June 04, 2013

The Stakes Are Enormously High

Virginian-Pilot Op-ed by Senator Tim Kaine

I’m proud to represent the state that’s more connected to the military than any other. Communities across the Commonwealth are defined by the servicemembers and their families, installations, shipyards, airfields and historical battlefields. So when we’re faced with the issue of sexual assault in our Armed Forces, it shakes the military culture – and the surrounding communities – to the core.  

And while there are all sorts of effects we feel today as a result of these incidents, I worry as much about the effects on our future.  I know many young men and women who serve in the military and others who hope to serve.  We can’t send a message to them that, ‘you may be a great leader but this is no place for you.’ We’ve got to send the message that if you’re a great leader, you’re exactly the kind of person we want. Unless we fix the sexual assault problem, we will be potentially turning away generations of strong leadership.

I began my career as a civil rights lawyer in Richmond. All my life I’ve fought to protect and defend equal rights for all people and for basic human dignity.  Now, as a member of the Armed Services Committee set to confront the military sexual assault crisis – both in a hearing today and during the upcoming National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) negotiations – I’m reminded of this fundamental struggle for equal rights and what’s truly at stake when personal integrity and human dignity are put at risk.

Sexual misconduct in the ranks is not a new problem. Recent headlines show the problem is systemic and cuts across branches, ranks, and specializations - from recruiters to commanders, from our service academies to leaders that have been tasked with preventing this egregious crime.

But the number of cases that make it to the front pages pales in comparison to the staggering number of cases that go unreported. According to a Department of Defense report, of the 26,000 estimated incidents of unwanted sexual conduct in the military that occurred in 2012, only 3,374 were reported.

Sexual assault is outrageous in any circumstance, but in the military it is also incredibly destructive to the chain of command. Each one of these acts is a violation of trust and jeopardizes the fundamental integrity, morale and trust within the ranks that are unique to carrying out the military mission where lives are at stake. 

This is a multifaceted problem that will require a multifaceted approach. Many of my colleagues have already done great work on these issues including prevention, conviction, and treatment. During the coming weeks, I look forward to working with all of them to develop a comprehensive approach.

It starts with prevention. It’s not enough to say that we’re against sexual assault in the military. We must have a culture -- from the Secretary of Defense to the newly enlisted --  that has a zero tolerance attitude to any unwanted sexual contact. This includes increased training for servicemembers, a commitment from all commanders to root out misconduct when they see it, and better screening processes to ensure prevention officers are of the highest caliber and moral code.

Second, in cases of sexual harassment or assault, the process needs to be changed so victims and witnesses can come forward without fear of retribution and with a confidence they will be treated fairly in the judicial process. I’m proud to work with my colleague Senator Mark Warner to strengthen military whistleblower protection laws to end retaliation against those who report alleged offenses. I also support legislation to place much-needed limits on the Convening Authority’s ability to overturn a conviction. At the same time, we must make sure justice is served, and that convicted servicemembers receive a sentence that fits the crime.

Finally, we need to make adequate resources available for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder from sexual assault just as we do for combat veterans when they seek claims at the Department of Veterans Affairs. There have been important steps taken by colleagues of mine in the Senate and House to end this distinction and I applaud and join this effort.

So what about the future? I recently met with cadets from the Virginia Women’s Institute for Leadership at Mary Baldwin College. I spoke with these young women about the privilege and honor of serving their country. But it is up to us to preserve that privilege and to protect the trust young people feel when they put their lives on the line to serve. Anything less would be an abdication of duty. As we confront the effect of the sexual assault crisis in today’s services, we need to worry about the morale of tomorrow’s military leaders and send the message – loud and clear – that these incidents will no longer be tolerated. We must act now, the stakes are enormously high.