Credit: Nicole Aptekar on Flickr, under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
(WOMENSENEWS) --In an effort to shape the outcome of a looming vote in the U.S. Senate last week, a group representing female veterans and active military members deployed their Twitter hashtags to support an amendment championed by New York Sen. Kristen Gillibrand. The bill would bring significant changes in the manner in which sexual assault cases are handled, removing them from the control of the military chain of command.
"It's like being raped by your brother and having your father decide the case," was a widely circulated quotation by U.S. Marine Corps veteran and survivor of internal military sexual assault Sarah Plummer, who kept adding to the Twitter storm.
— Sarah Plummer (@Semper_Sarah) November 19, 2013
In the end, the Senate headed into its two-week Thanksgiving recess Nov. 21 without voting on Gillibrand's proposal. She expressed her frustrations in this tweet:
— Kirsten Gillibrand (@SenGillibrand) November 21, 2013
Gillibrand's Military Justice Improvement Act, an amendment to a must-pass defense authorization bill, was caught up in a partisan deadlock over how many amendments would be allowed to the legislation, Democrat and Chronicle reported Nov. 22. The Senate's Democratic majority failed Nov. 21 to end a filibuster of the defense bill, making it uncertain how and when Gillibrand's amendment will receive an up or down vote.
"We're hoping to bring it back up after Thanksgiving on either Dec. 9 or 10, which will be an amendment of the bill," said Bethany Lesser, Gillibrand's communications director, in a phone interview.
Related reform efforts have not called for a change in the chain-of-command structure, but Gillibrand says survivors have emphasized that this is what is needed to change the culture.
The Iraq Afghanistan Veterans of America said in a Nov. 22 tweet that while delayed for now, pressure is still need to pass the bill. The tweet referred to the proposed amendment as MJIA.
— IAVA (@iava) November 22, 2013
SWAN Spearheads Push
The Service Women's Action Network, called SWAN, spearheaded the Twitter storm last week to express solidarity with the military assault act.
SWAN launched the hashtag #MJIA53 on Nov. 14, with a focus on 53 senators, including Sen. Claire McCaskill, who had not yet shown support for the legislation. Gillibrand is a Democrat and more than half of the senators who had not signaled support--33--were Republican.
But as the Nov. 19 hearings came closer, Tweets targeting the Senate holdouts switched to messages of thanks; many of them from Gillibrand.
— Cory Booker (@CoryBooker) November 19, 2013
— Kirsten Gillibrand (@SenGillibrand) November 19, 2013
Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's show of support came after a group of female policymakers took to the Senate floor to flag the need for military sexual assault victims to receive justice.
While Senate women have focused on the problem of military sex assault, they have been divided over solutions.
Sen. McCaskill, a Missouri Democratic, opposes the extraction of commanders in totality from the judicial proceedings, arguing that doing so would exacerbate the current bias commanders have in favor of the accused. McCaskill offers an alternative amendment to MJIA. Rather than excluding the chain of command's involvement in military crime proceedings, commanders will no longer have the authority to nullify existing verdicts. McCaskill in not among the 53 senators who have currently signed on to support MIJA.
Gillibrand presented MJIA to Congress in May as an amendment to the 2014 defense spending bill. It requires that severe internal crimes in the military, including sexual assault, be prosecuted by military attorneys without any direct relationship to the victim or accused so they can provide an impartial decision about whether a case proceeds to military trial.
Currently, a member of a accuser's chain of command can make judicial decisions regarding military crimes and has the right to veto already determined verdicts.
SWAN offered a list of sample tweets for supporters to send to their representatives and followers. Half of the pre-written tweets functioned to thank supporters and the other half were rallying cries targeted at the opposition. By Nov. 19, the group's target list of 53 Senate holdouts had shrunk, new sample tweets were provided and a modified hashtag omitting the "53" was also being used, #MJIA, along with the #EndMilitaryRape hashtag.
— SWAN (@servicewomen) November 19, 2013
Providing a Jumping Point
"As people continue to learn more and more, we're trying to take the guesswork out of military justice issues, make the process seamless and give people a jumping point," SWAN's communications director, Lauren L. Gray, said in a phone interview last week.
SWAN offers comprehensive fact sheets online that take the form of frequently asked questions documents.
For example, how is the chain of command's processing of martial crimes flawed?
SWAN's answer: "Because the commander making these decisions is in the accused's chain of command, military justice suffers from an inherent bias that compromises both the accused's right to a fair and impartial trial as well as victims' access to justice. We believe commanders should command and lawyers should lawyer. The Military Justice Improvement Act makes that happen."
Twice as many female service members as men said they had been dealt with in a crude and offensive manner, the National Sexual Violence Center says in this infographic. A little over three times as many female service members experienced sexist attitudes and over four times as many women in the military experienced sexual harassment and undesired sexual behavior.
During her months-long campaign, Gillibrand tied the urgent need to develop a new way of handling military sexual assault cases to the growing number of reported cases. In a speech on Nov. 6, citing statistics from the Department of Defense Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, she said 26,000 male and female service members reported sexual assault in 2011, up from 19,000 in 2010.
The worsening state of military sexual misconduct was confirmed by Pentagon-released data from the previous fiscal year on Nov. 6, after Gillibrand had delivered her speech. The Department of Defense received a 50 percent increase in sexual assault complaints from afflicted military personnel and civilians who were violated by the military between 2011 and 2012.
The legal treatment of rape and sex assault is bound to be a matter of sustained importance for the military as more women join the armed services in combat positions.
The military was given until January 2016 for the integration of women into ground combat jobs, USA Today reported Nov. 18. Currently combat jobs are only open to men. The military claims the reason is the physical strength requirements and primitive living conditions have proven detrimental to women.
Reshmi Kaur Oberoi is an editorial intern with Women's eNews and is a New York-based freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter @ReshmiKO.
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