N.H. Pair Push Military Sex Assault Bill

White River Junction — After a solemn ceremony commemorating the nation’s soldiers on Monday, veterans at the VA Medical Center in White River Junction spoke in support of efforts under way in Congress to rein in sexual assault in the military.

Gioia Grasso Cattabriga was at the ceremony to pay tribute to fellow veterans. She stressed that while help from Washington is welcome, the problem of sexual assault in the military also needs to be addressed internally “from the top down.

“Management needs to treat the issue seriously,” said Cattabriga, a West Lebanon resident. “It’s paid lip service time after time, but it doesn’t get fixed.”

Cattabriga, who served in the Army from 1973 to 1983, said she experienced “a great deal of sexual harassment” during her time in the military.

“It happened on a daily basis,” she said. “I wasn’t sexually assaulted, but I know some who were.”

The Department of Defense logged 3,553 sexual assault complaints from October 2012 through June, almost a 50 percent increase over the same time frame a year ago, The New York Times reported last week.

Sexual assault in the armed services is nothing new, but revelations in the last year of just how under-reported and under-prosecuted sexual crimes are in the military have spurred more legislative action in Washington to combat the issue. To that end, both of the Granite State’s U.S. senators recently signed onto legislation that would provide better safeguards for victims through reforms to the military justice system.

The bill, which was introduced by U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., seeks to better protect the rights of sexual assault victims during the course of an investigation and prevent their further abuse before a trial begins. New Hampshire Sens. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat, and Kelly Ayotte, a Republican, have signed on to the measure with a bipartisan group of 13 other senators. Shaheen and Ayotte are both members of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The legislative effort, which focuses on the “Article 32” proceedings that determine whether cases are sent to courts-martial, was brought forward after reports surfaced of aggressive tactics used in the questioning of a female midshipman at the United States Naval Academy. Unlike civilian courts, Article 32 hearings can include intense cross-examinations of witnesses and allow a wider range of questions that critics say could frighten victims from coming forward.

“We have to protect our men and women in uniform not only from sexual assault from within their own ranks but also from aggressive and unfair questioning during an investigation,” Shaheen said in statement released last week. “Our bipartisan proposal will protect members of our military from harassment and intimidation, increase reporting of sexual assault and ultimately help restore confidence in our military justice system.”

Ayotte, citing her experience as a prosecutor, said in the statement that she believes “strongly in protecting the rights of victims.

“This bipartisan legislation would further strengthen the important reforms in the annual defense bill to better protect service members who are victims of sexual assault,” she said.

Other upper chamber legislation on the issue of sexual assault in the military, sponsored by U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., would shift the prosecution of sexual assault cases outside the victim’s chain of command in an effort to reduce the fear of retaliation among victims. That bill is likely to be debated this fall.

Dr. Lanier Summerall, the chief of mental health at the VA Medical Center in White River Junction, said on Monday that an often overlooked factor of sexual assault in the military is that women are “taking evermore active roles, as there’s no real distinction between combat and noncombat locations.”

“A woman might be involved in transport, but that doesn’t mean she’s not in a high-stress combat situation,” Summerall said. “It’s made people more vulnerable and less able to cope with things like sexual trauma.”

Summerall said there is much work to be done in combatting the issue, but also stressed the progress made in certain areas. For example, she said, questions about sexual assault are now being asked at routine appointments as opposed to just psychiatric evaluations.

“Now, in the VA, it’s part of every primary care appointment,” Summerall said. “People get asked those questions.”

Aura-Lee Nicodemus, national chaplain of the Disabled American Veterans Auxiliary and longtime nurse at the VA Medical Center, said there is a major issue with victims being “revictimized over and over again” after reporting sexual assault, most often because their claims are not believed or taken seriously.

She stressed that the issue extends beyond women and includes both genders.

“The women are victimized after, and the men are hushed into silence,” she said. “Most of them don’t report it until later on.”

While the VA Medical Center has made strides in the confidential treatment of military sexual trauma, she said, there is still much work to be done on making victims feel safe in coming forward to report the crime.

“The issue is far bigger than we could ever dream of,” said Nicodemus.

Ben Conarck can be reached at bconarck@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.