Reps. Michael Turner (R-OH) and Niki Tsongas (D-MA) today introduced the Defense Sexual Trauma Response, Oversight and Good Governance Act (The Defense STRONG Act), bipartisan legislation to expand legal rights for service members who have been the victims of sexual assault, and to improve the training in the military related to prevention of this crime. Among its main provisions, the legislation would allow victims to access legal counsel, maintain confidentiality when speaking with Victim Advocates, and provide greater training for sexual assault prevention at every level of the armed services. The STRONG Act is being introduced as reported incidents of sexual assault in military have increased dramatically in recent years. These escalating numbers are estimated by the Department of Defense to only reflect one tenth of the actual number of such offenses.
“We ask women who serve in the military to put their lives on the line for our country, and they shouldn’t fear or experience harm from their fellow soldiers,” said Congresswoman Niki Tsongas. “These sad statistics are unfortunately reinforced by many conversations I have had with service members who report that sexual assault is a crime that often goes unseen, and that the voices of its victims go unheard. The Defense STRONG Act makes many sensible improvements to current DOD efforts to provide support for victims of sexual assault and takes steps aimed at reducing incidents of sexual assault all together. I will be working Senator Kerry, Congressman Turner and my fellow colleagues on the Armed Services Committee to ensure that this important measure becomes law.”
"Our military personnel deserve increased protections on and off the battlefield," said Rep. Turner, who has successfully included language in the last two Department of Defense Authorization bills to increase accountability of Department of Defense and military personnel services in preventing, monitoring, reporting and investigating sexual assault allegations. “Our service members deserve the greatest protection we can offer them. I am hopeful that Congress will act quickly on our legislation to help improve the safety and security of our men and women in uniform.”
According to a recent Department of Defense Task Force Report, victims of sexual assault in the military express serious concern about their inability to access a military lawyer, and a lack of protection and support that exists once an assault is reported. The report also finds that Victim Advocates, who are assigned to provide support for victims, receive very little training and have little experience in dealing with these offenses.
The Defense STRONG Act strengthens the systems in place to prevent sexual assaults and provide support and guidance for victims that report an incident. The bill enables victims to access a military lawyer so that they understand their legal options. Conversations with Victim Advocates would also be made confidential and immune from discovery if the case goes to court, as they typically are in the civilian world.
The Defense STRONG Act also standardizes the training of service members, commanding officers, Victim Advocates, and Sexual Assault Response Coordinators around prevention and response. It requires all service members are trained as they move up in the military structure, and prohibits DOD contractors from fulfilling the Victim Advocate and Sexual Assault Response Coordinator roles.
“In the months following the alleged rape and murder of Marine Lance Corporal Maria Lauterbach, I worked with her family to identify failures in the system which may have led to her death,” Rep. Turner said. “It’s important we work together to prevent a similar tragedy from ever occurring again.”
Merle Wilberding, an attorney from Dayton who testified at the congressional hearings on Sexual Assault in the Military, said how important this legislation is to the Lauterbach family. “The victim needs a strong victim advocate and needs to be assured that conversations and information shared with her victim advocate remain confidential and cannot be subpoenaed by the accused, he said.” Wilberding added that his discussions with numerous victims and their families showed their heart-breaking pain about how critical it is to have a proactive and independent victim advocate. “This bill is a major step in that direction,” he said. “We thank Reps. Tsongas and Turner for their efforts.”