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News Jul 13, 2017 - 11:05:44 PM

Blumenthal introduces bill to reform military discharge process, aid survivors of sexual assault

By U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal's office

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WASHINGTON, CT - U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) introduced bipartisan, bicameral legislation today to aid survivors of sexual assault, enhance the military records correction process, and improve military whistleblower protections. The Protecting Military Honor Act builds on years of work by Senator Blumenthal to ensure a fair discharge and appeals process for veterans, particularly those who suffered sexual trauma during their military service. A companion bill was introduced in the House of Representatives by U.S. Representative Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-WA).

“Survivors of military sexual assault should not be re-victimized by a dishonorable discharge, precluding them from veterans’ benefits and mental health services,” said Blumenthal. “Our veterans deserve justice and openness in discharge proceedings, including access to appeals processes for discharge categorization upgrades. For too long, those seeking to upgrade wrongful discharges have been hampered in their efforts to do so – a scourge that is particularly painful for survivors of military sexual assault. That is why Representative Herrera Beutler and I are introducing this bicameral, bipartisan bill to aid survivors of sexual assault, enhance the military records correction process, and improve military whistleblower protections. This legislation will enhance safeguards for our servicemembers and eliminate barriers to justice for veterans – ensuring they have the support and succor they have earned.”

“Our service members who have survived a sexual assault have already been through so much, I can’t imagine compounding that trauma with the damaging impact and stigma of carrying an ‘other than honorable’ discharge around for the rest of their lives. Unfortunately, we’ve discovered that this has happened to tens of thousands of military veterans,” said Herrera Beutler. “The very least we can do when someone who is willing to die for our nation has reported an assault is ensure their rights are preserved. Assault survivors in the military are much more likely to suffer from PTSD than other combat veterans; they’re more likely to need counseling, care and assistance, and the last thing our country should do is turn its back on them. We can’t undo the assaults these individuals have endured, but we can make sure that justice is on their side. This bill begins to restore that justice.”

The Protecting Military Honor Act would:

· Enhance the discharge review process for veterans: The legislation would clarify the processes, procedures, scope, and requirements applicable to sexual assault survivors who challenge terms or characterization of discharge on those grounds. It would also ensure veterans have meaningful access to a hearing to request a discharge upgrade, providing a greater chance of success with a personal appearance.
· Strengthen considerations for sexual assault: The legislation would instruct boards to consider a broad range of “markers” of military sexual trauma, which often will not be in military records, similar to standards adopted by the VA. It would also help prevent unjust discharges by screening sexual assault survivors for mental health conditions or PTS prior to an administrative separation for a non-disability mental health condition.
· Better protect servicemembers against retaliation: The legislation would align the burden of proof for military whistleblower claims to the civilian standard.
· Improve oversight of the discharge review process: The legislation would create a DoD working group to develop best practices for administrative review processes. It would also enhance judicial review of incorrect or improper board decisions. In addition, it would also make decisions searchable online to give veterans a fair chance to argue their case.

In June, Blumenthal secured two provisions included in the Protecting Military Honor Act in the Senate Armed Services Committee passed National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018. This includes the repeal of the 15-year statute of limitations on requests for review of veterans’ discharge status – enabling all veterans to bring their case before the Discharge Review Boards for an in-person hearing where they can be considered for a discharge characterization upgrade. The second provision included in the NDAA requires Discharge Review Boards and Boards for the Correction of Military Records to publish information about cases in which sexual assault is alleged to have contributed to the original discharge characterization – improving the transparency of sexual assault cases. The NDAA will head to the Senate floor for consideration in the coming weeks.

The Protecting Military Honor Act is supported by a number of advocacy and veterans groups, including Protect our Defenders, Swords to Plowshares, Human Rights Watch, Vietnam Veterans of America, Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN), and Veterans Legal Services Clinics, including Yale Law School.

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