Female soldiers train on a firing range in 2012.

Female soldiers train on a firing range in 2012. Mark Humphrey/AP file photo

House Approves Whistleblower Bill for Military Sexual Assault Victims

Legislation strengthens protections against retaliation for reporting sexual misconduct

The House on Thursday unanimously approved a bipartisan bill that strengthens whistleblower protections for sexual assault victims in the military.

The legislation would ensure that victims of sexual violence in the armed services have the same rights as other military whistleblowers by requiring inspectors general to investigate allegations of retaliation against personnel who report sexual assault. It would expand the current language of the statute related to protected communications and prohibition of retaliation against service members (Title 10, Section 1034 of the U.S. Code) from “sexual harassment” to also include “rape, sexual assault or other sexual misconduct.”

Indiana Republican Jackie Walorski and California Democrat Loretta Sanchez sponsored the stand-alone bill, which is also a provision in the House version of the fiscal 2014 National Defense Authorization Act. Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Claire McCaskill of Missouri introduced a companion bill in that chamber, and the Senate Armed Services Committee included it in its version of the authorization act.

Sanchez said a stand-alone bill was necessary because last year’s authorization measure wasn’t approved until Dec. 31. “This bill really cannot wait,” Sanchez said Wednesday on the House floor. “We need it today in the military because the biggest problem we have with respect to sexual assault is that the victims -- the people who are being harassed and assaulted -- are being retaliated against in the workplace.”

A recent Defense Department survey found that 62 percent of respondents who experienced unwanted sexual contact believed that they were also victims of retaliation. The department estimates that allegations of sexual assault are vastly underreported within the military, largely because of retaliation fears. The latest study found that the number of incidents of unwanted sexual contact in the military had increased to an estimated 26,000 in fiscal 2012, but only 3,374 sexual assault reports were filed during that time.

President Obama in a May briefing said members of the military who commit sexual assaults are “betraying the uniform that they’re wearing” and demanded action from Defense Department officials. “This is not what the U.S. military is about, and it dishonors the vast majority of men and women in uniform who carry out their responsibilities and obligations with honor and dignity,” Obama said during a joint press conference with South Korean President Park Geun-hye.

The 2012 documentary The Invisible War and a spate of incidents this year have jumpstarted the conversation once again on Capitol Hill and within the administration over what to do about the military’s sexual assault and harassment epidemic. The high-profile debate has focused on sex assault investigations and prosecutions within Defense, the role of the chain of command, as well as the reporting process and disability compensation claims process for victims.