives.
Wright-Patterson is the largest single site employer in Ohio, with more than 27,000 employees, most of whom are civilian workers.
"We're going to look at ways in which we can expand on some of the provisions that we've done and how we might be able to ensure greater protection for civilian employees of the military, also," Turner said.
Wright-Patterson's Sexual Assault and Prevention Response office recorded 14 reports of assault so far this year. In 2013, the SAPR office reported 25 sexual assaults and in 2012 the office reported 15, according to base spokesman Daryl Mayer. Air Force officials have cautioned, however, those statistics may reflect assaults that occurred elsewhere but were reported at Wright-Patterson.
Additionally, five airmen were granted expedited transfers to leave Wright-Patterson after reporting a sexual assault since 2013, Mayer said. Six other airmen transferred to Wright-Patterson after reporting an assault.
Part of the legislation Tsongas and Turner pursued allows victims to seek an expedited transfer to another base after they have made a report of a sexual assault.
The U.S. military reported 5,061 sexual assault cases last year, compared to 3,374 cases among service members reported in 2012. A Defense Department survey, however, estimated 26,000 military men and women were sexually assaulted in 2012 compared to 19,000 the prior year, The Associated Press reported.
Tsongas said more service members have shown a willingness to report the crime and pursue prosecutions.
The military has a judicial system that allows a victim to report a sexual assault confidentially without prosecution, known as a "restricted" report, or pursing prosecution of an alleged perpetrator, recorded as an "unrestricted" report.
"One of the issues has been the deep resistance to moving into the unrestricted area because of the kind of professional retaliation that too often takes place," Tsongas said. "We're seeing many more numbers of people moving forward into the unrestricted area seeking justice through the Uniform Code of Military Justice."
The congresswoman said special victims counsel lawyers who advise victims trying to navigate the military justice system may have made "a big difference."
"But the jury is still out," she said. "There will be another report this year in which the entire services are surveyed to just see what the incidents are and I think we'll get a better feel for what the impact of these many reforms has been."
At Wright-Patterson, two initial confidential restricted reports were switched to unrestricted, raising the total to 19 unrestricted and six restricted cases last year as tracked by the SAPR office, Mayer said in an email. This year, the office reported eight cases where the victim did not want to pursue prosecution, and six cases where victims asked for prosecution. In 2012, it recorded five restricted cases and 10 unrestricted cases.
Mary Lauterbach, the Vandalia mother of slain Marine 20-year-old Maria Launterbach who was eight months pregnant when she was killed by a fellow Marine, said the legislation has made strides to address military sexual assault. But more work remains to gain the trust of service members to feel comfortable about reporting the crime.
"More people are reporting (assaults), but they're not completely there yet because the vast majority of sexual assaults are still going unreported," she said in an interview. Some service members fear "there's a much greater price for reporting than any justice received and that has to be reversed."
Merle F. Wilberding, a Dayton attorney and former military lawyer, has had a role in shaping federal legislation to reform how the Pentagon addresses the issue. He and Mary Lauterbach testified before Congress after the death of Lauterbach's daughter.
Wilberding wants federal leaders to take a close look at military commanders authority to decide to prosecute a perpetrator accused of assault. A fierce debate in Congress hasn't gained enough momentum to strip that authority and give it to prosecutors. Military leaders have opposed the idea.
"I personally would feel comfortable if we developed a system that where the command did not say yay or nay, where the justice system could work more like the justice system in the civilian world," he said.
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