The U.S. Senate unanimously approved changes to the way sexual assault cases are handled by the military on Monday night—but stopped short of removing the chain of command from the process. Last week a measure that would have done just that failed by five votes.
Albuquerque veteran Christin Barden served in the Air Force during the first Gulf War. She said she was assaulted while in the military and didn’t feel she could bring it to her commander. “I didn’t report it to my chain of command because it wasn’t a comfortable environment for me to report it,” she said.
If she could have spoken to a victims’ advocate instead, Barden said she would have done so. “All of these years, it’s actually a big regret of mine, not to have reported it and done something about it,” she said. “It just wasn’t appropriate for me at the time.”
Barden said taking a serious crime such as sexual assault out of the chain of command is not a compromise to its authority. “There’s some concerns of how they’re going to look at you,” she said. “Are they going to believe you? Are they going to think you did something wrong?”
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri) sponsored the bill the Senate voted to pass, the Victims Protection Act of 2014. She’s known for prosecuting rape cases. Her measure eliminates the “good soldier” defense, which allows the accused perpetrator’s service record to be considered. It also requires that a commander’s history of handling assault cases is part of promotion decisions. And it protects military academy students.
Finally, under the measure, if the prosecutor and the commander don’t want to carry a case forward, the head of that military branch would review it.
The Department of Defense reports that about 26,000 active-duty members of the U.S. military say they were assaulted in 2012, the latest year for which that information is available. The number of complaints—though significantly lower—is rising. Still, even fewer cases are prosecuted.
Barden said she is disappointed that stopping assault isn’t a bigger part of the conversation. “I’m not seeing enough on prevention. What kind of folks are we bringing into the military? How can we prevent these things from happening in the first place?”
The measure awaits a vote by the House, which could be months away.