In 2012, Congresswoman Speier visited the Marine Corps base Camp Lejeune, where she witnessed a sexual assault case in the final stages of a court-martial. What she saw appalled her. The shockingly perverse treatment of the victim, inadequately trained prosecutors, and outdated and ineffective laws revealed that there was little “justice” in the military justice system for survivors.
Military sexual violence and trauma are among the most debilitating and toxic problems confronting our nation’s armed forces and service academies. Sexual assault dehumanizes survivors and degrades operational readiness, but a broken criminal justice system can also be traumatizing and dangerous. In 2018, nearly 20,500 servicemembers indicated they suffered from some type of sexual assault, a nearly 40 percent increase from 2016. Only 38 percent came forward to report the crimes, a decrease from 41 percent in 2016. These shameful results occurred in spite of the military spending about $1 billion to address the problem over the last decade.
Sexual assault committed by servicemembers against their peers or subordinates represents a complete and utter breakdown of respect and dignity. Military Sexual Trauma (MST) isolates survivors from their units and erodes the core principles of good order and discipline and faithful service that the military so often extolls. As the military continues to fail in protecting its members, Congress must diligently exercise its oversight and leadership to stamp out military sexual violence.
Congresswoman Speier is a lifelong champion of gender equality and freedom from violence who has led the crusade to improve military sexual assault prevention and response for over a decade. She demanded a spot on the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) and the Military Personnel Subcommittee, which she now chairs. Prior to 2011, Congress had only held 18 hearings on sexual assault in the military in the previous 16 years. In 2019 and 2020 alone, Congress held six hearings related to military sexual violence, due in large part to Congresswoman Speier’s work on this issue. She has long believed that a key approach to combating military sexual trauma is eliminating commanders’ authority to determine whether to prosecute sexual assault cases. This power, unique to the military system, in which a unit commander determines what crimes to prosecute despite not being a trained lawyer and having potential biases toward the parties in question decreases confidence in the military justice system and discourages survivors from coming forward to report crimes.
Congresswoman Speier has also overseen and implemented monumental legislative reforms in this area with many aimed at correcting a broken military justice system. These include:
- An overhaul of the Article 32 process – a preliminary hearing designed to review evidence for a trial in a manner similar to a Grand Jury – after a Navy Midshipmen survivor was subjected to 30 hours of degrading questions by the defense counsel during an Article 32 hearing in 2013. The reforms gave victims the right to appear or decline to participate in an Article 32 hearing and afforded survivors who participated in the hearing’s mental health and Rape Shield protections, which prevent defense counsel from asking survivors about past sexual behavior.
- Before the 2013 reforms, commanders were required to consider the Good Military Character of the accused when deciding whether to prosecute. In 2014, Congress removed “good military character” as a potential defense, ensuring offenders weren’t let off the hook for simply being well-liked or good at their job.
- Previously, the Uniform Code of Military Justice’s (UCMJ) Article 60 allowed convening authorities to overturn verdicts and reduce sentences for any reason or without a reason. Congresswoman Speier helped strip this authority away after many survivors saw their justice cast aside after personal or professional military relationships intervened in the judicial process.
- In the wake of nude or intimate images, as well as personal information, shared in the Marines United Facebook group, Congresswoman Speier introduced and passed a UCMJ article criminalizing the nonconsensual sharing of intimate images.
In recent years, Congresswoman Speier has prioritized preventing and addressing military sexual violence. She successfully included numerous provisions in the annual defense policy legislation that include:
- A provision that would redefine unlawful command influence to prevent appeals courts from needlessly overturning sexual assault convictions.
- An expansion of the Special Victims’ Counsel Program to afford more attorneys, paralegals, and resources for survivors of sexual violence, as well as extension of the program to support survivors of domestic violence.
- Requiring the services to craft advisory sentencing guidelines for determining criminal punishment, similar to the guidelines used in the federal system. The absence of guidelines in the military system creates unjust discrepancies between sentences for similar crimes.
- Creating a confidential reporting option for sexual harassment that protects victim privacy while offering a means to catch repeat offenders and hold them accountable.
- Establishing a military-wide “Safe to Report” policy so that servicemembers who report sexual assault are not punished for minor collateral misconduct, such as underage drinking.
In the 116th Congress, Congresswoman Speier introduced the I am Vanessa Guillén Act, which had 187 bipartisan cosponsors and would:
- Establish a new Office of the Chief Prosecutor within each military service to make binding decisions on prosecuting sex-related offenses and that would ensure that courts-martial would be convened outside of the chain of command of the accused and victim;
- Create a standalone sexual harassment offense under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, consolidating cases that currently are prosecuted under four different offenses and sending a clear message to the force about the seriousness of sexual harassment;
- Ensure that sexual harassment investigations are conducted by trained personnel who are independent of the chain of command of the parties; and
- Authorize a monetary claims process for servicemembers who are sexually assaulted or sexually harassed and have experienced negligence by the military.
The Act was named in honor of SPC Vanessa Guillén, who was brutally murdered at Fort Hood, TX, in 2020. Before she was killed, she told her family that she was being sexually harassed by a superior but that she was afraid to report the harassment to her command. In honor of Vanessa Guillén and countless others, Congresswoman Speier will never stop fighting to ensure that survivors of sexual harassment and assault receive the justice and respect they deserve.