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Protecting our Servicemembers


Congresswoman Tsongas visits Hanscom AFB with Rep. Adam Smith



I have made protecting our troops, both when they are serving in harm’s way and when returning home, one of my highest priorities. The men and women of our armed forces make up the most effective and professional military in the world and their selfless dedication to defending our nation is something we can never take for granted.

I grew up in a military family and know the challenges and hardships that come with military service. As a senior member on the House Armed Services Committee (HASC), and representing a District with a proud tradition of military service, I have worked to introduce legislation to ensure that our servicemembers have the resources they need, the protection they deserve, and the best care and services we can provide.

That is why I have made six trips to Afghanistan and two to Iraq, and each time I have been moved by the professionalism, dedication and skill of our armed forces.  To read my op-ed about my most recent visit to Afghanistan, please click here.

It has become apparent that in our modern world, clearly drawn front lines have become a thing of the past, due to complex locations with ubiquitous enemy threats. In places like Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq, the “frontline” is barely visible at all. Modern, constant and pervasive danger requires that we look at how we can update and improve upon the resources that keep our men and women safe in the field. Similarly, we are tasked as leaders and lawmakers to ensure all servicemen and women are treated equally, fairly and with respect within the ranks of the armed forces in order to best utilize the talents they provide.

One of the issues I’ve been compelled to focus on has been the epidemic of sexual assault in the military. Additionally, I have pressed the Department of Defense to increase its efforts to prevent suicides of military servicemembers and their families.

I have also made it a priority to urge the Department of Defense to develop more modern, lightweight and gender-specific body armor to protect our troops in the field.  But these are just a few of the issues I am tackling on behalf of our servicemen and women  As our servicemembers continue to fight for our freedoms and to defend this great nation, I will continue to fight for laws that better protect and support them, their families, and our veterans.

In 2010 Rep. Tsongas was awarded the Charles Dick Medal of Merit in 2010 for her work on behalf of the National Guard and Reserve members. When he presented the award, the Massachusetts Adjutant General said: “The MG Charles Dick Medal of Merit honors those who provide the legislative leadership that enables National Guard soldiers and airmen to meet their mission.  Congresswoman Niki Tsongas' legislative agenda honors National Guard service by providing for health care at home; personal safety while at war; and dignity in retirement. I am honored to join the National Guard Association of the United States and the National Guard Association of Massachusetts in honoring her tireless and substantive support for America's citizen Soldiers."



Several years ago during a House Armed Services Committee hearing, I asked a young sergeant if he was ever tempted to take off his protective gear due to its weight. He hesitated and glanced sheepishly at the general sitting nearby before giving a confident reply: “Yes, ma’am.”

He explained the armor was cumbersome, heavy and that sometimes it was just easier to maneuver without it.

On one of my visits to Afghanistan, I encountered a colonel with similar concerns. He heaved off his armor and, rubbing his sore knees, spoke of the burden the gear’s weight put on his joints.

Soldiers deployed in Afghanistan are outfitted with body armor that weighs as much as forty pounds. When combined with the gear that troops must carry in the field, the total weight our soldiers carry can exceed 120 pounds. It can lead to long term musculoskeletal injuries and an elevated risk that armor may be removed in the field. In fact, military leaders, including Army Vice Chief of Staff General Peter Chiarelli, have reported that the number of soldiers with musculoskeletal injuries from routinely carrying the heavy equipment is increasing.

My visits to Iraq and Afghanistan have offered me the invaluable experience of hearing directly from those who are on the front lines, risking so much every day. Servicemembers, like those mentioned above, have repeatedly expressed the need to reduce the weight of the equipment they carry, especially their body armor.

Major Chris Gramstorff, of the Massachusetts Army National Guard, explained, “every ounce you can take off soldiers’ equipment without sacrificing protection is a godsend, especially when operating in challenging geographic locations such as Afghanistan.”

Lightened body armor, which the military has made progress on, would mean increased safety and reduced risk for soldiers. That is why I have championed legislation to reduce the weight of body armor while maintaining adequate levels of protection for our military. My initiatives aim to better meet the needs of our deployed troops, and to provide them with the protective equipment they require while keeping them injury free. Over the past five years, I have successfully included multiple provisions in the annual National Defense Authorization Acts (NDAAs) that directly impact the research and development of new, lighter weight body armor for our troops.

I authored a law in 2009 to ensure that there was a more dedicated stream of funding for body armor research. My provision, which was signed into law with the 2010 NDAA, increased accountability of how funds are used to develop and buy lighter body armor, making the system more transparent and adaptable to the needs of the soldier.

The following year, I introduced the Light Weight Armor Research Requirements for Individual Operational Readiness Act (LT WARRIOR Act). This legislation, passed by the House in the 2011 National Defense Authorization Act, directed a federally funded research and development center study to accelerate technology development for light weight body armor solutions in order to get new equipment to the field as quickly as possible.

Future R&D will be guided by the findings of this Rand Arroyo Center study on lightening body armor.  Today, much of the research and development funded by the NDAA is happening right here in Massachusetts at Natick Soldier Systems Center.  As a result of the cutting research at Natick Soldier Systems Center, the Chief of Staff of the Army said, “The work [at Natick] is important today and will be important tomorrow.”

In the FY2013 NDAA bill, my efforts helped lead to the tripling of the financial commitment to body armor research and development, fully supported by President Obama. This substantial increase reflects the concern of myself and many other members of Congress that we need to be doing more to develop the best possible body armor systems—even as we begin to draw down from Afghanistan—and represents a significant victory in this effort.  These efforts have already resulted in a decrease in the weight of the ceramic plates inserted into the tactical vest.

There is still much work to be done and I believe there are a number of ways the weight can be reduced on our soldiers’ body armor.  We must look into developing armor using new, innovative materials, such as carbon nanotubes, liquid metal, or encasing the ceramic plates in industrial diamonds or other materials to prevent shattering.

I believe all options should be considered, and that sustained Congressional pressure will encourage the DoD to continue to invest the resources which are needed to achieve innovative breakthroughs. Even as we continue to draw down from Afghanistan, it is essential for Congress to continue to support these efforts. Never again can we allow a situation to occur where family members must ship body armor to their loved ones overseas because they cannot get the armor they need from their commanders, which happened on a wide scale during the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

To that end, I successfully included language in the House-passed FY 2014 NDAA which requires the Secretary of Defense to submit a comprehensive, long-term strategy for body armor research and development to Congress, including an assessment of lightweight materials which are currently being evaluated.

Additionally, the House FY 14 NDAA contained language which I supported that requires the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to perform a study on acquisition practices pertaining to lightweight body armor, which will prioritize reducing the weight of body armor in the contracting process. At present, the normal procedure for the Defense Logistics Agency in sustainment contracts is to make awards to whichever vendor submits the lowest bid without taking into consideration the weight of the armor. I have heard many concerns that this is impeding our servicemembers from being supplied with the best and lightest armor, and so I believe that this review by GAO is a critical step as Congress continues to work with the Defense Department to develop and field new lightweight systems.


In addition to the expanded financial commitment for body armor development in the FY2013 NDAA bill, language I authored with the support of Republican Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD) recognizes the role that women are increasingly playing on the front lines of our battlefields by directing the Department of Defense to develop body armor specifically for female soldiers.

Sixteen percent of the Army is now female, a figure that is expected to rise to 25% by 2025, and women will see their combat roles expanded further in the years ahead pursuant to the Defense Department’s welcome inclusion of women in combat roles. Our female soldiers should be provided the same level of protection as their male counterparts and the 2013 NDAA language for the first time directs the development of gender-specific body armor to ensure that this life saving technology properly fits and protects all of our servicemembers. 

New and improved tactical vests for women are already more readily available to our female soldiers. The system, known as the Generation 3 Improved Outer Tactical Vest (IOTV) was developed in Massachusetts at Natick Soldier Systems Center (in collaboration with PEO Solider) and was named one of 2012’s best inventions by TIME Magazine.


Read my Op-Ed in TIME Magazine about the need for female body armor.



Media clips about improving body armor

POLITICO: Women worry about body armor in new combat roles

MWDN: Niki Tsongas quizzes miltiary about body armor for women

CQ: Heavy price for heavy armor




According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, as many as 1 in 4 female veterans report that they have experienced some form of Military Sexual Trauma. By the Pentagon’s own estimate, as few as 13.5% of sexual assaults are reported.

Working across the aisle with Republican Congressman Mike Turner of Ohio, I established the Military Sexual Assault Prevention Caucus in 2012 so that Congress has a dedicated and bipartisan group of members committed to overseeing the military’s efforts to deal with the unacceptable number of military sexual assaults. Our Caucus has become a go-to voice in Congress for issues of military sexual assault. 

I have coauthored several pieces of legislation that address this important national security issue, including Defense STRONG, Coast Guard STRONG, the BE SAFE Act, the FAIR Military Act, and numerous provisions included in the annual defense bills.

However, instituting improved policies is just one step. In order to fully combat and prevent these crimes, we must work to improve the culture of the armed services.

A webpage on this site is dedicated to my work on the issue of military sexual assault. Click here to read more about this important national security matter and the measures being taken to combat it.


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



As a member of the Armed Services committee, I am very involved in oversight of the Military Health System. As more and more reserve servicemembers are called to serve on active duty, we must ensure they have timely access to quality health care. Timely access depends on the military’s ability to recruit and retain health care professionals, both on active duty and in the reserves.

Bipartisan legislation which I introduced to help aid the recruitment and retention of skilled health care professionals in the National Guard and Reserves became law as part of the FY 09 Defense Authorization Bill. The law raised the loan repayment ceiling for benefits available to those doctors, dentists, and other health care professionals currently in the Guard and Reserves, and to those considering such a career, so that they are competitive with similar repayment programs in both the private sector and active duty military.  This legislation had a direct impact on the Third District, and a medical unit stationed in Methuen. Ensuring our reserve forces have an adequate number of doctors, nurses and mental health professionals to support increased deployments is critical to military readiness.

The FY 2010 Defense Authorization Act that was enacted into law included a provision I authored to increase earlier access to military health coverage (TRICARE) for National Guard and reservists who are called up to active duty from the current 90 days to 180 days.  This change provides additional time for servicemembers to seek needed medical care, schedule minor surgeries, or resolve other conditions that could easily be addressed given enough lead time.

I also successfully included a provision in the FY 2013 National Defense Authorization Act encouraging all the services to perform mental health assessments of their drone operators. While drones have changed the nature of war and protect operators by keeping them off of the front lines, concerns have been raised about the mental health impact of sustained missions on operators.


I introduced legislation to ensure that no gaps in health care service and coverage exist for our women serving in the Armed Forces. The Women’s Excellence of Care and Accessibility Review and Evaluation Act (WE CARE Act) directs a comprehensive review of women-specific health services and treatments for female servicemembers.

The rapidly growing number of women serving in the military and reports that women servicemembers do not have the same access to health care services as their civilian counterparts have highlighted the need for a more comprehensive assessment of women’s health care within the Department of Defense. The comprehensive review evaluated the availability, efficacy and accessibility of women specific medical care, including gynecological services, breast and cervical cancer services, and preventative and mental health services.  Amy Allina of the National Women’s Health Network said: “When Congress passed historic legislation to improve health access and quality, it’s time that we also take action to identify and remedy the health care gaps that undermine the health and well-being of women in the armed forces – whether that’s basic reproductive health services, a cancer screening test, or treatment for sexual assault. The comprehensive review of health services and treatment for women in the armed forces proposed by Congresswoman Tsongas is a first, and important, step toward that goal.”

The WE CARE Act passed into law in December 2011.  The review found that the Department of Defense has taken steps to better the quality of health care provided to military servicewomen, but that it must better address the health care needs of sexual assault survivors during deployment.  I am committed to making sure that the Department of Defense makes these necessary improvements.


War is a life-changing event, and I am reminded of this whenever I visit with patients at Walter Reed and with other wounded warriors in Massachusetts. During a trip to the VA Hospital in Bedford, Massachusetts, I visited with veterans in their 60s and 70s who still bore the wounds of war, and I couldn’t help but wonder how many of our young men and women now serving so skillfully and selflessly might someday be facing these same life-altering challenges. 

For a comprehensive look at my efforts to support our veterans and their families, please click here


Military members and their families sacrifice so much in service to this country, and we have a responsibility to do everything we can to protect and serve them.

When it comes to addressing suicide and issues of mental health, information is critical. The most effective services can only be provided if we have the most complete data possible. With that goal in mind, I introduced the Department of Defense Suicide Tracking Act in March of 2014, which will provide much-needed tools to better track and assess suicides by servicemembers and their family members.

Specifically, the DOD Suicide Tracking Act addresses two major areas on which suicide data is not currently collected in a standard way– military families and members of the National Guard and Reserves. The bill requires the DOD to establish a standardized suicide tracking policy for the Guard and Reserves. It also requires the DOD to establish a process to track, retain and assess suicide data for military family members. This is a much-needed and overdue tool for the National Guard and Reserves, and an important step to track trends among family members across the armed forces. It is an opportunity to better understand the extent of suicides and suicide attempts so that prevention programs can be improved, and so that assistance can be provided.

Senator Murkowski from Alaska introduced a very similar bill in the Senate, and we are working together to ensure that the provisions in the these bills are included in the final defense bill for fiscal year 2015.



I have served on the United States Air Force Academy Board of Visitors since first being appointed by the Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee in 2008. The Board of Visitors consists of 15 members appointed by the President and Congress and is responsible for providing oversight of the morale, discipline, curriculum, instruction, physical equipment, fiscal affairs, academic methods and other matters relating to the Academy.

Click here to visit the Air Force Board of Visitors Website

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