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Military Sexual Trauma

Rep. Tsongas questions military leaders about their response to MST

OVERIVIEW - MST: A deep-rooted cultural problem

Annual reports on sexual assault in the military released by the Department of Defense not only highlight the increasing incidence of sexual assault in the military, they indicate a staggering amount of instances of perceived retaliation against victims of sexual assault. The 2013 report recounted 26,000 cases of unwanted sexual contact and added that that 62% of victims who reported being sexually assaulted also reported that they experience retaliation.

A 2014 report indicated an increase in reported sexual assaults, which may reflect the positive impact of recent policy changes to support victims, but nevertheless shows that there is still much work to be done on this issue. It has become painfully evident that saying the military has a cultural problem in regard to sexual assault and sexual misconduct, is a glaring understatement. At worst, this is a deep-rooted and widespread acceptance of unprofessional, inappropriate and criminal behavior. At best, it is willful denial or head-turning on the part of too many military leaders.

Recent studies have revealed that as many as one in four women leaving military service report that they have experienced some form of Military Sexual Trauma (MST).

The number of women in the military is growing, expected to rise to 25% by the year 2025.  The decision to lift the ban on women serving in combat, opens avenues for advancement for so many brave female soldiers to rise through the ranks of our Armed Forces. This is a step toward enacting real change on several levels for women’s equality and allows our military to tap into a resource of highly skilled soldiers. What we do not want to happen is for the threat of military sexual trauma to deter talented soldiers from serving and inhibit military readiness.

This is not a women’s issue, as the sheer number of men who are sexually assaulted is higher than the number of women, although the percentages of women who are affected is alarmingly high. The disturbing prevalence of sexual assault in the military undermines the trust and shatters the confidence needed for a military unit to succeed. This is a systemic problem that demands accountability at every level – officer and enlisted alike.

If you need assistance, this page contains several resources or you can contact my office at 202.225.3411.


I have been fighting on behalf of victims of military sexual trauma since I was first elected to Congress in 2007. Shortly after entering Congress, I attended a Wounded Warrior luncheon where I met with US soldiers. In speaking with several female soldiers, I asked them if the issue of sexual assault was as widespread and deep-rooted as I had heard in one of the first Military Personnel subcommittee hearings that I attended.  One woman, a nurse who had been deployed several times to Afghanistan and Iraq, replied by saying: “Ma’am, I am more afraid of my own soldiers than I am of the enemy.” She told me about a knife she carried tucked inside her waistband as protection against would-be assailants. She had never been assaulted but lived with the persistent feeling of threat from her fellow servicemembers.

READ: BOSTON GLOBE - For Tsongas and GOP colleague, a long fight on military sexual assault

The issue was made very personal and very real for me that day. As I began to look further into the matter, I found that sexual assault in the military is a serious issue that threatens our national security and requires definitive action on our part as policymakers.

We continually ask our servicemen and women to put their lives on the line for our country, and they should not have to fear being sexually assaulted while performing their duties. Yet the increasing prevalence of sexual assaults reported by the Department of Defense (DOD) only reflects a small percentage of the actual number of sexual assaults. These sad statistics are unfortunately reinforced by many conversations I have had with servicemembers who say that sexual assault in the military is a crime that often goes unseen, and that the voices of its victims go unheard.

I have partnered across the aisle with Congressman Mike Turner (R-Ohio) to author several pieces of legislation that have become law and put many new tools in the toolbox for the military to combat its scourge of sexual assault, give support to survivors, and help them seek justice.

Mr. Turner and I also established the Military Sexual Assault Prevention Caucus and serve as its co-chairs.

In addition to authoring and championing legislation, I and my colleagues on the House Armed Services Committee continue to provide an oversight role to ensure the investigation, prosecution and implementation of new policies and trainings are fully adhered to by all branches of the armed forces.

I serve as the Ranking Member (top Democrat) of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Oversight & Investigations, a role that provides me with a platform to continue my work on this vital issue.

We place our trust in a strong and safe military whose efforts every day serve to protect our citizens at home and abroad.  I am fully committed to ensuring that our national security goals succeed, and I believe that holding our servicemembers accountable must be part of our work in Congress.

Additional materials from the sexual assault support services at the Department of Defense can be found here.



2017 - The BE HEARD Act

The Building an Environment for Helpful, Effective, and Accessible Representation and Decision-making (BE HEARD) Act would make it easier for survivors to have their voices heard by expanding specialized training for military Special Victims’ Counsel (SVCs), providing military sexual assault survivors with better access to federal appellate courts to protect their procedural rights, and ensuring that the most vulnerable sexual assault survivors have someone to represent their legal interests throughout the military justice process.

The BE HEARD Act was included in the House-passed version of the FY18 National Defense Authorization Act. 

More information can be found here.


2016 - The PROTECT Act

Congressman Mike Turner and I introduced the Prevent Retaliation and Open Transparency to Expand Care for Troops (PROTECT) Act in April 2016.  This bill calls for increased transparency in the military justice system, greater protection for survivors and witnesses from retaliation, better survivor access to court information and an increased focus on treatment for male survivors of sexual assault.

The PROTECT Act was included in the the FY17 National Defense Authorization Act and signed into law by the President in 2016. 

More information here

2015 - The SUPPORT Act

 In April 2015, Congressman Mike Turner and I introduced the the Support Uniformed Patriots; Prevent Offenses and Restore Trust Act (SUPPORT Act).  The goal of this bill was right in its name – to improve support for survivors of military sexual assault. Specifically, to prevent assaults, encourage reporting, provide quality services, and reform the military justice system that too often fails survivors of these crimes.  The SUPPORT Act also forces DOD to confront uncomfortable issues head-on, like retaliation and the stigma surrounding male victimization, which erode confidence in the system and discourage women and men from reporting. The bill also extends critical services to civilian DOD employees and needed training to ROTC commanders, making sure the military community is playing by the same rules across the board.

The SUPPORT Act became law as part of the FY16 National Defense Authorization Act.

Read more about the SUPPORT Act here.

2014 - The FAIR Military Act

In April 2014, Congressman Mike Turner and I introduced the FAIR Military Act.  The FAIR Military Act supports military sexual assault survivors, eliminates a bias in the military justice system and increases accountability among all levels of the military.

The legislation includes language that will help make sure that commanders will be assessed on their ability to create a climate where a victim can report a crime without fear of retaliation and requires that commanders be assessed on their ability to properly handle reports of sexual assault.  It also makes sure that changes regarding military sexual assault prevention from prior defense bills will apply to the military service academies and requires that an independent panel will look at how the mental health records of victims are admitted into evidence at trial.

The FAIR Military Act also limits the use of the “good soldier” defense, which allows a defendant to cite unrelated, subjective factors during trial, such as military record during sexual assault trials.

The bill was included in the FY 2015 National Defense Authorization Act and signed into law by the President.  

More info here

2013 - The BE SAFE Act

In May, 2013 I introduced the Better Enforcement for Sexual Assault Free Environments Act of 2013 (BE SAFE) Act, bipartisan legislation in the House, along with Congressman Mike Turner (R-OH).  Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) and Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) partnered with us to introduce this legislation in the Senate.

BE SAFE begins to change the powers of military commanders, who have unfettered discretion and authority to determine which cases get tried and then whether a conviction should stand, even if that conviction was determined by a jury. BE SAFE removes the commander’s ability to change or dismiss an adjudged court-martial conviction for any charge or specification, except in the case of minor offenses.  It also limits the commander’s ability to change a sentencing decision.

A single commander who was not personally involved or witness to the judicial proceedings should not have the ability to reverse a decision reached by a fair and impartial jury.  It seriously degrades confidence in our military justice system and compromises the rights of victims of sexual assault.

In addition, the BE SAFE Act requires that a person found guilty of an offense of rape, sexual assault, forcible sodomy, or an attempt to commit any of those offenses receive a punishment that includes, at a minimum, a dismissal or dishonorable discharge.

Previously, legislation I authored with Rep. Turner put in place the mechanism to allow victims to request an expedited transfer from their unit so they don’t have to continue serving alongside their alleged perpetrator. The BE SAFE Act now calls upon commanders to have the option to transfer the perpetrator, instead of the victim, if the victim prefers to remain with his / her unit.

The bill also builds upon my and Rep. Turner’s efforts to support the victim and instill confidence in the system by eliminating the five-year statute of limitations on trial by Court-Martial for sexual assault and sexual assault of a child, and expanding the legal assistance services available to military sexual assault victims.

BE SAFE received strong support from the House and Senate, as well as the Department of Defense.  It was included in this FY 2014 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the annual bill that authorizes funding and sets guidelines for the Department of Defense, and signed into law by President Obama in December, 2013.

Learn more about the BE SAFE here

2013 - Coast Guard STRONG Act

Along with Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME), Claire McCaskill (D-MO) and Rep. Mike Turner (R-OH), I introduced the U.S. Coast Guard Sexual Trauma Response, Oversight and Good Governance Act (Coast Guard STRONG Act) to combat sexual assault in our nation’s Coast Guard (USCG).

The bicameral, bipartisan legislation would ensure victims of sexual assault in the USCG are granted an expedited consideration and determination of a request for transfer away from the geographic location of their alleged assailant.  

In 2011, Congress passed and the president signed into law important legislation, the Defense STRONG Act that requires the military services to put in place protections for victims of sexual assault, including the right to legal assistance and the right for a victim to request a transfer away from the geographic location of his or her attacker and to have that transfer request considered on an expedited basis. This expedited request for transfer provision, in particular, puts power back in the victim’s hands after it has been brutally taken away. While the USCG has committed to implementing portions of the STRONG Act, it is important that federal law be updated to clarify that the protections provided by the legislation are extended to victims of sexual assault in the USCG. 

This language was included in the FY2014 NDAA and was signed into law by President Obama in December, 2013.

Learn more about Coast Guard STRONG here


2012 - FY2013 National Defense Authorization Act

I was pleased that the FY2013 National Defense Authorization Act, signed into law in December of 2012, was the most comprehensive legislative package to date to reduce incidents of military sexual assault. This bill was shaped in large part by the brave victims who came forward to share their painful stories. Their testimony will make our military stronger, and I am very grateful for their willingness to be leaders in this fight.

For example, the FY2013 NDAA:

  • Created an independent review panel that includes civilian members who will force the Department of Defense to closely examine the way that it investigates, prosecutes, and adjudicates sexual assault and related offense; Click here to read the final report issued by this Independent Review Panel
  • Required the United States Government Accountability Office to assess how sexual assault metrics are being used in the new Department of Defense sexual assault database to identify trends in sexual assault incident reporting, as well as language I supported that will allow Congress and those responsible for overseeing the armed forces to better track prior steps taken by the Department of Defense to prevent sexual assault;
  • Required the creation of special victims units that will bring a level of expertise with psychological trauma to victim interviews and ultimately lead to more successful investigations and prosecutions;
  • Included language that I worked on with Congresswoman Louise Slaughter that will help servicemembers correct their military records if they have experienced sexual harassment or sexual assault. Retaliatory gestures and intimidation techniques have for years had a chilling effect on the willingness of victims of sexual assault in the military to come forward, and this provision takes a small step towards combating these incredibly harmful actions.

2011 - The Defense STRONG Act

In 2011, I co-authored Defense Sexual Trauma Response, Oversight, and Good Governance Act (The Defense STRONG Act) with Rep. Turner, in order to expand the legal rights of servicemembers who have been victims of sexual assault and to improve and strengthen prevention efforts within the Department of Defense.

This bipartisan legislation, signed into law by the President in December 2011 as part of the FY2012 National Defense Authorization Act, includes provisions to allow victims guaranteed access to legal counsel, enable expedited transfers for victims, maintain confidentiality when speaking with Victim Advocates, and provide greater training for sexual assault prevention at every level of the Armed Services. 

Anu Bhagwati, Executive Director of the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN) explains: “the Defense STRONG Act will assist countless servicemembers who experience the horror of sexual assault in uniform by guaranteeing access to legal counsel and standardizing training and professionalizing the billets designed to support survivors.”

2011 - United States Air Force Special Victims Counsel

The United States Air Force Special Victims Counsel (SVC) program provides military sexual assault survivors with a dedicated attorney to walk them through the often cumbersome and confusing investigative and prosecutorial process.

The program was developed according to the “right to legal counsel” requirements that were originally part of the Defense STRONG Act, legislation I co-authored with Congressman Mike Turner (R-Ohio), which also granted victims the right to a base transfer if they felt threatened and the right to confidentiality when seeking assistance from an advocate. Defense STRONG was included in the FY2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which was signed into law in December of 2011.

The Air Force began a Special Victims pilot program in January 2013 and immediately found an urgent need for these services. According to the Air Force, attorneys acting as Special Victims Counsel represented 269 victims of sexual assault within the first few months.

Due to its success, the program has now been expanded to every branch of the armed forces.  Providing victims of sexual assault access to legal counsel is a critical step in the process of creating an environment that encourages victims to report these crimes and bringing those responsible to justice. We must recognize that there is a long way to go across the branches of the military when it comes to preventing and combating sexual assault, but seeing this provision from Defense STRONG implemented and expanded beyond the original pilot program is an encouraging step and I look forward to working with all the branches of our armed forces to continue that progress.


I participated in a documentary film called The Invisible War, a stark and moving look at the alarming incidence of sexual assault in the United States military. This documentary, made by filmmakers Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2013. In 2014, the documentary won a Peabody Award and an Emmy Award.

The Invisible War has been instrumental in focusing a national spotlight on a shocking issue that affects as many as one in five returning female veterans.

I am grateful to the makers of the film who went to extreme lengths to interview not only dozens of survivors, but also those who are working to break the pattern. This is an important film dedicated to ensuring that the stories of the courageous men and women it features, and the countless others who share their reality, receive the attention they deserve so that we can bring an end to the heartbreaking violence and injustice depicted in this film.

I have hosted several viewings of the film at various locations around Massachusetts and in Washington, DC. Following a showing in Lowell, I joined a panel of military sexual assault survivors and advocates for a discussion with the audience on steps being taken in Congress and the armed forces. I will continue to host these viewings and panel discussions to help raise awareness of this important issue.

Learn more about The Invisible War here



Congressman Mike Turner and I established the Military Sexual Assault Prevention Caucus in 2012. We also serve as its co-chairs.

The caucus convenes to hold hearings and briefings from members of the military and activist organizations to help guide legislative initiatives aimed at preventing and combating sexual assault in the military.

The caucus has led several letters to Department of Defense leaders, which resulted in meetings and responses that were the foundation for many changes to the military’s sexual assault policies.




107th Congress

·         Required the Secretary of Defense to submit a report on the status of female members of the Armed Forces including incidences of sexual harassment complaints

·         Required the Department of Defense to maintain a repository of DNA samples for the purpose of identification of human remains for the investigation of sexual offenses

108th Congress

·         Established a Department of Defense task force to examine matters relating to sexual harassment and violence at the U.S. Military Academy and the U.S. Naval Academy

·         Required a report from the task force to the Secretary of Defense recommending ways the Departments of the Army and Navy could better address issues of sexual harassment and violence including   victim’s safety programs, offender accountability, effective prevention of sexual harassment and violence, etc.

·         Policies within each branch of the military to address sexual harassment and violence within the service academies

·         Programs to promote awareness of the incidence of rape, acquaintance rape, and other sexual offenses within the service academies

·         Review required by the Secretary of Defense to evaluate issues relating to sexual assault in the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the Manual for Courts-Martial to improve them and bring them into  conformity with other similar Federal laws and regulations

·         Comprehensive policy for the Department of Defense on the prevention of and response to sexual assault

·         Annual report from the Secretary of each military department on sexual assaults involving members of the Armed Forces under their jurisdiction

109th Congress

·         Section 920 of title 10, USC was amended in order to expand the definition of rape and specifically define aggravated sexual assault, aggravated sexual contact, abusive sexual contact as well as clarify that spouses can be prosecuted for any level of unwanted sexual contact

·         Section 920 of title 10, USC separated and detailed all levels of sexual abuse towards children

·         System implemented to track care provided to victims of rape or sexual assault and to the investigation of an alleged perpetrator

·         Following section 920 of title 10, ‘stalking’ was defined as action that would cause a reasonable person to fear death or bodily harm, including sexual assault

·         Report on sexual assault and the results of disciplinary action was added to annual Department of Defense report

·         TRICARE coverage was expanded to cover forensic examinations following sexual assault

110th Congress

·         Review required by the Secretary of Defense on the availability of gender- and ethnic group-specific services and treatment for members of the Armed Forces who experienced sexual assault

·         Implementation of information database on sexual assault incidents

·         Established sexual harassment and violence policy for the  United States Merchant Marine Academy

111th Congress

·         Improved the prevention and response plan to respond to sexual assault

·         Report required covering the timeliness and capabilities of the Armed Forces to carry out a forensic examination following sexual assault in combat zones

·         Required a comprehensive, defense-wide review and expansion of sexual assault prevention and response problems requiring consistent terminology, position descriptions, minimum program standards, and organizational structures

·         Created the position of Director of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office

·         Required a comprehensive and consistent plan for providing medical care for victims of sexual assault

·         Provided access to victim advocate services for service members

112th Congress

·         Access to legal assistance and services of Sexual Assault Response Coordinators and Sexual Assault Victim Advocates

·         Response within 72 hours to request for unit transfer for members on active duty who are the victims of sexual assault

·         Requirement for at least one full-time Sexual Assault Response Coordinator and one full-time Sexual Assault Victim Advocate to each brigade or equivalent unit

·         Curriculum within each military department to provide sexual assault prevention and response training and education

·         Policy on the retention of and access to evidence and records relating to sexual assaults in order to provide victims with records in order to substantiate claims for veterans benefits and support criminal or civil prosecution

·         Include information on sexual assaults involving service members on the Armed Forces Workplace and Gender Relations Survey

·         Established special victim capabilities within the military departments to respond to allegations of certain special victim offenses

·         Requirement for sexual assault prevention and response training for new and prospective commanders

·         Requirement for the Secretary of Defense to establish a panel to conduct an independent review and assessment of the systems used to investigate, prosecute and adjudicate crimes involving adult sexual assault and related offenses

·         Policy to require a General or flag officer  review of  involuntary separation of any service member within one year of making an unrestricted report of sexual assault

·         Modified the Department of Defense policy on sexual assault prevention and response to include:

·         Service secretaries maintain record of the disposition of allegations of sexual assault for a specific period of time

·         Unit command climate surveys, including information on sexual assault conducted within 120 days of assuming command and annually thereafter

·         Post and widely disseminate information about resources available to report and respond to sexual assaults

·         Conduct an education campaign regarding correction of military records for cases of retaliatory personnel actions following report of sexual assault or sexual harassment

 113th Congress

·         Removed a commander’s ability to change or dismiss a conviction by a jury, except in the case of minor offenses, and limits the commander’s ability to change a sentencing decision.

·         Reformed the Article 32 process (the military’s grand jury trial process) to limit its scope and prevent victims from being traumatized by irrelevant questions

·         Ensured that those who are convicted of sexual assault will absolutely be discharged or dismissed. 

·         Ensured that military victims of sexual assault will have access to a special victims counsel. 

·         Called upon commanders to consider transferring the perpetrator if the victim prefers to remain with his / her unit.

·         Eliminated the five-year statute of limitations on trial by Court-Martial for sexual assault and sexual assault of a child, and expanded the legal assistance services available to military sexual assault victims.

·         Ensured that a victim’s voice will be heard in clemency proceedings after the accused has been convicted.

·         Permitted survivors of sexual assault and other victims to have an attorney or victim advocate present when they’re interviewed by defense counsel.

·         Required that victims of sexual assault in the U.S. Coast Guard are granted the right to request a transfer away from the geographic location of their alleged assailant and have that transfer considered on an expedited basis.



If you have questions or need assistance, please do not hesitate to contact my office. You can call: 202-225-3411.

Or fill out this form and a representative from my office will contact you promptly: click here for contact form

Below please find several organizations and websites that provide information on MST-related matters, as well as assistance for active-duty servicemembers and veterans.



Below please find a small sample of media clips that discuss the MST issue in detail, as well as Congresswoman Tsongas' work to prevent and combat MST. For more clips, please click here.

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