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U.S. senators urge Congress to pass bipartisan military reform bill tackling sex assault, serious crimes

The bill would take control away from commanders in the military when it comes to the decision of whether or not to prosecute cases of sexual assault cases.

WASHINGTON, D.C., USA — Following an independent investigation that unveiled failings at Fort Hood when it came to sexual assault and sexual harassment, a group of U.S. senators is showing their bipartisan support and calling on all members of Congress to pass a military justice reform bill.

On Thursday, Republican senators Ted Cruz, Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst joined Democrats Kirsten Gillibrand, Richard Blumenthal and Mark Kelly, and introduced legislation that would take control away from military commanders when it comes to deciding whether or not to prosecute sexual assault cases and other serious crimes.

"This legislation is not partisan and it is not political," said Gillibrand who first introduced the "Military Justice Improvement Act" in 2013. She, along with the other lawmakers, said that the decision to prosecute would go to independent military prosecutors instead.

Gillibrand championed this bill for nearly a decade. However, she believes lawmakers like Ernst will finally support it following the recent findings of Fort Hood's culture after Spc. Vanessa Guillen's death.

"We have discussed it every year and with the Fort Hood incident that we saw earlier and the report that came out of that it just showed such a horrible command climate, completely up and down the chain of command," Ernst said during a news conference Thursday.  

Guillen was killed April 22, 2020 in an armory room on post by Spc. Aaron Robinson, according to a criminal complaint. Her remains were not found until June 30 in an area near the Leon River in Bell County.

Her family says prior to her death, Guillen complained about sexual harassment she experienced, but didn't report it to command in fear of retaliation.

Her death gained national attention and led to the creation of the "I Am Vanessa Guillen Act," which would allow victims of sexual harassment and assault to report it outside the chain of command.

The bill stalled last year and will be re-introduced by Rep. Jackie Speier. It was delayed until May when a commission appointed by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin was expected to release its report on sexual assault in the military.

"If there is someone thinking about perpetrating an intimate crime like sexual assault or domestic violence... and they know that there's a bad command climate, perhaps their commander is not going to deal with the situation, they're likely to become that perpetrator," Ernst said about the "Military Justice Improvement Act." "And so what we are doing is trying to change that command and environment by taking that decision out of the commander's hands."

"Because there is no progress, true progress, and so many indicators going in the wrong direction, and this most recent Fort Hood report, it's just intolerable," Gillibrand said. "It is our job to provide oversight in accountability over the armed services. So while they might like to let commanders decide because they trust them on so many things, which is understandable and true, this is now our job because it is necessary to create a better and more professional system where justice is possible."

During the news conference, Cruz said he is hopeful the passing of the legislation will help encourage survivors to report sexual assault, too.

“I believe passing this bill will increase the reporting rates, it will increase the deterrence, and that will decrease, and I hope substantially decrease, the rate of sexual assault in the military,” he said.

Watch Thursday's full news conference below:

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