New York Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand is on a personal crusade to change the military culture that’s allowed sexual assaults to go unpunished, and is attempting to push a bill through the Senate.
Gillibrand remembers when the issue of sexual assaults in the military really got on her radar. It was while watching a 2012 documentary called The Invisible War.
“[It] tells the stories of men and women who survive these brutal rapes, and then had to survive having their command turn their back on them," Gillibrand said. "It was the second victimization that really crushed their spirits and crushed their souls. And my fury watching these stories unfold was so strong I just said, ‘I just had to do something about it.’”
Shortly after, Gillibrand was named chairwoman of the Armed Services subcommittee on personnel. Her proposal removes sexual crimes from the military chain of command.
“If you don’t address the number one concern that there’s a breach of trust with chain of command, you’re not really going to fix the system,” Gillibrand explained.
The Pentagon released a private survey last year on sexual assault in the military. About 26,000 soldiers reported being sexually assaulted. The other problem: of those, only about 3,300 officially reported the abuse. Gillibrand has slowly and methodically been picking up support for her measure by lobbying many lawmakers one by one. Her legislation now has 53 cosponsors.
Connecticut Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal says Gillibrand has been relentless in her effort.
“Extraordinarily impressive. Both thorough and tireless on behalf of a cause that clearly has interested and excited her,” Blumenthal said.
But Gillibrand is facing fierce opposition from both military brass and a few lawmakers, some from her own party. Missouri Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill opposes Gillibrand’s bill. As a former prosecutor, McCaskill says she’s willing to compare her resume on this issue to anyone’s.
“I don’t think there’s anybody in the Senate that’s prosecuted more rapists than I have," McCaskill said. "I don’t think there’s anybody in the Senate who’s spent more time with victims than I have in my life.”
McCaskill and other lawmakers are planning to filibuster Gillibrand’s bill when it comes to the Senate floor. She says reforms included in a recent Defense Authorization bill should fix the problem. They include stripping commanders of the ability to overturn convictions and providing counseling to victims.
McCaskill is also hoping to strengthen those reforms.
"There will be more prosecutions and better protection for victims with the reforms that we have just signed into law and I think all of us are going to be paying very close attention to how those reforms are actually implemented by the military, making sure they do it in a way that respects victims and gives victims power,” McCaskill said.
New Hampshire Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte is teaming up with McCaskill to defeat Gillibrand’s bill but she says there’s no lingering bad blood.
“I appreciate what Senator Gillibrand's been doing and we’ve worked together on all the reforms that we’ve already passed, so I don’t think this one area of disagreement should misunderstand all of our commitment to ensuring that people are held accountable within the military,” Ayotte said.
Still, Gillibrand isn’t letting up. She says military leaders have failed to address the root problem for decades.
“Small adjustments, incremental measures will not make the difference and our troops deserve better,” Gillibrand said.
Gillibrand has been promised a vote on her proposal by Democratic leaders. She expects it to come up in the next four to six weeks, though it could happen any day.
Getting it to the floor will be a small victory for New York’s junior senator, but she says she’s not letting up until the problem has been rooted out.