US Senators Say They Will Change the Way Sexual Assault Cases Are Handled by the Military

Memorial to murdered soldier Vanessa Guillen, who told her family she had been sexually harassed on base.
Memorial erected in 2020 after soldier Vanessa Guillen was murdered at the Fort Hood military base after telling her family she was being sexually harassed at the installation.Getty

A Senate bill to overhaul how military sexual assault and harassment cases are handled has an unlikely alliance of support.

U.S. senators said they would pass legislation that will take military sexual assault and harassment cases out of the hands of service commanders after years of trying to remove such investigations from the chain of command.

The Senate bill introduced Thursday created an unlikely alliance between legislators who are often at odds, including Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand, who is leading the effort, and staunchly conservative Republican Ted Cruz.

The bill would turn prosecution of such crimes over to independent attorneys, something Gillibrand has advocated for years, but has never been approved by Congress. Demands for independent prosecutors have intensely escalated since the murder last year of Fort Hood soldier Vanessa Guillen, who was fatally beaten with a hammer on base by a colleague after telling her family she had been repeatedly harassed on the job but feared retaliation if she reported it.

"This legislation is not partisan and it is not political," said New York Sen. Gillibrand, who first introduced the "Military Justice Improvement Act" in 2013.

"I'm going to predict that by the end of this Congress, we're going to pass this bill, and it's about damn time," said Sen. Cruz of Texas.

Republican Sen. Joni Ernst, a military veteran from Iowa, said her own experience of being sexually assaulted in the military moved her to co-sponsor the legislation.

"Once that sexual assault has occurred, you can't go back. You can't change what has happened and you will relive that moment of your life over and over again," she said. 

An independent Pentagon commission on sexual assault recommended last week that prosecution of those cases be removed from the military chain of command.

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