J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Gillibrand Links Military Sexual Assaults to PTSD and Suicide

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand opened a new dimension in the debate over military sexual assaults while continuing to apply pressure for her legislation. By Stacy Kaper

As Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand keeps hitting roadblocks in her effort to bring her military sexual-assault bill to a vote, she opened a new dimension in the debate Wednesday while continuing to apply pressure for her legislation.

Gillibrand focused attention on the issue by convening a hearing on the relationship between military sexual assaults and suicide and post-traumatic stress disorder before the Senate Armed Services Committee's Personnel Subcommittee, which she chairs.

One victim who testified, retired Lance Cpl. Jeremiah Arbogast, said he tried to take his own life and is now in a wheelchair after his rapist got off with lesser charges—while he himself was discharged from the service, struggling to get adequate care.

"I joined the Marines in order to serve my country as an honorable man. Instead I was thrown away like a piece of garbage," Arbogast said.

Lawmakers at the hearing raised a host of qualms about the counseling services and treatment provided to sexual-assault victims in the military and after they have left the service.

Gillibrand and another military-justice reform supporter, Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, used the hearing to keep making the case for the pending bill to reform the military system for handling such crimes.

(Related: Why Taking Sexual Assault Cases Out of the Chain of Command Protects Our Troops)

But the hearing also highlighted the next set of issues that are coming under scrutiny, which victim advocates say they hope will be addressed with another wave of legislation.

Problems flagged by lawmakers ran the gamut.

Virginia Democrat Tim Kaine raised concerns that servicemen and women are being overmedicated and not receiving adequate therapy.

South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham pointed out the services that are and should be made available to veterans outside the Veterans Affairs Department that they are either not aware of or can't access.

New Hampshire Republican Kelly Ayotte raised questions about the gap in transition of health services from the Defense Department to Veterans Affairs.

For her part, Gillibrand said that she hoped to take a look in the next National Defense Authorization Act at the problem of how victims' information shared with a special victims' counsel might be used against them.

"We have heard incidents where the special victims' counsels have been put in very difficult positions ... so that is something that many of us are going to look into for the next NDAA," Gillibrand said. "We have to really look into empowerment of that specific person to make sure they can't be bullied, that they can't be retaliated against themselves."

Meanwhile, victims' advocates who are still pushing for stalled legislation from Gillibrand to combat sexual assaults, and a competing measure from Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., are beginning to worry that the political brinkmanship that keeps standing in the way of the votes could stymie them indefinitely. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has promised votes on the measures. But so far Reid has been unable to reach an agreement to bring up the measures over Republican objections to having been denied a vote on Iran sanctions legislation.

"That's really the heart of the problem," said Greg Jacob, the Service Women's Action Network policy director and a former Marine. "If Senator Reid can't get unanimous consent to proceed to the bill, he's going to have to go and try to get the bill on the floor some other way, a much more technical, much more roundabout way. I don't know whether or not that's going to happen."

Gillibrand's legislation would radically reform the military-justice system by taking the decision of whether to prosecute military sexual assaults out of the chain of command but keep the process within the military. McCaskill's is a package of noncontroversial reforms including eliminating the so-called "good soldier defense" or disallowing a soldier's good military character to be considered in his defense, and it would allow assault victims to challenge unfair discharge from the service because of their attack.

Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., objected to putting the sexual-assault measures in the queue for floor time on Monday, arguing that Republicans had earned the right to also debate legislation to impose additional sanctions on Iran. He has since said he supports the Gillibrand legislation—becoming her 55th supporter—but this is not the first time the legislation has been held up over Republican objections. Last year, when lawmakers failed to reach an agreement on votes on amendments to the NDAA, expected votes on the Gillibrand and McCaskill amendments (which have each been introduced as stand-alone bills) were abruptly scuttled after weeks of anticipation about the votes.

A former senior Democratic aide said that Reid is committed to continuing to ask Republicans for consent to bring up the two pieces of legislation, but it is unclear how and when that may come together.

Bringing either bill to the floor without unanimous consent would likely require a series of procedural votes that could be take twice as long, because they are structured as two separate pieces of legislation. That would burn valuable floor time, and there are other pressing items on the Democratic leader's agenda, including making another run at unemployment insurance.

"At some point Republicans are going to have to drop their demand to have a vote on the Iran sanctions. … There's no other way," said the former aide. "If you had dueling cloture votes, that really chews up a lot of time."

A senior Democratic aide said that unless Republicans drop their objections to the votes, it's unclear when they will come up.

"Without a consent agreement the only way to bring them up is to file cloture on the motion to proceed to the measures.… Not sure if/when that will happen," the aide said.

A senior Republican aide said the expectation still is that both bills will eventually get a vote, but the pathway there is cloudy.