Lawmakers press for more progress on assault cases
January 29, 2009
WASHINGTON — When Laura Watterson told her commanders that a fellow airman had raped her, she expected the Air Force to investigate and punish the offender.
Instead, she said, he was promoted to be her supervisor and she was told to "get over it."
"They said in basic that I’d be taken care of [in the Air Force] and I trusted that," she told a House committee on Wednesday. "I thought I had joined a band of brothers as a sister. I became an outcast."
Watterson’s testimony was part of the first of a series of hearings scheduled by the House Armed Services Committee on the military’s sexual assault response.
Military Personnel Subcommittee Chairwoman Susan Davis, D-Calif., said lawmakers hope to use the hearings to develop better rules on victim advocacy, offender prosecution and command attitudes towards the crimes.
"The Department of Defense has made significant improvements in recent years to the depth and the breadth of services available after an assault … but the question we need to ask is, ‘Has enough been done?’" she said.
The hearing also came a day after Reps. Jane Harman, D-Calif., and Michael Turner, R-Ohio, reintroduced legislation calling for stricter regulations on military sexual assault cases, including punishment for commanders involved in dismissed rape cases, notification of civilian authorities as well as military investigators, and a review of all current assault counseling training.
In 2005 Defense Department updated its sexual assault prevention and response policies, promising better prosecution of offenders and more leeway to victims in pressing charges.
Officials saw a nearly 40 percent increase in assault reports the year following those changes, a move they said was positive because it showed more victims were coming forward seeking help.
For fiscal 2007, the department reported 2,688 sexual assaults across the services, but only 8 percent were referred to courts-marital.
Assault coordinators from the services testified Wednesday that the changes in reporting and investigations have lead to a shift in attitude among commanders, giving them more time to work with victims and less command interference in ongoing cases.
But Watterson, who now works as a sexual assault counselor, said military victims she deals with still report the same intimidation in reporting attacks to fellow servicemembers, even those assigned to defend them. She pushed for more outside counselors, trained professionals completely independent of military influence.
"After I was assaulted I no longer trusted anyone on base," she said.
Davis said the next hearing in the series, which has yet to be scheduled, will focus on ways for the military to improve its prevention of sexual attacks in the ranks.