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U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, has introduced legislation aimed at reducing sexual assault in the military that is now supported by Iowa’s two Republican senators.
Gillibrand has heaped praise on Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst for their support in the legislation, which would move the authority for determining whether to prosecute a sexual assault allegation out of the chain of command to an independent military prosecutor.
During a news conference Thursday in Washington, D.C., Gillibrand thanked Grassley and Ernst for their role in creating and advocating for the legislation, which after years in progress now has bipartisan support, with advocates now believing it could become law.
Gillibrand said Grassley has supported her effort for the entire eight years she has worked on the legislation, and said Ernst’s recent decision to support the bill is significant because of Ernst’s experience as both a military commander and a sexual assault survivor.
“Because I’m a commander, I want to know that all of my troops are safe,” Ernst said during a phone interview shortly after Thursday’s news conference. “Because I’m a sexual assault survivor, I want to know that survivors have an equal opportunity and a fair shot at receiving justice.
“And I think what we have done is we have finally crafted a bill that will bring even the naysayers on board,” she added. “We have the best fighting force on our globe. And we have tremendous leaders. But there are also failures within the system. And this is what we're hoping we can correct.”
The most recent national defense report said nearly 21,000 U.S. service members were sexually assaulted in 2018.
Ernst had previously resisted supporting Gillibrand’s legislation. But Ernst said she always kept an open mind about the bill, and has now decided to support it for myriad reasons.
Despite assurances from the Department of Defense that it would address the issue, incidents of sexual assault in the military have not decreased, Ernst noted.
She also cited a damning, independent report on sexual assault at a U.S. Army base in Fort Hood, Texas, and her ability to help Gillibrand craft the latest version of the bill, which includes measures designed to focus on prevention.
“By the time we have a survivor and a perpetrator, we have failed,” Ernst said during the news conference.
Multiple speakers during the news conference said they believe Ernst’s support for the bill will prove critical in finally getting it passed. Ernst said the plan is for the bill to be passed with the federal defense budget.
“I believe her voice and vote is what is going to make sure this passes,” said Don Christensen, president of the nonprofit advocacy group Protect Our Defenders.
Gillibrand also praised Grassley for supporting the effort while he served in leadership roles on the Senate’s judiciary committee.