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Jennifer Norris: Senate bill will still keep military sexual abuse cases within the military’s chain of command

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JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.

On March 10, a bipartisan plan to overhaul the way sexual assault cases are handled in the military was approved in the Senate in a rare unanimous vote. Montana senator Claire McCaskill’s bill calls for the eradication of the good soldier defense that basically would make any factor like an accused predator’s service record irrelevant. In cases where the crime occurred off a military base, the victim would get a say in whether the case would be handled in a civilian or military court.

With one in three women facing sexual assault in the military–yes, you heard me correctly: one in three women–many advocates are challenging these measures, whether they go far enough.

Now joining us to discuss this bill is Jennifer Norris. She was medically retired from the Air Force for PTSD due to military sexual assault after 14 years of service as a technician for the U.S. Air Force. She is now an independent advocate for active duty military and veterans and founder of the website Military Justice for All.

Thank you for joining us again, Jennifer.


DESVARIEUX: So, Jennifer, do you believe that the McCaskill bill goes far enough? And will this take away that fear of retaliation for victims?

NORRIS: No. Unfortunately, Claire McCaskill’s bill, compared to what Gillibrand presented, which was being able to report to a prosecutor instead of a commander, if you had taken both those bills and put them together, it would have been better than one of those bills alone.

We needed someone–every single person in the military, whether they’re an airman basic, a gunnery sergeant, or a general, needs to be held accountable. So Claire’s bill will take us to the position where we’re going to start looking at holding everybody accountable, and the things that she has proposed are good things, but they’re only some of the pieces in the overall larger picture.

And so we need to take pieces of what Gillibrand was trying to propose, what McCaskill’s trying to propose, what Representative Speier is trying to propose, pull it all together, and make it all inclusive to take care of all the soldiers, not just those that have been sexually assaulted.

DESVARIEUX: Alright. I want to present to you the counterargument, because there are those saying that this is moving us in the right direction. It would extend protections to students in service academies, and it would require that in every decision on every promotion in the military, that commander’s record on the handling of sexual assault cases would have to be taken into consideration. And let’s–I mentioned this in the introduction. If it happens off of base, you know, the survivor has a choice whether or not the person would be prosecuted in a military court or in a civilian court. So what’s your response to that?

NORRIS: Well, I think those are really good ideas in theory. But what we’re seeing in practice is that although they might say that the victim would have a chance to present–or to report to either civilian or military authorities, what we see is that military authorities will come in afterward and try and take jurisdiction of those cases somehow, only for it to end up in the military and not really go anywhere, aside from the service member getting kicked out.

And that’s what we’re trying to provide checks and balances for is when these people make these decisions. Why are they making them? And how does it benefit the service member and the service in general?

So, I mean, we just keep finding loophole after loophole of the checks and balances they appear to be setting up. And what we want is for an outside entity that they have to be, you know, basically accountable to if they make decisions that harm the soldier further.

DESVARIEUX: [snip] earlier you mentioned Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s bill, senator from New York. Her bill really came on the House floor last Friday, and it was defeated. But in Kirsten Gillibrand’s bill, it takes that sort of chain-of-command authority that is set in the military right now to deal with cases, and it puts it in the hands of civilian courts. Can you speak to specifically what are the differences between her bill, as well as Senator McCaskill’s bill? And are you an advocate for that? Should we be looking at prosecuting people in civilian courts?

NORRIS: Yes, I do believe that we should be prosecuting people in civilian courts, because it’s all connected with our society. All these military members are embedded within our own communities, and it’s a societal problem, not just a military problem. Neither of these bills goes far enough to address all the issues that we’ve learned about over the past especially three years since people have been coming forward.

Gillibrand’s bill was looking at giving the survivor or the victim of the crime a safe place to report other than their commander or their chain of command, because out of the 26,300 cases of military sexual assault, not including sexual harassment, only 3,300 of those actually reported. And the reason that the rest of them didn’t report was because of fear of retaliation. So Kirsten Gillibrand was trying to address the reporting issue so we could at least get it that far.

But, unfortunately, reporting to a military prosecutor, to a service member that’s already been betrayed by a commander or someone else within the ranks, is no safer to them than reporting to a commander is. That prosecutor who’s in the military has had the history of actually assisting commanders with burying cases or deciding not to go forward with a case because they didn’t have enough evidence or it wasn’t enough of a priority.

We need a justice system that makes all these crimes a top priority and let the military stick to the war-fighting capabilities.

Now, McCaskill’s bill, on the other hand, is starting to address some of the checks and balances that need to be put in place. But we believe the service members, until these generals and officers and brass are held accountable to the same standards [incompr.] that we’re not going to get anywhere.

We need people to start thinking about those that were raped, those that were killed, those that were hazed and ended up committing suicide. We need to put the victims first, because it’s impacting our entire military corps.

DESVARIEUX: Jennifer, you were in service for 14 years, and I’m sure you’re still in contact with veterans and some of your former colleagues. What are people within the military saying about McCaskill’s bill and what really needs to happen to solve this problem?

NORRIS: It doesn’t go far enough. They feel the same way that I do, that basically the military is not accountable to anyone. When things go wrong and they come to me, we have to either contact a congressperson, who rarely gets back to us, or I have to go to the base and actually meet with a commander to let him know that if they don’t stop retaliating against the person, they’re going to commit suicide. We don’t know how to keep these and hold these people accountable. I pray that Claire McCaskill’s bill does give us some levels of protection so we can start holding these people accountable, because in the meantime, while they’re doing whatever they want because they have no accountability, soldiers are feeling betrayed and wanting to die.

DESVARIEUX: Alright. Jennifer Norris, really powerful, powerful topic, and we’ll certainly keep tracking it here on The Real News. Thank you so much for joining us.

NORRIS: Thanks for having me.

DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Jennifer Norris is a former satellite communications technician for the US Air Force. She medically retired from the USAF in 2010 for PTSD due to Military Sexual Assault after 14 years of service. After losing her military career in 2011, Jennifer started working for the Military Rape Crisis Center (MRCC) as a Victim Advocate for Active Duty and Veterans. She is now an independent advocate for active duty military and veterans, and founder of Military Justice for All., @ptsdadvocate,, @mil_justice