Combating sexual assaults in the military

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We must end the scourge of sexual assaults in our military.

When young women decide to serve their nation in the armed services, they should never be forced to live under a cloud of intimidation or sexual harassment. This is a challenge the military must confront and overcome.

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During my own military career, I have witnessed quite a number of challenges that the military has had to confront. Each time, it overcame the obstacles, and always emerged as a more effective fighting force.

For example, in 1972, when I joined the U.S. Army, I found an army that was fractured along racial lines with its combat effectiveness further compromised by an epidemic of drug and alcohol abuse. The combination of these factors produced an Army plagued by disciplinary problems, poor morale, and very low retention rates. This was not just an Army problem but was evident in all of the branches of military service.

The Army responded aggressively to resolve those problems, and today, when I talk to the newest generation of young people serving in uniform, the challenges that our military faced in the 1970s are unthinkable to them.

But today, our military is confronted with a new and very different challenge, an epidemic of sexual assaults that is seriously compromising the combat effectiveness of our military. Today, our soldiers, Marines, sailors and airmen are among the most accomplished of their generation. The standards of the young men and women who serve in our military have never been higher than at any time in our nation’s history.

One fundamental factor that has driven up recruiting standards has been that many of the military’s occupational career fields have been opened up to women. By adding women into the mix we have increased the pool of eligible recruits, raising the standards to make our military the most professional that our country has ever had. 

Unfortunately, with the increase in women serving in uniform there has been a reprehensible increase in the number of sexual assaults and a culture within our military that, knowingly or unknowingly, has tolerated it.

Members of Congress have been debating how best to combat the epidemic of sexual assaults plaguing our military. We seem to have fallen into two camps. The first supports the leadership of our military in wanting to resolve allegations of sexual assaults within the chain of command.

The second believes that we should have independent military prosecutors deal with sexual assault cases to remove the stigma of reporting the assaults and encourage women to feel comfortable in stepping forward to bring their assailants to justice.

I strongly believe that any allegations of sexual assault should be reported to authorities outside of the chain of command and thus should be procedurally treated separately from all other violations listed under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. 

Questions of sexual assault, regarding military coworkers within the same unit, are always highly sensitive in nature. My concern is that a unit commander might feel pressure to resolve a problem that he or she might feel reflects poorly on his or her own leadership, or to be an embarrassment to the reputation of his or her command, on an informal level without having cases properly vetted and prosecuted, should the facts warrant. The net result could be fewer victims having the confidence to step forward and to testify against their attackers.

This is why I support taking the reporting of sexual assaults outside of the chain of command and will work with Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) so that these allegations can be investigated by independent military authorities, and, if necessary, prosecuted accordingly.

This is not a partisan issue. This is about protecting the young men and women who step forward to risk their lives in defense of our freedom. I am proud to stand with my Democratic colleagues to ensure we end the scourge of sexual assaults in our military.

Coffman has represented Colorado’s 6th Congressional District since 2009. He sits on the Armed Services; the Veterans Affairs; and the Small Business committees. He is a retired combat veteran with a combined 21 years of military service between the U.S. Army, Army Reserve, U.S. Marine Corps and the Marine Corps Reserve.