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Survivors of military sex assaults frustrated with legislation

By Halimah Abdullah, CNN
updated 7:00 PM EDT, Mon March 10, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Victims say they're tired of incremental reforms
  • They're disappointed that commanders will still decide whether to prosecute subordinates
  • In military culture, they say, reporting sexual assaults is stigmatizing
  • More must be done, victims say, to ensure people feel safe to report sexual assaults

Washington (CNN) -- Prior to Senate approval of what has been called watered-down legislation that preserves the authority of military commanders to decide whether to prosecute rape and other sexual assaults, some survivors of those kinds of attacks feel betrayed all over again.

While they appreciate the measure pushed by Sen. Claire McCaskill that cleared the chamber overwhelmingly on Monday and was on its way to the House, they are frustrated because they believe it doesn't go far enough.

"It's an example of what has already happened," said Sarah Plummer, a Marine Corps veteran and a sexual assault survivor who now tries to help other victims. "It's small steps."

Political fight over military sex assaults divides women senators

The battle over how to best reform the military's handling of sex assault has split the newly expanded ranks of women in the Senate.

The 20 female lawmakers have been forced to choose sides in the fight over two approaches led by Democratic members of their sisterhood.

New York Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand pressed for an external remedy -- remove commanders from key decision-making around the issue. McCaskill opted for internal reform.

The lawmakers and the women they are fighting for have come up against a male-dominated culture where chain of command is sacred and those who report assaults can be stigmatized.

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According to 2011 figures, women comprise roughly 14.5% of the nearly 1.4 million active-duty force. A recent Pentagon report outlined that there were an estimated 26,000 incidents of sex assault and unwanted sexual contact in 2012, but just over 10% of those were reported.

McCaskill has said changes put in place last year will help increase the prosecution of sexual assault.

They include: removing the authority of commanders to overturn convictions; providing attorneys to victims; making it a crime to retaliate against a victim; and requiring a dishonorable discharge for anyone convicted of sexual assault.

"Senator McCaskill, relying on her experience as a former courtroom prosecutor of sex crimes, believes Senator Gillibrand's alternative would result in less protection for victims and fewer prosecutions of predators," said Sarah Feldman, a spokeswoman for McCaskill.

The measure championed by Gillibrand would have removed military commanders from decisions on whether to prosecute subordinates for rape and sexual assault.

Sex assault victims are disappointed in McCaskill, a woman who they saw as their advocate but who led the push to defeat Gillibrand's bill.

Senate blocks military sexual assault bill

Gillibrand had argued that commanders too often are biased in their decisions on such matters, and proposed placing the responsibility with "non-biased, professionally trained military prosecutors."

That's because all too often, women are discouraged from reporting sexual assaults to their commanding officer. Sometimes the attacker is the commanding officer.

"Sometimes it affects the ability to get promoted if sexual assault is reported and sometimes they are friends with the perpetrator," said Nichole Bowen, an Army veteran and military sexual assault survivor.

"I would have been more likely to look into reporting if I had known it wouldn't be reported in my chain of command. As a woman in the military you already have a light on you. You can't really hide out," Bowen said.

In her case, Bowen said she was raped by her sergeant during a tour of duty in Iraq in 2003. After she told other sergeants who were her friends, she was urged not to report the attack.

So she didn't.

"Any kind of negative attention is not attention you want, especially when you're in a survival situation," Bowen said. "I did my tour of duty and I got out as soon as I could. There was no re-enlisting or signing up for the reserves. I was done."

Except she wasn't done.

She suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and said "the rape affected me 100% percent."

Groping allegation against Army officer who helps fight sex crime

The pain of being sexually assaulted multiple times over the course of nine months while stationed in Alaska also affected Navy veteran Trina McDonald. Years later, the mere sight of someone in uniform triggers anxiety attacks.

"The people I trusted were supposed to be my battle buddies and they were the ones who were hurting me," said McDonald, who was featured in an independent documentary about sexual assaults in the military, The Invisible War.

McDonald now spends her days in the company of her service dog, Susie, a chocolate Labrador-border collie mix who peeks around corners and scans the perimeter to let her owner know that all is well.

McDonald says she knows McCaskill's heart is in the right place and she means well. But she worries that by leaving the commanders with the decision-making power on whether to press for prosecution for sexual assaults, women who are isolated because they're scared, in remote locations, or posted in dangerous places will have very little recourse.

"I know she has been a big advocate for military sexual trauma," McDonald said. "But she's taking the easier road and more accepted road because that's what the brass has wanted."

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