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The services would be required to permanently retain records of sexual assault or harassment under a new House and Senate bill that could help victims receive help in the future and increase the chances of catching serial rapists in the ranks.
The Support for Survivors Act, S 658 and HR 1259, is aimed at ending the military practice of routinely destroying certain documents and evidence. For example, rape kits and medical reports related to rape investigations and sexual harassment complaints filed with military equal opportunity offices are kept for only one year under current rules.
Destruction of the records can complicate later efforts by sexual assault victim to get veterans benefits or counseling for sexual trauma, and it eliminates evidence that could be used to prosecute someone who commits another sexual assault, according to the bill's sponsors.
"Instead of destroying these records, we should be making sure that consistent records are kept across all military branches," said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., chief sponsor of the Senate bill that was introduced March 28. "By simply helping preserve their personal records, we can make sure our veterans have the care they need while supporting justice for assault victims."
Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine; Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska; and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., are co-sponsors of the Senate bill. Collins and McCaskill are members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, where the bill was referred for consideration.
Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, is chief sponsor of the House bill, introduced March 30.
Collins said the legislation would "provide an additional measure of protection" for assault victims by providing lifelong access to "the necessary evidence of sexual trauma when later seeking treatment or compensation with VA."
The bill would require the Defense Department to permanently store all documents related to a rape, sexual assault or sexual harassment allegation, with restrictions preventing the information from being released to anyone without a victim's approval. Victims would have lifetime access to the records.
A bill that would take a slightly different approach was introduced in the House on March 3 by Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine.
Her bill, HR 930, would create a process to make it easier for victims to receive veterans benefits or treatment when no records exist to support their claim. The Veterans Affairs Department would be required to accept a veteran's statement of a rape, assault or harassment while in the service as long as there was nothing to prove otherwise.
This approach is more sweeping because it also would aid victims who never reported the incident when it happened.
Pingree's proposal was referred to the House Veterans' Affairs Committee for review.