Defense bill changing military's handling of sexual assault passes Congress

Defense bill changing military's handling of sexual assault passes Congress
Myah Bilton-Smith spoke with KATU News in May. She said she was raped twice on a Texas Air Force base.

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Congress approved a sweeping defense bill that awaits President Obama's signature, and it contains serious changes for how the military deals with cases of sexual assault.

The military's handling of high-profile rape and sexual assault cases united Democrats and Republicans in their effort to change the Uniform Code of Military Justice. The Pentagon had estimated the 26,000 military members may have been sexually assaulted in 2012.

Seven female senators on the Armed Services Committee pushed for the changes and got them in the $632.6 billion bill, which also covers combat pay, new ships, aircraft and military bases.

The bill takes away the power of military commanders to overturn jury convictions. It requires a civilian review of a commander decides not to prosecute a sexual assault case, and requires anyone convicted of sexual assault to face a dishonorable discharge or dismissal.

It also would provide victims with legal counsel, get rid of the statute of limitations for courts-martial in sexual assault cases and criminalize retaliation against victims who report assaults and rapes. However, it does not provide a proposal by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) that would allow victims an independent route outside the chain of command. The Pentagon strongly opposed it.
    
"Today we have taken a major, unprecedented step toward finally eliminating the plague of sexual assault in our nation's military," said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.)

In May, KATU's Hillary Lake spoke with Myah Bilton-Smith of Vancouver, who was raped twice at Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo, Texas.

She told Lake she had been drugged. "I was freaking out because of the embalming fluid cigarette," she said.

Bilton-Smith said commanding officers didn't send her to a regular hospital. Her records show she was admitted to a psychiatric hospital after the first attack and a rape kit was never administered. She said she was raped a second time just three days after her release from the hospital. Her mother, Tina Cleman, moved down to Texas to help her daughter, whose requests for transfers were denied.

"No parent should have to move to make sure that their child is alive or remains alive," Cleman said. Both Cleman and her daughter believed the military hid DNA evidence of the rape. Cleman teamed up with the Military Rape Crisis Center to get Bilton-Smith out of the military. Cleman believes two generals knew about her daughter's case but did not step in.

Bilton-Smith spoke out to raise the issues about abuse, saying, "Whoever's out there like me, you know, you're not alone. And I'm not alone either."