Military sexual assaults: The time to act is now

WASHINGTON – Right now, America is facing an epidemic of sexual assaults in our military. The facts on this issue are truly frightening. The Department of Defense (DOD) estimated there were 26,000 sexual assaults in 2012 alone. Sadly, only 3,400 were actually reported. That means 87 percent of these terrible crimes went unreported. In fact, over the past few weeks’ news reports have surfaced that two different military commanders responsible for addressing this problem have actually been charged with sexual assault themselves. Like most people in Northern Michigan, I believe this is a travesty that needs be addressed now.

I’ve been a doctor in Northern Michigan for nearly 30 years. As a physician, I know how intensely upsetting these terrible crimes can be. It’s often very difficult for victims to feel safe when reporting these tragic incidents. Something needs to be done now. That’s why I am working in a bipartisan way with Senators like Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) to offer a new plan in Congress that reforms the way the military handles sexual assault cases and makes sure victims don’t have to fear reporting the crime.

Currently, victims of sexual assault in the military report an incident to their commanding officer. This poses a difficult challenge for many victims, as it can be extremely hard to share such intensely personal and emotionally upsetting details with a direct superior the victim has to work with each day. Imagine if you had to report the details of such a traumatic event to your boss at work, rather than to a prosecutor or a law enforcement officer.

Clearly, what’s been tried in the military hasn’t been working. A new approach is needed. That’s just what our plan does. If passed, sexual assault victims will be able to report abuse directly to an experienced military attorney outside of the victim’s normal chain of command. This change would apply only to offenses which the authorized sentence under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) is more than one year in jail and excludes uniquely military crimes such as misbehavior before the enemy or abandoning your unit. These offenses would be comparable to felonies in the civilian criminal justice system. This common sense bill will ensure our service members are not denied the justice and the protections available to civilian victims of sexual assault.

My daughter served in the Navy for five years. As the proud father of a veteran, I know exactly the kind of hard-working women we have in our armed forces. They fight for our freedoms every day and shouldn’t have to struggle with a military justice system that should be there to help victims. I’m fighting for this new plan because our soldiers who have been victims of sexual assault deserve better than they are getting now.

All Americans should be rightfully disgusted that 26,000 sexual assaults occurred in the military last year and 87 percent of those incidents went unreported. We all know that we owe our soldiers better treatment than this. This problem is not one that should be focused on by just Republicans or Democrats – it will only be fixed through bipartisan efforts like the one that I am leading in Congress.

I want to see both parties work together to find a solution to this critical issue. As a doctor, I’m used to working with others to get results. There are no Democrats or Republicans in the operating room – only professionals working as a team. That’s how it should be. Senator Gillibrand and I are from different parties and different parts of the country, but we both recognize the dire need to solve this problem. The status quo is not good enough. The time to take action is now.

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Rep. Dan Benishek is a general surgeon and is serving in his second term in the U.S. House of Representatives.