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OutServe Magazine | July 3, 2015

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Service Women’s Action Network

Service Women’s Action Network

Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN) Makes Strides Against Sexual Assault

By Liza Swart

The Service Women’s Action Network held Truth and Justice: The 2012 Summit on Military Sexual Violence, May 8, in Washington, D.C.

SWAN sees itself as a civil rights organization, and continues to research and advocate on LGBT-specific issues, with a focus on issues of sexual violence.  Their vision is to make the military a safe workplace and to see the end of sexual violence in the military, resulting in a more connected and equal environment for LGBT members.

“This was the first mass globalization for sexual assault survivors on Capitol Hill,” said Katy Otto, SWAN spokesperson. “This is significant because there have been a lot of stories in the press, especially about sexual assault in the military, but those stories have not included LGBT survivors. The summit provided opportunities to get those voices out to the media.”

SWAN sees a direct correlation between sexual harassment and sexual violence, LGBT harassment and discrimination.

“I think there’s a lot of interconnectedness there,” said Otto.

Some recent changes to DoD policy do improve the sexual assault initiation and reporting practices.  The Directive-Type Memorandum (DTM) 11-063, issued 27 Dec. 2011, expedited base transfer for those service members who file unrestricted reports of sexual assaults.  Additionally, those unrestricted reports are now retained for 50 years, under DTM 11-062.  Restricted reports will be retained for five years.

The changes have been made largely to combat the culture of silence surrounding the issue, said Otto.

For those unfamiliar with restricted and unrestricted reporting, or for those who may have somehow missed the last few rounds of mandated training, a here’s a summary:

According to DoDI 6495.02 (June 23, 2006) “…[C]onfidential reporting is restricted reporting that allows a Service member… to report or disclose to specified officials that he or she has been the victim of a sexual assault.  This reporting option gives the member access to medical care, counseling, and victim advocacy, without requiring those specific officials to automatically report the matter to law enforcement or initiate an official investigation.  The restricted reporting option is only available to those sexual assault victims who are Service members; however, it may not be an option if the sexual assault occurs outside of the military installation or the victim first reports to a civilian facility and/or a civilian authority.  This will vary by state, territory, and/or overseas local agreements.”

Additionally, unrestricted reporting options are available, which diminishes the confidentiality requirement insofar as law enforcement are notified and the incident moves forward into an official investigation.

In 2011, 753 restricted and 2,439 unrestricted reports were filed, according to the DoD’s Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military. One hundred reports that began restricted were later converted to unrestricted.

The recent changes to policy, though welcomed, are seen as an ongoing process by SWAN, which has key changes they are currently working toward.  For example, in the security clearance form, question 21 asks for a disclosure of counseling.  Combat-related trauma counts as an exemption, and SWAN wants the same courtesy extended for sexual assault survivors.

“We would also like there to be the availability to access civil tort claims for those who feel justice wasn’t served to them in the military,” said Otto.  “We think that will really have the effect of changing the culture.  If there are real consequences people can see, if the military can feel financial consequences, it will be a better deterrent.  It will change the culture.”

SWAN is also pushing for greater access to Veterans Affairs (VA) services, specifically involving claims against the VA and sexual assault, and statistics on how many of those claims move forward into an investigation.

“We want a more responsive VA,” said Otto, “and a VA with more sexual violence counselors. As we are seeing more and more women veterans, we need a VA that provides the services that they need.”

In addition to the summit, SWAN was part of a larger coalition to the April 26 filing of an amicus curiae, or “friend of the court” brief in the United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims.

Cardona v. Shinseki, Vet. App. No. 11-3803, was initiated by veteran Carmen J. Cardona.  After Cardona legally married her wife in Connecticut, an application for spousal increase in her veterans’ disability benefits was denied.

“The Cardona case challenges the VA’s denial of benefits to a veteran on the basis of her sexual orientation,” said Rachel Natelson, SWAN legal advisor.  “The amicus brief focuses on the legislative history of the relevant statutes at issue. It seeks to highlight that the statutes were enacted to promote equality and inclusiveness in benefits distribution, and were never intended to deny benefits to gay and lesbian veterans.”

SWAN sees community connection as key to building momentum on the issues of LGBT benefits and sexual assault, as well as other core focus areas, such as reproductive rights and the combat exclusion policy.  For those interested in the vital work this organization champions every day, and in becoming a part of the connection in the SWAN community, is a hub of news, information, and resources.