Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) said Sunday that she would sign legislation protecting sexual assault victims in the military because there must be a “true path for justice” in a culture that stigmatizes reporting assault.
“As a fellow service member, we have lived through experiences ourselves and things our fellow brothers and sisters have gone through,” Gabbard, an Army veteran of the Iraq War, said during a CNN presidential town hall at the South by Southwest Conference on Sunday. “Unfortunately, there is a lack of recognition of the serious change that needs to take place for there to be a true path for justice for victims of sexual assault in the military.”
The 2020 Democratic candidate’s response came after she was asked by a retired US Marine officer whether she supports the Military Justice Improvement Act, which seeks to move the decision-making authority on whether to prosecute sexual assault to independent military prosecutors.
“This legislation is so important,” Gabbard said. “Because it provides that path outside of the chain of command where you know that there is no one, whether it’s your team leader, or platoon leader, or your first sergeant or your commander, there is no one who will be able to stop your pursuit of justice and accountability if you’re a victim of assault in the military.”
Gabbard said many of her friends in the military expressed how difficult it was to open up about their experiences, adding that one friend of hers refuses to report her alleged assault even now.
“I believe that we still today don’t know how rampant sexual assault in the military is, because there is still a fear of retaliation,” she said. “There is a stigma. And people who don’t want to be known as ‘that one.’ She or he is ‘that one’ who went against the team, who turned their back…And we know people ourselves who have gone through this and felt like they had no place to turn.”
The comments come just days after after Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) said during a Senate hearing on military sexual assault that a higher-ranked officer raped her while she was in the Air Force. She said she didn’t report the assault at the time because of stigma associated with it, but that when she did finally report it, she was “mortified” about how she was interrogated.
Gabbard closed her answer by saying that the country also needs to address stigma in reporting sexual assault on campuses and in the workplace.
The Sunday town hall was one of three hosted by CNN at SXSW with Democratic presidential hopefuls: Former Rep. John Delaney and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
The Austin, Texas-based festival drew in many of the 2020 Democratic candidates including Sen. Elizabeth Warren, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar. Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who still has not announced whether he will run for president in 2020, also attended the festival for the premiere of a new documentary about his senate campaign.