I rise today to speak in defense of the National Defense Act and certain portions of the bill that address a serious problem facing the men and women of our armed services. This is sexual assault. I introduced in legislation on this issue in the spring with Senator Susan Collins and I remain deeply concerned about the subject.
Many of our colleagues are aware that sexual assault is a persistent problem within our Armed Forces. Reports of trauma have risen in recent years. In March, the Department of Defense put out its annual report on sexual assault in the military. According to the estimates, there were more than 3,000 reports of sexual assault in the military last year. That included reports by both male and female victims, exposing attacks perpetrated both by and against members of our military.
And those are just the reported attacks. Since the Department of Defense estimated that only 15% of victims actually come forward, we can assume the number is much higher, upwards of 19,000. The Department of Veterans Affairs has reported similarly disturbing figures, more than 20% of female service members say they were sexually assaulted or harassed during their service.
Let me make this clear. We know the vast majority of men and women serving in our military would never be involved in sexual assault. They have the toughest jobs out there, on the front line every day. But when we have a problem, we can't just put our heads in the sand and pretend it's not happening.
In 2008 alone, VA medical personnel alone reported more than half a million encounters that focused on sexual assault and harassment.
The idea that an American in uniform who is out there on the front lines serving our country may also suffer the physical and emotional trauma of sexual assault is simply unacceptable. And it is also unacceptable, Mr. President, that the records of that assault would be destroyed.
According to the VA, women who experience sexual assault or sexual harassment in the military have a 59% higher risk of developing mental health injuries. Sexual trauma doesn't just hurt the victims either. It can also take a huge toll on the soldiers who serve by their sides. It has been shown to undermine team moral and overall force effectiveness.
The Department of Defense is well-aware of this problem and has taken some positive steps to address it. For example, the Pentagon has created positions for personnel specially trained to handle reports of sexual trauma. It has improved counseling services for victims and it has implemented new training procedures for commanders.
Despite these important improvements, the Defense Department continues to fall short in one very key area: ensuring the lifelong preservation of victims' records from reports of sexual assault.
As a former prosecutor I know firsthand how important it is to preserve the data connected to crimes like sexual assault. That's why I'm so troubled by the gaps we've seen at the Defense Department. As of now there is no coordinated cross-service policy for ensuring the preservation of medical records and other information that is related to sexual assault. In this day and age it seems a little crazy. Some of the branches have five years. Some have ten years. There is no policy and many of these records are destroyed.
These are records, Mr. President, of sexual assault. Across the board these policies or lack thereof are bleak. In a significant number of cases, the data is destroyed within one year. It is simply shredded. The problems this can cause for service members are extensive. Within one year the service member loses the proof that he or she experienced a sexual assault connected to military service and as a prosecutor, if you have someone who is maybe accused of a crime or maybe no one followed through on it and then later they go on and they commit an actual crime and there is a trial, you want to be able to access the records from the past.
Also, for the individual victim, it means that they no longer have access to the evidence necessary for pursuing criminal action against their perpetrator. It also means that if the victim experiences depression or any other ailment, either mental or physical, relating to the assault, they may not be able to prove that it was caused during their service meaning they will not be able to seek VA disability benefits.
There are far too many examples of this out there, of service members being denied compensation from the VA for disabilities caused by sexual military assault. There are far too many examples of service members who've been told to "find a witness" and when there are no witnesses, they have been told to "get their attackers to attest to the assault."
This is not the way we should be treating our service members. This year my office was contacted by a group of Minnesota women veterans, veterans of all ages who have bonded together to share their stories of sexual assault and to advocate for stronger protections from the Department of Defense and the VA.
These women signinged up to serve. They performed well and honorably and if in the course of their service they experienced an assault, an assault that would not have been experienced if they had not volunteered, then we owe them the basic decency of keeping their records. That is all we're talking about here.
We have appreciated that the Department of Defense is open to the leaders of this bill, are working with us on this bill. This bill was originally introduced with Senator Collins, Senator Murkowski, and senator McCaskill. We were able to get 23 cosponsors on this bill, including every single woman in the United States Senate. The Support for Survivors Act also is endorsed by several key veteran service organizations, including the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Disabled American Veterans, and the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, as well as the Service Womens’ Action Network.
The Support for Survivors Act is straightforward. Quite simply, it requires the Department of Defense to ensure lifelong storage of all documents connected with reports of sexual assault and sexual harassment in the military, while also maintaining full privacy for those involved. Likewise, the purpose and motivation of this legislation is also pretty simple. It's about supporting our veterans.
I have always believed that when we ask our men and women to fight and sacrifice for us in defense of our nation, we make them a promise that we're going to give them the support when they come home. As Abraham Lincoln has said, need to care for those who have borne the battle.
While protecting our service members' personal records, protecting their rights is just about that. This week senators are considering a critically important bill, the National Defense Authorization Act and I'm happy to say that this year the Defense Authorization Act already includes the significant majority of the provisions of my Support for Survivors Act.
This summer, the Senate Armed Services Committee saw fit to address the issue of military sexual assault during its markup of the bill and I am grateful for the time and effort my colleagues have invested in reviewing this issue.
Already the National Defense Authorization Act requires the Department of Defense to collaborate with the Department of Veterans' Affairs in developing a comprehensive policy for ensuring retention and access to sexual assault records. Importantly, the bill ensures protection of the privacy of the records. It also calls on the Defense Department and the VA to address access to the records, not only for victims but also for the VA, law enforcement, and other entities that may need to access them.
And the bill seeks to make the policy uniform across all service branches so members of the Air Force, the Army, the Navy, and the Marines are given fair treatment. Why, Mr. President, would you have records destroyed of one branch after a year and another after five years and another after ten years? It's my position they shouldn't be destroyed at all.
The one provision which was not included in the defense authorization and which I feel is vitally important was the requirement that records be stored throughout the life of the victim. Storing records for a person's lifetime is in my mind common sense. All our other critical records such as our health records, insurance records, banking records, are stored throughout our lives. So I believe the case should be the same here. Unfortunately, the Defense authorization act does not require lifelong storage. Instead, it puts this question entirely in the hands of the defense department, requiring only that the records be stored for five years and otherwise allowing the agency to determine its own timing. Five years is not enough, Mr. President. Yes, it's five times the length of the time the records are currently stored, and in that respect it is a good step but it is not enough. Not in the modern day where we store records and have ways of storing records in a way and certainly the defense department knows how to store these records in a way that is private.
That's why I've filed an amendment that would ensure that almost all sexual assault records are stored for an estimated 50 years. This solution is one that I've discussed personally with Senator Levin. It's also something my office has worked on closely with the Department of Defense. And though 50 years is not necessarily the life of the victim, it gets us a long way and is certainly better than what we have now. I want to thank Chairman Levin for his willingness to work with me on this important issue, and for his efforts to include this amendment in the overall bill. I also want to thank the Republicans, the other side of the aisle, for working with us on this, and the fact that this was a bipartisan amendment from the beginning, again, including the sponsorship, the underlying bill included the sponsorship of all women senators in the United States Senate.
I urge my colleagues to support this amendment as well as the strong provisions in this bill that address sexual assault protection for military members. The problem of sexual trauma within the military is broad but the provisions included in the bill including my amendment are important advancements. I intend to monitor the Defense Department's implementation of these provisions and although I was not able to secure the full lifelong record preservation I'm going to keep fighting this fight. But 50 years for most of the records is a pretty good result, given what we have in place right now.
This year the Department of Defense has finally placed a military officer in charge of its sexual assault protection and responsive office, General Mary Kay Hertog. I believe she has not only a good grasp but has the rank and weight necessary to forge real change in the department's policies. I intend to continue my communication with her and follow a policy that victims have lifelong access to their personal records.
When our men and women and women signed up to serve there wasn't a line and there shouldn't a line to come back, not for the help or protection they've earned. I see my colleagues, leaders on this bill, Senator Levin and Senator McCain are here, and I again thank them for working with me on this amendment. Mr. President, I yield the floor.
Senator McCain: Mr. President.
The presiding officer: the Senator from Arizona.
Senator McCain: I want to thank the Senator from Minnesota for her strong efforts on behalf of the men and women in the military and their welfare and benefits. She is an advocate and a person who is committed to making sure that not only those who are now serving but those who have -- are cared for by our society and by our military and our veterans' facilities. I thank the Senator and I appreciate the very eloquent statement that she just made.
The presiding officer: Under the previous order the senate will resume consideration of s. 1867. The Senator from Michigan.
Senator Levin: While the Senator from Minnesota is here, let me add my voice of thanks and appreciation and -- for what she continually is fighting for in the area of sexual assault. Her amendment makes great sense. We've cleared it on our side. We hope it gets cleared so that we can get this into a package and we hope we can get a package that is adopted. But I want to just commend the senator for her intrepid effort that just is really awe-inspiring on behalf of people who need all of the fight and all of the protection that we can give them, and those are people who have been assaulted sexually. I want to commend the Senator.