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
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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