Gillibrand Lights Fire Under Military Sexual-Assault Debate

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) questions military leaders while they testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee on pending legislation regarding sexual assaults in the military June 4, 2013.
National Journal
Stacy Kaper
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Stacy Kaper
Feb. 26, 2014, 11:49 a.m.

As Sen. Kirsten Gil­librand keeps hit­ting road­b­locks in her ef­fort to bring her mil­it­ary sexu­al-as­sault bill to a vote, she opened a new di­men­sion in the de­bate Wed­nes­day while con­tinu­ing to ap­ply pres­sure for her le­gis­la­tion.

Gil­librand fo­cused at­ten­tion on the is­sue by con­ven­ing a hear­ing on the re­la­tion­ship between mil­it­ary sexu­al as­saults and sui­cide and post-trau­mat­ic stress dis­order be­fore the Sen­ate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee’s Per­son­nel Sub­com­mit­tee, which she chairs.

One vic­tim who test­i­fied, re­tired Lance Cpl. Jeremi­ah Ar­bo­gast, said he tried to take his own life and is now in a wheel­chair after his rap­ist got off with less­er charges — while he him­self was dis­charged from the ser­vice, strug­gling to get ad­equate care.

“I joined the Mar­ines in or­der to serve my coun­try as an hon­or­able man. In­stead I was thrown away like a piece of garbage,” Ar­bo­gast said.

Law­makers at the hear­ing raised a host of qualms about the coun­sel­ing ser­vices and treat­ment provided to sexu­al-as­sault vic­tims in the mil­it­ary and after they have left the ser­vice.

Gil­librand and an­oth­er mil­it­ary-justice re­form sup­port­er, Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, used the hear­ing to keep mak­ing the case for the pending bill to re­form the mil­it­ary sys­tem for hand­ling such crimes.

But the hear­ing also high­lighted the next set of is­sues that are com­ing un­der scru­tiny, which vic­tim ad­voc­ates say they hope will be ad­dressed with an­oth­er wave of le­gis­la­tion.

Prob­lems flagged by law­makers ran the gamut.

Vir­gin­ia Demo­crat Tim Kaine raised con­cerns that ser­vice­men and wo­men are be­ing over­med­ic­ated and not re­ceiv­ing ad­equate ther­apy.

South Car­o­lina Re­pub­lic­an Lind­sey Gra­ham poin­ted out the ser­vices that are and should be made avail­able to vet­er­ans out­side the Vet­er­ans Af­fairs De­part­ment that they are either not aware of or can’t ac­cess.

New Hamp­shire Re­pub­lic­an Kelly Ayotte raised ques­tions about the gap in trans­ition of health ser­vices from the De­fense De­part­ment to Vet­er­ans Af­fairs.

For her part, Gil­librand said that she hoped to take a look in the next Na­tion­al De­fense Au­thor­iz­a­tion Act at the prob­lem of how vic­tims’ in­form­a­tion shared with a spe­cial vic­tims’ coun­sel might be used against them.

“We have heard in­cid­ents where the spe­cial vic­tims’ coun­sels have been put in very dif­fi­cult po­s­i­tions … so that is something that many of us are go­ing to look in­to for the next NDAA,” Gil­librand said. “We have to really look in­to em­power­ment of that spe­cif­ic per­son to make sure they can’t be bul­lied, that they can’t be re­tali­ated against them­selves.”

Mean­while, vic­tims’ ad­voc­ates who are still push­ing for stalled le­gis­la­tion from Gil­librand to com­bat sexu­al as­saults, and a com­pet­ing meas­ure from Sen. Claire Mc­Caskill, D-Mo., are be­gin­ning to worry that the polit­ic­al brink­man­ship that keeps stand­ing in the way of the votes could sty­mie them in­def­in­itely. Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id has prom­ised votes on the meas­ures. But so far Re­id has been un­able to reach an agree­ment to bring up the meas­ures over Re­pub­lic­an ob­jec­tions to hav­ing been denied a vote on Ir­an sanc­tions le­gis­la­tion.

“That’s really the heart of the prob­lem,” said Greg Jac­ob, the Ser­vice Wo­men’s Ac­tion Net­work policy dir­ect­or and a former Mar­ine. “If Sen­at­or Re­id can’t get un­an­im­ous con­sent to pro­ceed to the bill, he’s go­ing to have to go and try to get the bill on the floor some oth­er way, a much more tech­nic­al, much more round­about way. I don’t know wheth­er or not that’s go­ing to hap­pen.”

Gil­librand’s le­gis­la­tion would rad­ic­ally re­form the mil­it­ary-justice sys­tem by tak­ing the de­cision of wheth­er to pro­sec­ute mil­it­ary sexu­al as­saults out of the chain of com­mand but keep the pro­cess with­in the mil­it­ary. Mc­Caskill’s is a pack­age of non­con­tro­ver­sial re­forms in­clud­ing elim­in­at­ing the so-called “good sol­dier de­fense” or dis­al­low­ing a sol­dier’s good mil­it­ary char­ac­ter to be con­sidered in his de­fense, and it would al­low as­sault vic­tims to chal­lenge un­fair dis­charge from the ser­vice be­cause of their at­tack.

Sen. Jerry Mor­an, R-Kan., ob­jec­ted to put­ting the sexu­al-as­sault meas­ures in the queue for floor time on Monday, ar­guing that Re­pub­lic­ans had earned the right to also de­bate le­gis­la­tion to im­pose ad­di­tion­al sanc­tions on Ir­an. He has since said he sup­ports the Gil­librand le­gis­la­tion — be­com­ing her 55th sup­port­er — but this is not the first time the le­gis­la­tion has been held up over Re­pub­lic­an ob­jec­tions. Last year, when law­makers failed to reach an agree­ment on votes on amend­ments to the NDAA, ex­pec­ted votes on the Gil­librand and Mc­Caskill amend­ments (which have each been in­tro­duced as stand-alone bills) were ab­ruptly scuttled after weeks of an­ti­cip­a­tion about the votes.

A former seni­or Demo­crat­ic aide said that Re­id is com­mit­ted to con­tinu­ing to ask Re­pub­lic­ans for con­sent to bring up the two pieces of le­gis­la­tion, but it is un­clear how and when that may come to­geth­er.

Bring­ing either bill to the floor without un­an­im­ous con­sent would likely re­quire a series of pro­ced­ur­al votes that could be take twice as long, be­cause they are struc­tured as two sep­ar­ate pieces of le­gis­la­tion. That would burn valu­able floor time, and there are oth­er press­ing items on the Demo­crat­ic lead­er’s agenda, in­clud­ing mak­ing an­oth­er run at un­em­ploy­ment in­sur­ance.

“At some point Re­pub­lic­ans are go­ing to have to drop their de­mand to have a vote on the Ir­an sanc­tions. “¦ There’s no oth­er way,” said the former aide. “If you had du­el­ing clo­ture votes, that really chews up a lot of time.”

A seni­or Demo­crat­ic aide said that un­less Re­pub­lic­ans drop their ob­jec­tions to the votes, it’s un­clear when they will come up.

“Without a con­sent agree­ment the only way to bring them up is to file clo­ture on the mo­tion to pro­ceed to the meas­ures.”¦ Not sure if/when that will hap­pen,” the aide said.

A seni­or Re­pub­lic­an aide said the ex­pect­a­tion still is that both bills will even­tu­ally get a vote, but the path­way there is cloudy.

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