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Service Women’s Issues on the Campaign Trail

On Tuesday, Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich criticized fellow Republican candidate Rick Santorum on his recent comments on women in combat by saying:

“We should be very proud of the men and women who put on the American uniform and risk their lives in order to protect this country,” Gingrich told reporters. “I just think that Rick completely misunderstands the nature of modern warfare by his comments.” 
Gingrich then overreached by stating that anyone wears the uniform is “in combat.” Proving that Gingrich himself does not understand fully the nature of the modern military: 
 “Whatever your technical assignment, whether you’re a truck driver or you’re working with logistics, or you’re a military person, you’re in combat.  And I think that we have to understand that from day one,” Gingrich said.
Both candidate’s statements ignore the core of the issue: Women are serving in combat, but by being excluded from combat job specialties, women do not get the same recognition or opportunities that men do.

This is a remarkable story because for what may be the first time, issues that are specifically relevant to service women are being discussed on the campaign trail, and as Gingrich readily demonstrates, these issues could become a “litmus test” for whether or not candidates have what it takes to be Commander-in-Chief.

President Obama signs military sexual assault reforms into law

President signs 2010 NDAAOn New Year’s Eve, President Barack Obama took pen in hand and signed the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012. In doing so he signed into law sweeping and profound changes in the way the military treats survivors of sexual assault by strengthening the military’s prevention efforts and providing legal protections and assistance for survivors.

The law strengthens support for sexual assault prevention by:

  • Increasing the rank of the Director of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response office to a flag officer or SES position;
  • Outlining requirements for the number of Sexual Assault Response Coordinators (SARCs) and Victim Advocates to assign to each military unit;
  • Providing mandatory rank-appropriate training for military leaders at PME schools.

The law strengthens legal protections for survivors of sexual assault in the military by:

  • Ensuring that victims have access to a legal assistance and maintaining their option of confidential reporting, even if they seek legal counsel;
  • Mandating preservation of physical and documentary evidence and forms;
  • Requiring the President to sign an executive order creating legal privilege between victims and victim advocates.

The law strengthens assistance for survivors by:

  • Ensuring Victim Advocates and SARCs are certified and full-time service members or DOD civilians; and
  • Providing victims of sexual assault with expedited consideration for a base transfer, if requested.

You can read the sexual assault prevention and response section of the law here (Begins with Sec. 581 on pg. 320)

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Question 21: Making Progress

SWAN is working to change Standard Form 86 to protect survivors of military sexual assaults

In the last 7 years, have you consulted with a mental health professional (psychiatrist, psychologist, counselor, etc.) or have you consulted with another health care provider about a mental health related condition? – Question 21, Standard Form 86 “Questionnaire for National Security Positions”

*UPDATE – In the first week of 2012, the ODNI informed Congress that the Question 21 change is currently in “Executive Coordination”.  SWAN is making another push on this issue and urges all supporters to reach out to Dr. Clapper and help to make this essential change happen now. 

Earlier this year, SWAN began working with several Congressional legislators, including Rep Chellie Pingree and Rep Jackie Speier, to engage members of the administration to change the wording of security clearance applications so that survivors of sexual violence in the military do not have to disclose counseling they received as a result of their sexual assault. After hearing from many survivors, it became evident that Question 21 is a huge barrier that keeps service members from seeking out counseling or other mental health services following a sexual assault. Answering “Yes” to Question 21 leads to the survivor being subjected to an investigation where they are required to provide the details of their sexual assault to non-medical personnel. Such disclosure can be retriggering and devastatingly retraumatizing.

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Our Service Women Deserve the Best Care

MHS logo

The MHS administers the health care of our service women.

Yesterday I was on Capitol Hill again, this time giving a brief to Senate staff on the need for our government to provide the full range of medical benefits for women in uniform. Currently federal law does not allow service women to access all of the medical benefits that civilian women get. That is completely unfair. Today, service women are the only group who get their heath care through a federal insurance program that are required to pay out of pocket for abortion services in the case of rape or incest. The federal government pays for these abortions for every other group. Even women incarcerated in federal prisons don’t have to pay out of pocket costs if they are subjected to rape or incest.

Women have always answered the call to serve their nation, and for women who have joined in the past 10 years, that call has come during a time of war. There are currently 355,000 women serving in the military comprising 15% of the force. There are enough women in the recruitment pipeline to increase that number to 20% in the next few years. Women are present in all ranks and duty stations, and in spite of official policy to the contrary, women are serving in combat and making the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom. In the words of a fellow briefer yesterday, “Without women our military would fail.”

It is within this context of equal service and shared sacrifice that the need for Congress to provide the full spectrum of quality health care to our women in uniform becomes strikingly clear.

This week Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) introduced an amendment (Amendment #1120) to Senate bill 1867, the National Defense Authorization Act, which would remove the unfair military ban on abortion coverage in cases of rape and incest. The NDAA is scheduled for a vote tomorrow and I urge you to contact your Senator right now and ask them to support this amendment.

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House Passes VA Rape Prevention Bill

Yesterday the House of Representatives passed H.R. 2074, a bill designed to help prevent sexual assaults in VA hospitals by requiring a comprehensive policy be put into place on reporting and tracking sexual assault incidents that occur in VA facilities.

The bill was written by Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL) and Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle (R-NY) following a report released by the GAO earlier this year.

In that report, the GAO investigated only five of the VA’s 153 medical facilities and found that there were 284 reports of sexual assaults between January 2007 and July 2010. 67 of these assaults were classified as rape, 185 as inappropriate touching, 13 as forced oral sex, 8 as forceful medical examinations and 11 as other types of sexual assaults involving patients on patients, patients on staff and staff on patients.

SWAN’s executive director Anu Bhagwati released this statement on the GAO report:

“We are extremely outraged at the VA for allowing this to happen, but we are not all that surprised.  SWAN has testified numerous times before Congress about the hostile and harassing environment that often exists at VA hospitals. We receive calls every week from veterans telling horror stories of VA visits where they have literally run a gauntlet of sexual harassment and mistreatment. The rates of sexual assault and harassment in the military are disturbing enough. However, to expose veterans to hostile behavior where they are being treated for conditions related to in-service sexual trauma is unconscionable.”

In response to this rampant sexual abuse of veterans, SWAN immediately went to work energizing lawmakers on the Hill to come up with an appropriate piece of legislation that would prevent this atrocious behavior going forward.  Following the introduction of H.R. 2074, SWAN was invited to submit hearing testimony to the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. As part of that testimony, SWAN stated:

VA serves tens of thousands of high-risk veterans every year, and as an institution it must accept responsibility for the care and safety of all its patients from the time they walk onto the grounds of a VA facility until they walk off. The VA must not only do so by providing top notch medical treatment, but also superior administrative support as well. That means every VA run facility must develop a well publicized process in place to handle sexual harassment and sexual assault complaints, must have policies that enforce rules and discipline offenders, must train every member of their staff annually on sexual harassment and sexual assault response, must maintain a security presence that is attentive and effective, and must invest in an infrastructure that allows for a completely safe visit. Safety and care for VA patients should not start or stop at the front door.”

A broad-based coalition of key advocacy groups became involved in the issue including the Veterans of Foreign Wars who also testified on H.R. 2074, and the National Organization for Women who issued a resolution in support of the bill.

Having passed the House, the bill now heads over to the Senate. We urge all of our supporters to reach out to your Senators and ask them to support our veterans by holding the VA accountable for the safety of its facilities. The VA must ensure that when veterans go to the VA for treatment that they are in a safe place.

Leadership Failure

Iron Mike Ft Benning, GABy Greg Jacob

Greg is the policy director for SWAN, and served in the US Marines as both an enlisted infantryman and an infantry officer.

Two retired officers recently posted an interesting article in the Defense Policy blog where they pull back the curtain and expose the world of the Army officer.  What Brigadier General Dennis Laich and Lieutenant Colonel Mike Young  found was a broken system of leadership in which feckless, overbearing, careerist senior officers rule over frightened, downtrodden and paralyzed junior officers. This has created what is described as a “Culture of Conformity” which rewards officers who toe the line and drives out the officers who see their role as true leaders. In spite of its own rhetoric about being a meritocracy, the reality of the military is much different.

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House hears testimony on VA rape bill

Click on the image to read SWAN’s Statement for the Record.

The House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Health is holding a hearing at 4pm today examining several pieces of legislation and hearing testimony from the Veterans Adminstration (VA) and several veterans organizations on the impact these bills would have. One of the bills being discussed is H.R. 2074, a bipartisan bill that would require the VA to develop and implement a comprehensive policy on reporting and tracking sexual assaults at VA medical facilities.

SWAN has submitted a statement for the record on this bill, advocating strongly for its passage. Last month the Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a scathing report on sexual assaults within VA facilities, and in particular was critical of the VA for not having a codified, coherent and well-communicated policy on sexual assault reporting.  Since the report was published, SWAN has pushed the story heavily in the media, we have been inundated with calls from veterans who experienced all types of abuses while at the VA, and from VA employees who have witnessed sexual assaults, to include members of the VA’s own police force who have apprehended perpetrators only to see them return to work without so much as a reprimand.

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Benefit Cuts Never Heal

by Greg Jacob

Greg is the policy director at SWAN and a former Marine Corps infantry officer.

Senator Tom Coburn has introduced an amendment to the Military Construction bill which would undo decades of policies regarding how this country takes care of veterans that have been exposed to Agent Orange, and could have a negative impact on future claims filed with the Veterans Administration (VA).  It would also undercut much of the work SWAN has done on VA claims reform for cases of Military Sexual Trauma. Coburn’s amendment was introduced on the floor this week and could come up for a vote as soon as today.

Veterans who served in Vietnam or who were exposed to the herbicide Agent Orange during the Vietnam War are presumptively service-connected for several illnesses known to be caused by Agent Orange exposure. What this Agent Orange presumption means in practical terms is that veterans who served during the Vietnam War and are diagnosed with certain illnesses don’t have to prove an association between their disease and their military service. This speeds up the process of getting veterans much needed benefits by automatically finding the veteran’s claim to be service connected for these conditions. It is known that well over 100,000 veterans were exposed to defoliants and herbicides while serving in Vietnam and other areas, and that number will only increase with the recent inclusion of Navy sailors who served on vessels in adjacent areas.

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Kicking and Screaming Part 2

As a follow up to my recent post on a proposed consent based rape law for the military, members of the House Armed Services Committee received a brief yesterday on proposed Department of Defense (DOD) revisions to the military’s rape law known as Article 120.  During the brief, Congresswoman Niki Tsongas and Congresswoman Chellie Pingree both made a strong case for the DOD to adopt a consent based statute as part of the new revision. By the end of the briefing the DOD agreed to take another, much closer look at a consent based Article 120.

The political cynic in me immediately says not to get too optimistic about major changes, but the Congresswomen did a fantastic job of convincing a number of people in the room that a consent based definition made more sense. On a bipartisan basis, Members expressed confusion with the current Article 120 and confusion with the DOD’s suggested changes.

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Repeating History

The Department of Defense (DOD) announced this week that Army Special Operations Command deployed its first teams of female soldiers assigned to commando units in Afghanistan, and reported that “military officials are assessing their initial performance in theater as off the charts.”

It continues to amaze me that when women perform well in combat it elicits such shock and awe from military leaders.  It is 2011, for crying out loud.  Do they not know? Have they not heard? Are they not aware?

NEWSFLASH:  Servicewomen throughout history have not only fought the enemy, but also the misogynistic attitudes and policies of their own military leadership.  During their careers, servicewomen face a “brass ceiling” that denies them the opportunities and promotions enjoyed by their male counterparts. This is due in large part to discriminatory policies that restrict servicewomen’s contributions on the battlefield.

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Kicking and Screaming

As the National Defense Authorization Act moves closer to a vote, one of the more exciting things it will do is pull the powdered wig off of military law and drag it kicking and screaming out of the 18th century.  The NDAA not only gets rid of the archaic, intrusive, and rarely enforced sodomy statute – which has its roots in Assyrian law dating back to 1075 B.C.E. – it also revises the confusing and nearly incomprehensible rape law, Article 120, by making it simpler for investigators, prosecutors and the courts to understand. To give you some idea of how confusing the current statue is, the military has to send around mobile training teams to instruct personnel on how to make sense out of Article 120 and conduct a proper rape trial.

Although the proposed changes are substantive and will greatly help, the revisions to Article 120 do not go far enough to ensure offenders are convicted, military rapes decline, and most importantly that the military culture that foments these acts of sexual violence changes.

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A Real No-Brainer

I opened the paper this morning and was greeted by yet another story of how women are serving, fighting and dying in combat.

“Servicewomen have died in all of America’s wars, but usually they were support personnel such as nurses and clerks. In Afghanistan, most women who have died were killed in combat situations, as Specialist Snyder was, despite the military’s official prohibition on women in combat jobs.

The same has been true in Iraq, where 111 female soldiers have died, according to data compiled by icasualties.org, an independent organization that tracks military fatalities. In both wars, 60 percent of those deaths are classified by the military as due to hostile acts.

Wars with no clear front lines have put women in harm’s way more than ever before, blurring the boundaries between combat jobs that are outlawed for women, and support jobs that are often as dangerous and in some cases even more so.”

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SASC Completes Markup of 2012 National Defense Authorization Act

Senate Committee on Armed Services Completes Markup of 2012 Defense Bill

Included are groundbreaking provisions that would help eliminate military rape and sexual assault, and ensure the continued implementation of DADT repeal

Today the Senate Armed Services Committee completed the mark up for the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and included amendments in the bill that would help stem the epidemic of military rape and sexual assault and ignored amendments that would delay the implementation process for repealing the discriminatory  “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.

Sexual Assault Provisions

The Committee approved an amendment offered by Senator Collins (R-ME) that requires the military to implement some of the recommendations of the Defense Task Force on Sexual Assault in the Military Services (DTFSAMS) based upon Senate bill S. 1018, the Defense STRONG Act introduced by Senator Kerry (D-MA).

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At the VA, It Is Perception vs Reality

It’s official!  Write down this date:  13 May 2011.  On this historic day the VA declared victory over its longtime struggle to provide adequate healthcare services to women.  The Marine Corps Times reported that “a new era for women has dawned at the Veterans Affairs Department.”

“We’ve changed the culture of the VA,” said Patricia Hayes, chief consultant for the Women Veterans Health Strategic Health Care Group in the department. “Women can’t just be sort of an invisible second thought.”

“This is a new VA,” said Stacy Garrett-Ray, a deputy director in the Office of Patient Care Services. “We’re here to provide the best care that we can for women veterans.”

For those of us who use the VA regularly for our healthcare, this sounds like one of those fake news stories you would read in The Onion. But this is no joke, and the unfortunate truth is for many women veterans, these grandiose statements by VA officials don’t square up with the realities of the average VA experience.

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