D.C.

Military sex assault: Senate begins debate on plans

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WASHINGTON (WJLA) - A vote could come soon to change the way the military deals with sexual assault. It comes after a day of tense debate that’s dividing even strong allies.

President Obama hasn’t weighed in, but other top Democrats have and they are sharply divided.

Senate majority leader Harry Reid supports the bill, but Senate Armed Services chairman Carl Levin strongly opposes it. As the debate played out on the Senate floor Wednesday, ABC7 to a victim who fought back and is teaming up with Senate advocates to try to change the system.

Paula Coughlin was the original whistleblower in the Navy’s 1992 Tailhook sexual assault scandal.

“I was attacked in a hotel hallway by several hundred Naval aviators,” Coughlin says.

Coughlin, then a Navy lieutenant working for a top admiral, was courageous enough to speak out.

“What happened to me in the assault was shocking and I was completely unprepared for that kind of behavior, criminal behavior. But even worse was what happened when I described the event to my boss and he said ‘That’s what you get,’” she says.

Coughlin's boss blamed her for choosing to be a woman in the military.

Now working with Coughlin and the organization Protect Our Defenders, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., is pushing her bill to change the system, saying seasoned military prosecutors should handle sexual assault cases, not direct commanders, who Sen. Gillibrand says still don’t get it.

“It’s not about a hook-up culture. It is actually a crime that is brutal and violent, committed by someone who is acting on aggression and dominance,” Sen. Gillibrand says.

More than 50 senators have signed on to support the bill, but 60 are needed, and this fight has divided top Democrats and even the women in the Senate.

Claire McCaskill, D-MO, argues that this year’s Defense Authorization Bill already makes 26 reforms in how cases are handled, but must maintain the chain of command.

“We will be making more problems than we will be solving if we make the changes advocated by Senator Gillibrand,” Sen. McCaskill says.

Working closely with Senator Gillibrand, Coughlin says if they win this vote in the Senate, she and Protect Our Defenders will focus on getting more resources to treat victims. If they lose, she's vowed to keep fighting in Congress for change, noting they now have a senate majority on their side.

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