Slow, steady on military sex assaults

Tsongas having impact focusing on incremental change

SHORTLY AFTER TAKING HER SEAT in the House in 2007, US Rep. Niki Tsongas of Lowell attended a luncheon for soldiers wounded in combat. Tsongas approached some women at the luncheon and mentioned a recent hearing she’d attended on sexual assault in the military. One of the women, a military nurse, told her that she was more afraid of her fellow soldiers than of the enemy, so much so that she carried a knife at all times.

Tsongas was intrigued. She says she was aware of past instances of sexual assault, such as the Tailhook scandal of 1991, in which scores of Navy and Marine Corps personnel were sexually harassed or assaulted by fellow officers at a Las Vegas convention. But Tsongas says she had no idea sexual assault in the military was such a pressing problem. She had inherited the seat her predecessor, Martin Meehan, held on the Armed Services Committee. Like him, she was somewhat miscast, having never served in the military. She was looking for a niche where a junior member could make an impact and the nurse’s story presented an avenue.

Nine years later, Tsongas is widely regarded as the principal advocate in the House for women and men who have been sexually assaulted in the military. She’s done it by adopting a methodical, slow-but-steady approach focused on changing the military culture. Rather than pursuing a major, comprehensive bill, she’s built the case each year for more modest reforms, then convinced colleagues to include them in the annual defense authorization law, the only major measure besides spending bills that Congress enacts every year.

The reason for the go-slow approach is the deference representatives and senators give the military and the still-prevalent view that military commanders must control the military criminal justice system. To change the system, Tsongas has had to work piece by piece, bolstering her case with data and the testimony of the assaulted.

“It behooves us in Congress to deal with it in pieces as we better understand it,” says Tsongas. “That’s also led to success, that every year we try to take another look at it, rather than trying to come forth with one large piece of legislation that may not get it right.”


Tsongas, by taking what’s possible in a conservative, military-friendly Congress, can point to results. And her incremental approach forestalls the argument that would surely meet any attempt to pass follow-up legislation to a major bill: ‘Didn’t we already address this?’

In May, the House included her latest sexual assault provision to criminalize retaliation against victims and witnesses of crimes, a major concern of victims that Tsongas believes has prevented them from coming forward. If history is any guide, it will be enacted into law by the end of the year.

Every year since 2011, in fact, Tsongas has convinced colleagues to include new provisions in the defense authorization bill aimed at curtailing sexual assault in the military. She’s succeeded during a period when Republicans have ruled the House and benefitted from the fact that the Armed Services Committee operates in a more bipartisan way than most, given the pressure members feel to prove they are attuned to the country’s defense needs.

The committee markup process, in which the defense authorization bill is prepared for the House floor, offers members of the minority party a chance to offer amendments, but Democratic amendments are often defeated on party lines. So Tsongas has teamed with Ohio Republican Michael R. Turner, who became concerned about sexual assault in the military after he learned that a constituent was raped by a fellow Marine and later murdered. She and Turner formed the Military Sexual Assault Prevention Caucus to help bolster their annual amendments four years ago.

“Their leadership brought this issue to the fore on the Armed Services Committee and in the entire Congress,” says Greg Jacob, a former Marine officer who worked as policy director with the Service Women’s Action Network from 2010-2015.

The military has at times resisted their efforts, as have defense hawks in Congress. “They were not taking this issue seriously and victims’ lives were being ruined,” says Turner.

Still, by building a case and working slowly and methodically, they’ve won over colleagues and the generals. In 2011, Congress enacted their amendment ensuring victims the right to legal assistance and to request a transfer to a unit away from the alleged assailant. The legal provision has since prompted all the services to create special victims counsels to represent survivors.

The following year, Congress took up their call again, requiring the military to study its handling of sexual assault claims. In 2013, the two lawmakers began chipping away at commanders’ authority over sexual assault cases, which has been extraordinarily broad. Tsongas and Turner convinced colleagues to remove a commander’s power to change or dismiss a court-martial conviction, except in the case of minor offenses. The law enacted that year also blocked commanders from reducing a sentence.

Last year, the duo wrote provisions requiring the Pentagon to examine sexual assaults of men. Congress also required that a military judge sign off before a sexual assault survivor’s mental health records could be released.

The 2012 documentary film The Invisible War, which detailed the stories of women who say they were raped while serving, deeply affected both Tsongas and Turner. Stacy Malone, executive director of the Victim Rights Law Center in Boston, recalls going around Tsongas’s district with her for screenings and panel discussions after the movie came out. “It was so powerful to see a congresswoman standing up on an issue like this,” she says.

Both Turner and Tsongas are featured in the film, Turner castigating the military brass and Tsongas listening as a sexual assault survivor describes the incredible power military commanders have to decide whether sexual assault cases go forward.

On that issue, Tsongas and Turner disagree. Tsongas would like to eliminate commanders’ authority over whether cases go to court martial, allowing military prosecutors to decide. Turner supports limits on that authority but doesn’t want to eliminate it.

Tsongas says “there’s too much else at stake” to blow up a productive partnership over the dispute.

In the Senate, by contrast, proponents of reform have become bitterly divided. Just consider the failed 2014 Senate vote to advance a bill by Kirsten Gillibrand of New York that would have taken away military commanders’ authority.

Gillibrand described the defeat as tragic and rebuked her colleagues. “The deck is stacked against victims of sexual assault in the military, and today we saw the same in the halls of Congress,” she said in a statement at the time.

The vote drove a wedge between Gillibrand and a fellow Democrat, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, who proposed a rival Senate bill that passed the same day. That bill left commanders in charge, but eliminated the “good soldier defense” that had allowed more senior officers to plea for reduced penalties.

Tsongas tried to play peacemaker. “They may take different routes but their goal is the same: to stop these crimes from occurring and to support the men, women, and families impacted by them,” she said of the two senators in a statement released after the votes.

Tsongas supported McCaskill’s bill, which went on to become law that year. Congress also required that commanders be assessed on their handling of sexual assault cases and that the military examine whether the rules of evidence in court martials were hurting accusers. Turner believes that is enough, at least for now, and Tsongas says that the senior level commanders who make the decisions are not impeding many cases now.

In May, the Pentagon reported that it had received 6,083 reports of sexual assault in 2015, a figure that is little changed from 2014 (48 fewer reports), but this also occurred during a time when the military is trying to make it easier for victims to come forward.

Towards the end of The Invisible War, the women who’ve told their stories say that, if they had to do it over again, they would not have joined the military and would discourage others from doing so.

Meet the Author

Shawn Zeller

Washington Correspondent
There’s a scene in which former Coast Guard seaman Kori Cioca is eating in a Bob Evans restaurant. She overhears a waitress saying she’s planning to enlist. Cioca, who says she was raped and beaten by an officer while stationed in Michigan in 2005, tries to dissuade the waitress. “You try to take care, okay? You can still back out. You can be a civilian worker,” Cioca says.

Tsongas doesn’t see the situation the same way. “There are women who want to and can do those jobs,” she says. “But also it sends a strong message that women are not second-class citizens within the services. That, as much as anything, goes a long way to changing the culture.”