Tulsi Gabbard Speaks Out Against Military Sexual Assault

This week’s MAKER, Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, is passionate about ending military sexual assault. In particular, the U.S. Representative for Hawaii has been working with Senator Kirsten Gillibrand to hold perpetrators accountable. As one of the House’s two female veterans, Gabbard is familiar with the military’s structure and problems that accompany it. “Seeing a strategic path forward is really what we have been trying to do here to bring about justice, to make sure that those who are perpetrating those crimes are no longer allowed to wear the uniform, and to change the culture within our military so that these crimes are not happening in the first place,” Gabbard told MAKERS. 

Though 3,300 sexual assaults were reported to authorities in 2012, the Pentagon estimated that 26,000 incidents actually took place. The military has a long history of silence, from unofficial policies like “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” to denial of post-traumatic stress. Sexual assault falls into the same camp, overrun with victims who are scared to report a fellow soldier. And when they do report, it’s to commanders whose jobs are on the line if a rape occurs within their jurisdiction. These commanders often protect themselves by encouraging soldiers to stay silent. 

When Brian Lewis, a policy adviser at human rights organization Protect Our Defenders tried to take his case to authorities in 2000, he was told not to report it. He came forward anyway. The consequences were quick: Lewis was diagnosed with a personality disorder and discharged from service. And he’s not alone: 62 percent of sexual assault victims in the military who reported their attack said they experienced some form of retaliation afterward. 

In March of this year, Senator Gillibrand championed a measure that would shift authority from commanders to impartial military prosecutors instead. She was confronted by a filibuster led by Senator Claire McCaskill, who argued that different changes should be made. Under McCaskill’s legislation (which passed into law), sexual assault victims will help decide whether their cases should be prosecuted in a civilian court rather than the military justice system. Victims will also have access to a confidential process to challenge any discharge that comes as a result of their cases. McCaskill sees these changes as steps that activate positive reform while continuing to keep commanders accountable. 

In May, the House Committee on Rules blocked a vote to further protect survivors of military sexual assault. Gabbard called for action on the House floor and spoke out in an exclusive interview with Hawaii News Now. Without a process that removes perpetrators from the military, people are afraid to go to work, afraid to put their uniform on, Gabbard said. “It is an undermining of our ability to act cohesively and strongly as a unit.” 

Gillibrand plans to bring her bill up again next year, at which point she might find backing from fellow MAKER Hillary Clinton, who supported Gillibrand in her initial efforts. CNN’s Christiane Amanpour has the scoop.

Learn more

Tulsi Gabbard: Serving Our Country

A Broken Military Justice System

Protect Our Defenders