A bipartisan effort to prevent the scourge of sexual assault in the armed forces
On the battlefield, the difference between victory and defeat is often a leader having the ability to inspire his or her troops to success. When I decided to make a career out of military service by joining the ROTC program and U.S. Army Reserves, I never realized how much I would grow to appreciate this kind of leadership within the military’s ranks.
After serving 23 years in the Army Reserves and National Guard, and now as a United States senator, I’m working in Congress on the Senate Armed Services Committee to help equip our warfighters, provide for a common defense to beat our adversaries, and ensure that the men and women who serve in our military are treated with the dignity and respect they deserve. Getting all three of these right are fundamental for America to succeed on the battlefield.
In January 2019, it became public that I was sexually assaulted in college and later suffered domestic abuse, something I had held secret for many years. It was painful to relive these experiences, but it explained to the public my passion for these issues and why for instance, it was so important to me to spend time volunteering at a women’s shelter in college counseling victims of similar experiences.
As many people know all too well, one of the areas where sexual assault has become all too prevalent is in our armed forces. While our military is a highly disciplined force with impressive capabilities, for far too long, issues of sexual assault have been allowed to fester within our military installations and on the battlefield. While there were many who took the issue seriously, too many took a “boys will be boys” mentality and minimized these voices. With so many women serving and dying for our country, that mentality was just plain unacceptable, and I have made it my mission to stop it.
I spent my first term in the Senate working to tackle military sexual assault from every angle I could — getting laws in place to improve the way we prosecute sexual crimes in the military to bolstering programs aimed at preventing these horrific assaults from happening in the first place. I’ve also taken a leadership role in helping our military service academies educate our leaders of the future in preventing sexual assault within the military’s ranks.
For quite some time now, my colleague and friend, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Democrat of New York, has pushed for completely changing the way military sexual assault crimes are processed within the chain of command — giving a trained prosecutor, not a commanding officer, the ability to decide whether a crime was committed. We both agreed that perpetrators should be held more accountable. But as someone who has commanded troops, I was not fully convinced that forcing a commanding officer out of the decision-making process would actually make the culture for sexual assault survivors better. It might instead worsen the command climate and allow perpetrators to operate more freely.
Despite our bipartisan and good-faith efforts in the Senate to make real reforms to the military justice system, the reality is sexual abuse is still rampant within our armed forces. You’ve seen the reports. The numbers are staggering, and that’s why I’m willing to do more. Because as I said in 2014, words alone are not enough — ending the sexual violence in our military must take action. So when Sen. Gillibrand approached me about working with her again this year, we took a fresh look at her original bill and how we might tighten and improve it. That’s how we reached the Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act.
Our new bipartisan bill still makes modifications to the way that officers handle sexual assault cases by having a military prosecutor decide whether a case should be prosecuted, as opposed to a commanding officer. This helps to ensure that a commanding officer doesn’t have the ability to just sweep crimes like sexual assault under the rug — something that has unfortunately happened far too often. But, it was important to me that we tighten the language to ensure that commanders still know what’s going on in their units and are able to keep good order and discipline. No one wins when our warfighters don’t do their job to provide for our security — and every soldier and sailor knows that a strong commanding officer and strong leadership is central to that effort.
For me, one key component that continues to be missing as part of this military justice conversation is prevention. By the time we have a survivor and a perpetrator, we have failed to do our jobs. A recent analysis showed that from 2004-2019 Congress enacted 249 statutory requirements related to sexual assault response and prevention, but only 9 percent of those requirements went to prevention.
We need to stop these abuses from happening in the first place, rather than only trying to respond to a tragic event on the backend. That’s why in this bill I pushed for increasing prevention-focused training and education of servicemembers — from the highest levels to the lowest cadets in our academies and our ROTC programs — officers and enlisted.
Unfortunately all too often a military investigator and/or prosecutors’ training on sexual assault cases is cursory at best — leading our survivors to feel like the system is designed to fail them. To help fix this, Sen. Gillibrand and I bolster resources for the professionalization of prosecutors and investigators to better help them do their jobs to pursue justice.
The bipartisan Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act is an example of how two women, Republican and Democrat, with very different viewpoints and backgrounds can wind up working together to improve the system. I don’t believe any one piece of legislation will ever end military sexual assault completely, but it will take steps towards preventing and reducing these heart-wrenching crimes and changing the culture to help ensure survivors are treated with the dignity, respect, and justice they deserve.
Joni Ernst, a combat veteran and member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is the junior senator from Iowa.