For Congresswoman Niki Tsongas, a new law aims to end 'betrayal' in the military

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: Here in the U.S. there's another big story involving the U.S. military. I'm talking about a new law that's now in effect that cracks down on sexual assaults in the military. President Obama took a break from his vacation in Hawaii to sign the bill yesterday. Congresswoman Niki Tsongas is pleased to say the least. The Massachusetts democrat coauthored key provisions in the new law, along with Ohio republican Mike Turner. Tsongas first became aware of the extent of the problem in 2007 during a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee on which she serves.

Niki Tsongas: Coincidentally, maybe a month later, I went to a Wounded Warrior luncheon and got to talking with a woman who had been deployed many times to Afghanistan and Iraq, and I asked her if this crime was as prevalent as the hearing would suggest. And she said, ma'am I've never been assaulted, but I am more afraid of my own service members than I am of the enemy. And to protect herself she always had a knife, she carried a knife in her waistband. So I'd have to tell you that conversation made this issue very real to me.

Werman: That must have changed your perception of the military.

Tsongas: Well, I have high regard for the military. We have people who are putting their lives at risk to serve our nation. But, the way I look at this crime is it's a betrayal that takes place across many fronts. So if you're a person, male or female, seeking to serve our country, which I give great credit to especially in times of war, and the experience of war is a life changing event. The last thing you expect is that you will be assaulted and betrayed by your own.

The second betrayal occurs when the chain of command fails to take these crimes seriously and tends to push them under the rug. The third betrayal occurs when either the chain of command or others serving with you retaliate against you for bringing allegations of this forward. And then the uniform code of military justice again betrays the victim in many, many ways.

So this is an issue in which there are many, multi-faceted in nature. There is no single bullet to fix it, and Congressman Turner and I, as well as others on the Armed Services Committee and across the Congress, simply seek to address this as we learn new challenges and feel they have to be fixed.

Werman: And this bill does take investigations into sexual assault charges out of the chain of command.

Tsongas: It does do that. And most importantly, for the first time it changes the commanders authority. Commanders previously had the authority to overturn a jury verdict. So if an assailant was found guilty of sexual assualt, a commander could overturn that verdict. A commander will no longer be able to do this. And this is the first real significant change to a commanders authority in the area of sexual assault that has taken place in decades.

Werman: Congresswoman, is this bill enough? What do you think is left undone?

Tsongas: Well, as I said, it's a discovery process. So we will carefully monitor how these many reforms are implemented. We will carefully monitor their impact. Not only on the ways in which this crime is dealt with, but also on the culture of the military. And we will be prepared to take additional steps as needed.

Werman: Massachusetts democrat Niki Tsongas who co-authored the bill signed into law yesterday by President Obama, which aims to restrict sexual assault in the military. Thank you very much Congresswoman.

Tsongas: Thank you, Marco.