Congressman Mike Turner (OH-10) and Congresswoman Niki Tsongas (MA-3), Co-Chairs of the Military Sexual Assault Prevention Caucus, sent a letter to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta commending the United States Air Force for implementing programs aimed at combating sexual assault in the military, in particular their new Special Victims’ Counsel Pilot Program.

Lieutenant General Richard Harding, Air Force Judge Advocate General, recently briefed the lawmakers on the Special Victims’ Counsel Pilot Program, which provides military sexual assault survivors with a dedicated attorney to walk them through the often cumbersome and confusing investigative and prosecutorial process. 

This new pilot program builds upon “right to legal counsel” requirements that were originally part of Defense STRONG, legislation authored by Turner and Tsongas. The bill also granted victims the right to a base transfer if they felt threatened and the right to confidentiality when seeking assistance from an advocate. Defense STRONG was included in the FY2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which was signed into law in 2011.

Originally, the Air Force believed the Defense STRONG language gave victims very limited access to a lawyer. After urging from Turner and Tsongas this past summer, Secretary of the Air Force Michael Donley agreed to reexamine the interpretation of the counsel provision. The lawmakers followed with several letters to the Air Force andSecretary of Defense Leon Panetta urging full implementation of the counsel provision as it was intended by the bill’s authors.  The Air Force’s recent announcement, that Lt. General Harding shared with both Turner and Tsongas, resolves the differences in interpretation and ensures that victims will be afforded these important protections.

The Special Victims’ Counsel Pilot Program will initially consist of 60 specially-trained attorneys. Each of the sixty judge advocates is a certified trial counsel who has expressed a desire to help victims of sexual assault. To ensure autonomy and accountability, they will be in a separate chain of command from the victim and from the attorneys prosecuting the case. 

During the recent briefings, Lt. General Harding said the program will officially begin January 28, 2013, though some victims of sexual assault have already received assistance.

NOTE: A copy of the letter sent to Secretary Panetta can be found in the related documents at the top of this release.