The Push for Justice for Survivors of Military Sexual Assault May Soon Succeed
A new bill championed by Sarasota's Nancy Parrish, the founder of Protect Our Defenders, could usher in changes to military law that make justice more attainable for survivors of sexual assault.
The Military Justice Improvement and Prevention Act aims to remove military commanders from their role as prosecutors in cases of sexual assault. Supporters argue this would give survivors a shot at a fair, unbiased judicial process—plus, a safe avenue to speak out against their attackers and a workplace in which they can focus on the career they signed up for, instead of living in fear.
The bill calls for taking the power to prosecute alleged perpetrators of sexual assault away from military commanders and allowing independent, professional military prosecutors to handle such cases. Parrish says military commanders shouldn't be involved in making such decisions.
"They're not legally trained," says Parrish. "They’re trained at warfighting, and are not judicial experts.”
The New York Times recently reported that the bill has gained bipartisan support from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat from New York, and Sen. Joni Ernst, a Republican from Iowa, among others, and is expected to pass this year. Gillibrand introduced the act in 2019, but it didn't gain traction in the Republican-led Senate.
"Every general or commander that has come before this body for the past 10 years has told us, ‘We’ve got this, ma’am. We’ve got this,’" Gillibrand said in a March congressional hearing. "Well, the truth is, they don’t have it.”
Ernst, a former military commander, is also a survivor of sexual assault. She resisted the push for reform for years. However, in a recent interview with CNN, she acknowledged that the number of assault cases is not dropping. Referring to the murder last year of Army Spc. Vanessa Guillén by a fellow soldier, she said, "We have to see a shift."
According to Parrish, if approved, the bill would align American policies with those of other nations. “This change will be more in line with our allies, such as Israel, Canada, the U.K. and Australia," she says.
Parrish founded Protect Our Defenders 10 years ago after hearing stories from sexual assault survivors about the blowback they endured in the military. In 1991, for example, Navy pilot Paula Coughlin charged that more than 100 male officers sexually assaulted women at a military convention in Las Vegas. Coughlin’s courage to speak out ended her career.
“Instead of being quiet, she told her story and, at the time, she was all alone,” says Parrish. “She is a mentor to me and a real hero.” Coughlin serves on the Protect Our Defenders board.
A recent report from the RAND Corporation found that sexual assaults and harassment in a single year were linked with 10,000 service members leaving the military within 28 months. According to the Pentagon, 66 percent of service members who reported sexual assault or harassment also reported retaliation, and a third of victims were discharged within seven months of reporting. And it's not just a women's issue. “By the numbers, it's actually been more men,” says Parrish.
Victims report that they have been labeled with false medical diagnoses, like a personality disorder, and receive negative performance ratings that can limit promotions and even end military careers. Dishonorable discharges can also make it challenging to gain employment or collect veterans' benefits.
"Pervasive sexual assault damages our national security," says Parrish. "By the numbers, we're losing a battalion a week to it, and it undermines the military's effectiveness. But we can do something about it. We need everyone to encourage Sen. Marco Rubio and Sen. Rick Scott to join in and support this truly bipartisan bill, and ensure our service members get a fair justice system and workplace environment.”
By the Numbers
Number of members of the military sexually assaulted in 2014
Percentage of victims who did not report the crime
Percentage of victims who were assaulted by someone in their chain of command
Portion of victims who were discharged after reporting their assault
Number of outpatient visits that took place at Veterans Affairs facilities for care related to military sexual trauma
Read more stats here.