Iowa’s U.S. senators take action

Ernst and Grassley, with Gillibrand, seek to improve military’s handling of sexual assault cases

Victims of sexual assault are often reluctant to report these offenses. In the U.S. military, some service members have shown a reluctance to do so in part because of concern about the impact they fear it might have on their careers if the issue is handled in a military court.

That’s why more than four years ago Congress passed legislation requiring that authorities inquire of military sexual assault victims whether they prefer that the case be tried in a civilian or a military court. The goal was to improve the likelihood that assaults would be reported.

Unfortunately, a recent investigation by Office of the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Defense found that in many cases military authorities are not informing victims of their right to make this request. According to the IG’s report, in the 86 cases reviewed, 21 victims were not told about their court venue options. The report also concluded that in only five of the cases could it be determined that there was full compliance with the statute.

That poor performance has led Iowa’s Republican U.S. senators — Charles Grassley and Joni Ernst — to join with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., to write to Acting U.S. Secretary of Defense Patrick M. Shanahan to determine why this important statute is not being vigorously enforced.

“The findings in this inspector general report are simply unacceptable,” Ernst, who chairs the Senate Armed Service Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities, said in a statement about the letter. “Victims of sexual assault must be heard. For this to happen, they must be asked their preference for venue of prosecution. As a former company commander and retired lieutenant colonel, I strongly believe we need to take concrete steps to encourage reporting of sexual assault within our ranks; failure to listen to victims will only serve to discourage them from doing so.”

Grassley strongly agreed with his Hawkeye State colleague.

“Informing victims of their options is an important piece of making sure justice is served,” he said. “Every failure to give a victim their options makes that justice harder to achieve, and every failure to properly handle a case will weigh on those deciding to come forward and report in the future.”

The Messenger applauds Ernst and Grassley both for collaborating and for reaching across the partisan divide in Congress. In doing so, they are making it abundantly clear to Defense Department officials that Congress is committed to addressing sexual assault in the military forcefully. When Congress enacts laws, compliance with their requirements is not optional. We thank Ernst, Grassley and Gillibrand for acting aggressively to remind DoD officials of that reality.