July 1, 2016
By Rianna Lee

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Scilla Wahrhaftig and Edith Bell Call on Sen. Toomey to pass the MJIA. Photo Taken by Marni Fritz.

Twenty-five people gathered for a rally organized by the Thomas Merton Center’s Stop Sexual Assault in the Military (SSAM) campaign in Station Square on Thursday, June 9th, to urge Sen. Toomey to support the Military Justice Improvement Act (MJIA). The MJIA, a bipartisan amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), will remove the decision-making authority to prosecute rape and sexual assault cases from a conflicted, often-biased chain of command, and put it into the hands of professional, independent military prosecutors. The new military justice system will remove the internal bias from reporting rape and sexual assault and encourage survivors to come forward without fear of professional retaliation. The Senate will vote next week to determine whether the amendment will be voted into law. Sen. Toomey has not supported the amendment the past two times it has been brought up for a vote.

“Today, we can expect that 50 service men and women will be brutally assaulted. Not by a foreign terrorist or enemy combatant… [but] by someone also wearing a U.S. military uniform. In our military, there is a culture and judicial process that allows sexual predators and opportunistic rapists and other abusers to thrive. Today, SSAM is once again asking Sen. Toomey to join a wide bi-partisan coalition and vote for the Military Justice Improvement Act,” said SSAM Campaign Leader Ginny Hildebrand.

“While serving in Iraq in 2010, I ministered to one particular young soldier who had been repeatedly raped by her commander… The commander was not arrested or put in jail, but placed on administrative reassignment, pending an internal investigation. [He] was often seen joking with others in the HQ and handing out cigars to fellow officers, while his suffering victim was under constant suicide watch and psychological care,” Rev. Fr. Paul Dordal stated.

The rally also included a statement from an anonymous survivor of military sexual assault, a letter to President Obama calling for a stronger stance on military sexual assault written by TMC intern Emily Fecile, a statement from Pittsburgh Coalition Against Rape (PCAR), a statement from Phyllis Wetherby, member of the Greater Pittsburgh Area Chapter of National Organization of Women (NOW) for almost 50 years, and a statement from the Women’s Law Project which was also submitted to Toomey’s office in coordination with the rally.

A 2014 survey by the Department of Defense found that over 47,000 incidents of sexual assault were reported by service members. One in seven of these assaults were perpetrated by someone in the victim’s chain of command.

The MJIA was first introduced by Sen. Kristen Gillibrand (D-NY) in November 2013. In March 2014, Sen. Toomey voted to block the MJIA from moving to a substantive vote. In June 2015, Sen. Toomey once again failed to support the MJIA, and the amendment was returned to the agenda for future consideration. Senators are calling for another vote on the MJIA after learning that Pentagon officials lied to Congress about the number of prosecutions carried out under the current military justice system regarding sexual assault.

The Thomas Merton Center’s Stop Sexual Assault in the Military (SSAM) campaign has been working for the past three years to increase awareness of the growing occurrence of sexual assault in the military and works to enact external controls to protect those who are victimized.

The Military Justice Improvement Act has been endorsed by Iraq & Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA), Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN), National Women’s Law Center (NWLC), Protect Our Defenders, and the National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence Against Women, just to name a few.

Rianna Lee is an intern with the NewPeople.