California Senator Barbara Boxer recalls her “outrage” over the response to the 1991 sexual assault of 83 women and seven men at the Tailhook Navy aviators’ convention in Las Vegas.
Though the raucous weekend led the Navy secretary to resign and admirals to be censured, Congress did little. Boxer, then a representative serving on the House Armed Services Committee, couldn’t win enough votes for a resolution she co-sponsored expressing the need to eliminate sexual harassment and assault in the armed forces.
Twenty-two years after Tailhook, a surge of reported sexual assaults has again roiled the U.S. military. This time, a record number of women are serving in Congress, including 20 in the Senate. Boxer sees a bipartisan consensus developing among women lawmakers to try to prevent such assaults.
After Tailhook, “we brought a lot of attention to the issues of sexual assault and harassment in the military, but the Pentagon failed to take strong action,” Boxer said in an interview. “What we are saying today is simple -- if the military won’t act to address this crisis, we will.”
The issue is one of the first since the November election, which led to the record number of women in Congress, where they are banding together on a legislative effort.
In 1991, just two women served in the Senate. Today, among the 16 Democratic and four Republican women senators, seven are members of the Armed Services Committee. The panel has scheduled a hearing on military sexual assault for June 4.
Three of the women in the Senate are former prosecutors, including Democrat Claire McCaskill of Missouri, who says she’s applying her experience “in the trenches” to push for Congress to investigate and enact laws cracking down on sexual assault and harassment in the armed forces.
“It helps that there have been several of us in the courtroom trying these cases,” McCaskill said in an interview.
Lawmakers are pressuring to change the way the military investigates and prosecutes sexual attacks after the Defense Department released results of a survey estimating 26,000 cases of sexual assaults last year, a 35 percent increase from two years earlier. The survey was released amid an uproar over reported assaults that President Barack Obama has described as “shameful and disgraceful.”
Also, the military is pursuing three cases in which officers who worked in sexual-assault prevention programs were accused of wrongdoing including assault, mistreatment of subordinates and inducing prostitution.
Yesterday, Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski and fellow Alaska Senator Mark Begich, a Democrat, called for a thorough Army investigation into allegations that sexual affairs were condoned on the base at Alaska’s Fort Greely.
Murkowski said she will demand that the investigation ensures “a true zero-tolerance policy for all sexual misconduct among our men and women in uniform.” She said in an e-mailed statement that she has sponsored or backed four bills to address the “rising crisis” of military sexual assault.
Also focusing on the issue in the Senate are Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat and chairman of the Armed Services panel’s military personnel subcommittee, and Patty Murray of Washington, the chamber’s fourth-ranking Democrat. They’re backing legislation to prohibit sexual contact between military instructors and trainees, toughen the Pentagon’s investigation standards and strip commanders of unilateral authority to overturn court-martial convictions.
The House also has a record 78 women members -- 58 Democrats and 20 Republicans. In that chamber, California Democrats Jackie Speier and Loretta Sanchez, the second-highest ranking member of her party on the House Armed Services Committee, and Democrat Niki Tsongas of Massachusetts are sponsoring similar legislation.
Adding to their voices are Representatives Tulsi Gabbard, a Hawaii Democrat, and Illinois Democrat Tammy Duckworth, both House freshmen who served in the Iraq War.
The number of women in Congress isn’t the only factor causing Murray to predict legislative success. “The culture has shifted dramatically,” she said.
More women are serving in the armed forces today and there’s an appreciation, Murray said, that men also can become victims of sexual assault: 1.2 percent of men reported unwanted sexual contact, compared with 6.1 percent of women, according to the anonymous survey conducted by the Pentagon.
“Men in the Senate get this issue and more women are willing to stand up,” Murray said.
Even so, the legislators have encountered resistance to some of the proposals. While Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said all options are on the table to reduce the “huge problem” of sexual assaults in the military, a week earlier he had resisted allowing independent military prosecutors, instead of commanding officers, to investigate sexual assault crimes.
“No matter what the legislation is, this has to be a priority among the commanders,” New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte, a Republican, said in an interview.
The state’s other Senator, Democrat Jeanne Shaheen, a member of the Armed Services panel, said she isn’t convinced that the reported sexual attacks are being taken as seriously as they should be in the armed forces.
“The sad thing is, given the recent high-profile cases that we’ve seen, it’s not clear to me that everybody in the military understands that it’s unacceptable,” Shaheen said in an interview.
The Pentagon survey’s findings last month are considered to be based on scanty response rates, questionable data and broad definitions about what constitutes abuse, which concerns lawmakers about underreporting, as well as what was reported.
“We’re all looking at the statistics with enormous concern,” Gillibrand said. “When they did report, they were retaliated against, marginalized or blamed and they felt they could not get justice in the system.”
She and Boxer are proposing legislation to allow military prosecutors outside the chain of command to determine whether to take cases to a court-martial. Ayotte and Murray’s proposal would provide military lawyers throughout the legal process to alleged victims of sexual assault and criminalize sexual relationships between basic training instructors and students.
Minnesota Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar has proposed a measure to prevent convicted sexual offenders from enlisting or being commissioned in the military. With Republican Susan Collins of Maine, she proposes preventing military officials from dismissing a court-martial conviction for sexual assault.
Women senators began pursuing the issue of military sexual assault before the recent incidents. In March, Gillibrand held a Senate hearing that included the first testimony on sexual assault in the armed services in almost a decade.
Just before the hearing, Kimberly Hanks, who won a conviction of aggravated sexual assault against a fighter pilot at the Aviano Air Base in Italy, came to Washington after a lieutenant general overturned the ruling in February.
“We saw that as a tipping point moment,” said Nancy Parrish, president of a military sexual assault advocacy group, Protect our Defenders, who organized meetings between Hanks and several female senators.
In a meeting with Hagel during his confirmation process, North Carolina Senator Kay Hagan, a Democrat on the Armed Services panel, pressed for directives in the defense spending bill to reduce the number of military sexual crimes.
Still, advocates say much will need to be done to address the military culture that led to the reported surge in attacks. “It’s hard to believe, over 20 years after Tailhook, and literally nothing has happened,” said Stephanie Schriock, president of Emily’s List, a group that supports Democratic female candidates.
In late 1991, a letter by Captain Frederic Ludwig, the Tailhook Association president, prompted investigations by the Navy and Defense Department that revealed the scope of the assaults.
Attempts to organize a congressional response were rejected.
“From Tailhook to rape at the Air Force Academy to sexual assaults at the Naval academy, we lived through this ‘oh boys will be boys, let’s not guilt our guys,’ and a dismissiveness,” said Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski, a Democrat who was one of two women serving in the Senate in 1991.
In 1993, Boxer and Murray tried to prevent Admiral Frank Kelso -- the Navy’s top military officer during Tailhook -- from retiring with a four-star rank and his full pension. They lost on a 54 to 43 vote, with 60 needed in the Senate.
“Having the courage to stand up and even say anything on the floor was something we had to overcome,” Murray said. “We literally had to take on our own leadership to go on the floor.”