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NOEM: More work needed to combat sexual assault in military

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NOEM: More work needed to combat sexual assault in military
Mitchell South Dakota 120 South Lawler 57301

Each year, I have the privilege of nominating a handful of South Dakota students for admission into one of our nation’s military academies. I’m always amazed by the integrity, grit, and intelligence of these students. They are the best South Dakota has to offer and there’s no doubt their accomplishments will be great.

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A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to speak with one of the students who was accepted into an academy and her mother. As I looked at this young woman, I thought of my own daughters and all the questions, concerns and worries I would have if either of them were going to a military service academy, including the question of whether we are doing enough to combat the sexual assault crisis in our military.

During the 2012-2013 school year, there were 53 reports of sexual assault at our four military academies. And that’s just a snapshot of what’s happening throughout the military. Last summer, a survey found that 26,000 men and women in the military were sexually assaulted in 2011, up from 19,000 in 2010. Rightfully so, the significant increase brought the issue to the attention of people across the country.

In the months since, Congress has sought to find a better way to combat sexual assault in our nation’s military. Before the New Year, we passed the annual National Defense Authorization Act, which directs the federal government as to what national security programs should be implemented. I sit on the Committee in Congress that writes the bill each year.

The FY2014 bill included more than 30 provisions that we hope will equip the military with the tools needed to begin to address the epidemic. Included in the package were three provisions I authored.

One of the most upsetting things we’ve learned is that on more than one occasion, the individual who held a sexual assault prevention related position was a suspected offender themselves. One of the provisions I wrote would set up specific criteria that anyone interested in a position that involved sexual assault prevention duties would need to meet.

We also know that sexual assault prevention training is not consistent throughout the military, so another provision I authored would create a standard training regimen across all branches.

Finally, we asked for clearer guidelines to help military criminal investigators determine whether a sex-offense was founded or unfounded. We’re hopeful this will give military commanders better information when deciding how to proceed with the prosecution of a sexual assault case.

These are a starting point that we hope will provide immediate relief and better information to make long-term modifications.

There are still more proposals on the table that I’m reviewing. I want to be sure the proposals that move forward will address the fundamental drivers of the problem while continuing to give the military all the tools they need to achieve their assigned missions.

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month and making sure people are aware of the problem is another critical way we can all be part of combating the crisis. Since this issue gained national attention, reports of sexual assault in the military have increased by nearly 50 percent. It seems contrary to say, but that’s a good thing. It means victims are more likely to step forward than they were before.

The vast majority of our nation’s service members live lives of integrity and deference, as we would hope our heroes would do. We thank them for their service.

But it’s unacceptable that some of our women and men in uniform return from the battlefield only to be just as afraid in their own barracks. We must continue to talk about this issue, search for remedies, and make certain those who have acted dishonorably are brought to justice.

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