DES MOINES — A nationwide movement that has brought sexual misconduct in the workplace to the forefront serves as a reminder that the issue also remains prevalent in the U.S. military.
An estimated 14,900 U.S. service members experienced some kind of sexual assault in 2016, according to the U.S. Defense Department’s most recent report. Reports of sexual assault involving service members reached an all-time high that year.
Iowa’s two U.S. senators — one of whom is a retired officer in the U.S. Army Iowa National Guard — have worked on legislation intended to address the issue.
“I do think we’re moving in the right direction, and I think more people are paying attention to it,” said Sen. Joni Ernst, a Republican from Iowa and a retired lieutenant colonel in the state Guard. “But the bottom line is it’s not just about paying attention to it. It’s about preventing it.”
A new focus on sexual harassment and assault, both in the public and in the military, has emboldened more victims to speak up, military leaders believe. Nearly 1 in 3 service members reported the crime; that is a significant change from 12 years earlier when 1 in 14 service members reported the crime, according to the Defense Department’s report.
But more work remains ahead, said Ann M. Burkhardt, a Navy rear admiral and director of the Defense Department’s office on preventing and responding to sexual assault.
“Sexual assault violates the core values of our military and must never be tolerated. We have more work to do to advance dignity and respect for each and every person. It is essential to military readiness,” Burkhardt said when the report was published. “The hard truth is still far too many of our people find their lives changed by this crime and there are far too many who continue to suffer in silence.”
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Ernst said education is a critical component to preventing sexual assault in the military. She worked with Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democratic senator from New York, in 2017 to introduce legislation mandating in-person sexual assault training for newly enlisted service members of all branches. That legislation was signed into law this year in a bigger defense bill, Ernst said.
Among groups that supported the legislation was the Iowa Coalition Against Sexual Assault.
“Sexual assault and disgusting online activity will continue to plague our nation and our military until we take concrete steps forward to address this horrific issue and change the culture within our society,” Ernst, who serves on the Senate’s armed services committee, said in a statement when the proposal was introduced. “The military can help prevent sexual assaults and horrific online activity from happening in the first place by sitting down and talking with service members about what is right and what is wrong. This is especially important for those just entering the service, and it is my hope that this reinforces that these acts will not be tolerated.”
Republican Chuck Grassley, Iowa’s senior senator, has supported legislative efforts to reduce sexual assault and harassment in the workplace, including the military. Grassley leads the Senate’s Judiciary Committee, which deals with law enforcement policies.
“Just being tough on crime, and rape is a crime whether it’s in the military or on a college campus or wherever it is. It’s a crime,” Grassley said.
Iowa state lawmakers also took action this year, creating a requirement that any sexual harassment or assault reported by a member of the Army Iowa National Guard also gets reported to local authorities. The proposal received unanimous approval from legislators and was signed into law in late March.
Mark Lofgren, a Republican state senator from Muscatine who helped oversee the proposal, said it was designed to keep all law enforcement “in the loop” and said local law enforcement can help the Guard investigate allegations of sexual assault.
Amanda Ragan, a Democratic state senator from Mason City who also helped with the legislation, said it provides reassurances to sexual harassment and assault victims in the Iowa National Guard that their allegations will be heard by law enforcement outside the military as well.
“If we can make it easier for the victim, I believe most people are on board with that,” Ragan said. “When you have law enforcement involved in that part, which is really part of their duties to be aware of this, you know there will be action taken.”
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The Iowa National Guard trains all members annually on sexual assault awareness, according to a spokesman. The 60- to 90-minute training is jointly conducted by the unit commander and a credentialed victim advocate. Officers and victim advocates are required to perform additional training.
Guard members also are encouraged to participate in community sexual assault awareness events during April, the spokesman said. April is recognized by advocates as Sexual Assault Awareness Month.
Ernst and Grassley also have worked on legislation dealing with sexual assault on college campuses. They were among a group of senators who reintroduced legislation that requires campuses to have staff designated specifically for responding to sexual harassment victims, creates a uniform discipline process for all students, including athletes, and creates minimum training and transparency requirements.
“It is just such an important topic, and one that I have spent a great deal of time working with,” Ernst said, adding that during college she worked with a sexual violence and domestic abuse crisis center in Ames. “It really made such an impression on my life, being able to help women and children who had suffered through domestic violence and sexual assault ... not just in the military, but elsewhere, too.”