Flanked by four victims of sexual assault, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal advocated Monday for passage of an amendment that would change how sexual assaults in the military are prosecuted.
At a press conference at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford, Blumenthal maintained his optimism that the Senate would find enough support to move forward with the amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, which has already passed the House. He predicted that it would happen before the Thanksgiving holiday.
The National Defense Authorization Act will set the budget for the U.S. Defense Department. The proposed amendment requires that decisions regarding sexual assault prosecutions in the military be handled by trained and objective prosecutors rather than military commanders.
The question is whether or not the proposed amendment will gain enough Senate votes to move forward with debate. The rules of the Senate demand that an amendment has 60 votes before debate can begin, and Blumenthal said that the amendment is currently “in the mid-fifties” in terms of votes.
Blumenthal said he was “hopeful, but not certain” that the amendment will gain enough support in the Senate. If it does reach the 60 vote mark, Blumenthal said he is sure that the amendment will also make it through the House.
Blumenthal was joined Monday by four former members of the military, who had been sexually assaulted while serving. These four women, who are all Connecticut residents, shared their painful stories. All of the women expressed their immense frustration with the military’s justice system.
“I felt silenced by the military,” said Army Staff Sgt. Sandra Lee of Manchester, who was sexually assaulted while she served in Baghdad, Iraq from 2003-2004. Lee was assaulted by a soldier who was very respected and of a higher rank. She feared that no one would believe her and that her peers might react negatively. While at the National Center for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Lee said she discovered that every female who was hospitalized with her had also suffered sexual abuse while serving.
“This horrific, insidious crime is rampant in the military,” said Blumenthal.
Just last year there were an estimated 26,000 sexual assaults, but only around 3,000 of the assaults were reported.
“The reason it is underreported is because the chain of command is so closely involved in making decisions. The fact of the matter is that in an overwhelming number of cases, the sexual perpetrator is also in the chain of command so there is a fear of retaliation that discourages reporting,” Blumenthal said. More than 25 percent of those who have reported experiencing unwanted sexual contact in the military said that their offender was also in their chain of command.
“Where else in the United States do you actually report your sexual harassment to your boss?” asked Connecticut Army National Guard Master Sgt. Cheryl Berg.
Some argue that the decision to prosecute should remain in the military because commanders need to have control of their troops and they understand how a military functions best.
Gen. Ray Odierno, the chief of staff of the Army, disagrees with the amendment. Last week in an interview with the Wall Street Journal he said that taking military commanders out of the prosecutorial process is a big mistake and would cost the Army millions of dollars.
“The military argues that this change should not be made because it might undermine good order and discipline,” Blumenthal said Monday. “Rampant sexual assault undermines good order in discipline in the military.”
Although Blumenthal said he understood that commanders do need to have control over their troops, Blumenthal said that sexual assault is not a matter of good order and discipline but a crime that must be taken care of by a trained and objective prosecutor.
Blumenthal was just one of several Senators who support the amendment holding a press conference Monday.
Editor’s Note: This story mistakenly attributed a Cheryl Berg quote to Maureen Friedly.