CA lawmakers hold hearings on Military Sexual Trauma

by Katy Grimes | November 7, 2013 12:36 pm

SACRAMENTO — California legislators are looking into Military Sexual Trauma, commonly called MST, among troops based in California. So far, no bills have been introduced. The military, including the California National Guard, largely is governed by laws passed by the U.S. Congress. And federal laws trump state laws.

Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi and Assemblywoman Bonnie Lowenthal held a Joint Oversight Committee Hearing at the Capitol last week to discuss the impacts, issues and supportive programs associated with MST.1028-MSTjoinghearing[1] Muratsuchi, D-Torrance, is the chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee. Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, is the chairwoman of the Legislative Women’s Caucus.

Muratsuchi allowed the hearing to go on for three hours, with no time limits on speakers.

Purpose of the hearing

“There were 3,553 sexual assault complaints reported to the Defense Department in the first three quarters of the fiscal year, from October 2012 through June, a nearly 50 percent increase over the same period a year earlier,” the New York Times reported[2] recently. “Defense Department officials said the numbers had continued to rise.”

“As Chair of the Veterans Affairs Committee, it is my priority to make our veterans’ lives easier and identify areas where the state can provide additional support,” said Muratsuchi.

“MST survivors and support organizations agreed that one of the greatest inadequacies in addressing this issue is that military justice penalties are far less severe than civilian justice penalties,” Muratsuchi’s Assembly website[3] said. “And while support organizations for victims are available through the state, county and non-profits, they often seek additional legislative support.”

“Survivors deserve justice, and they deserve support,” Lowenthal said. “We can’t sit on our hands waiting for the federal government to act. California can, and will, take steps to prevent these assaults and help survivors and their families heal.”

Several sexual assault survivors spoke at the hearing and said one of the biggest issues victims face is that many times their offenders outrank them. And they said many times the offender does not receive any penalty and often repeats the crime.

Survivors told stories of MST and said it leads to physical and mental health problems, relationship issues, alcohol and drug abuse, and often homelessness.

Several of the MST survivors who testified said they were assaulted decades ago. One woman told of being assaulted during the Vietnam War more than 40 years ago.

Government redefined ‘sexual assault’

However, the large increase in MST numbers in recent years mainly is due to changes in its definition since 2007; and to the increasing role of women in the military.

According to a March 28, 2013 Instruction from the Pentagon,[4] the Department of Defense “uses the term ‘sexual assault’ to address a range of crimes including rape, aggravated sexual assault, wrongful sexual contact, non-consensual sodomy, abusive sexual contact, aggravated sexual contact, and indecent assault. The annual report includes case synopses, case dispositions, and punishments imposed in cases involving unrestricted reports.”

The DOD Instruction describes what happened, and why the assault statistics now are inflated:

“For incidents that occurred prior to the changes made to the UCMJ on October 1, 2007, the term ‘sexual assault’ referred to the crimes of rape, nonconsensual sodomy, indecent assault, and attempts to commit these acts. For incidents that occurred between October 1, 2007 and June 27, 2012, the term ‘sexual assault’ referred to the crimes of rape, aggravated sexual assault, aggravated sexual contact, abusive sexual contact, wrongful sexual contact, nonconsensual sodomy, and attempts to commit these acts. For incidents that occur on or after June 28, 2012, the term ‘sexual assault’ refers to the crimes of rape, sexual assault, aggravated sexual contact, abusive sexual contact, nonconsensual sodomy, and attempts to commit these acts.”

“Abusive sexual contact” was added to the definition of sexual assault, so people who touch someone’s posterior are now equated with serial rapists. For that reason, some media accounts inaccurately have labeled the results of the military’s recent survey of sexual assaults and “unwanted sexual contact” as “sexual assaults.”

Assemblywoman Melendez

1131-LIXHORE[5]Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez, R-Riverside, a veteran of 10 years in the U.S. Navy, also spoke at the hearing. She pointed out the big difference between unwanted touching and actual sexual assault. The new definition can interpret an “assault” as someone telling an off-color joke. Even touching someone’s thigh, waist or behind is now lumped in with serial rapists.

“I know all about what goes on,” Melendez said. “I served in the military.” She told the story about an inappropriate remark made to her by a superior officer in the Navy. But she said it did not cause her trauma.

“I’m concerned about some of the data suggesting sexual trauma,” Melendez said. “Sexual harassment and off-color remarks are not trauma. Trauma is trauma.”

“Are we going to act on anything we heard here today?”

“There is not a policy problem,” said Melendez. “There is a leadership problem.” She said the MST problem with the military is weak leaders who look the other way on sexual assault accusations, rather that dealing with them immediately. “The policy is in place,” she said, but needs to be enforced.

“I’m curious if we are going to act on anything we heard today,” Melendez said at the end of the hearing, directing her comment to Muratsuchi. “It is not helpful to have people come forward and then do nothing. This is not supposed to be a testimonial.”

“Each of us in the Legislature can put up a bill and run with it,” Muratsuchi said. “I want to thank Assemblymember Lowenthal and the Women’s Caucus for making this a priority. We will follow up on this.”

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  4. According to a March 28, 2013 Instruction from the Pentagon,:
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