Give military sexual assault victims a voice in court

Those who choose a life of service in defense of our nation deserve to be valued and protected, but every year, thousands are instead defending themselves against sexual assault within our own military.

Survivors of sexual assault in the military achieved an important legal victory last week when the Court of Appeals affirmed the essential right of victims to be heard through their own counsel. Earlier this year, the Air Force began a pilot program that personally represents survivors of sexual assault. While the prosecutor represents the military in a sexual assault case and the defense represents the accused, who really represents the victim? Until now, victims have not had a clear right to have their own attorney advocate on their behalf.

The Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces ruled in Airman First Class LRM v. Lieutenant Colonel Kastenberg that victims should be allowed to be heard through counsel. Currently, the Air Force’s Special Victims’ Counsel (SVC) program fulfills that role by providing judge advocates who personally advise and represent victims of sexual assault. This court case expands the role of this counsel and gives these men and women a necessary voice in legal proceedings.

We have heard from the top military and civilian leadership of the Air Force and the Department of Defense that the SVC program is enjoying overwhelmingly positive feedback from survivors of sexual assault. Thanks to this program, survivors have shown more confidence in agreeing to move forward with criminal prosecution. A July 17 article by The Christian Science Monitor said the SVC program “could be one of the Pentagon’s brightest hopes in combating the epidemic of sexual assault in its ranks.”

That is why we, along with several of our Democratic and Republican colleagues, introduced the Combating Military Sexual Assault Act.

While many bills have been introduced in this Congress to address the appalling issues related to sexual assault in the military, ours is the only bill that allows the type of victim representation affirmed by last week’s court decision. Much has been said and written about removing from the chain of command the decision to prosecute perpetrators so that victims might feel more comfortable moving forward with an investigation. We disagree with that approach, believing that full engagement by commanders will be essential to effecting the permanent cultural change that needs to occur in the military. However, that debate over chain of command has obscured the important fact that survivors of military sexual assault have never had a right to personal legal representation while standing before the court. LRM v. Kastenberg finally advances that important right, but our job in Congress is not yet complete.

The House recently passed the fiscal 2014 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) adopting several valuable sexual assault reforms, including our proposal to establish an SVC program throughout all the military services. Our Defense Appropriations subcommittee included $25 million in the Defense bill passed by the House this week, to fund the efforts of the Department of Defense to expand the SVC program to the other military services. Unfortunately, in regard to the question of whether victims’ attorneys can meaningfully advocate to a court for their clients, the NDAA only required the Pentagon to study the matter.

The final version of the NDAA needs to ensure, by law, that victims have the essential right to be heard through counsel, and our legislation does just that. We stand committed in making sure these men and women who have suffered from these terrible crimes are represented and treated fairly in the court system.

Kaptur has served Ohio’s 9th Congressional District in the House of Representatives since 1983. She sits on the Appropriations Committee. Ryan has served in Congress since 2003. He sits on the Appropriations and Budget committees.