When Merrimack Valley voters sent Niki Tsongas to Congress six years ago, she did not go there thinking she would become an irritant to the Pentagon.
That changed the next year at a luncheon for female combat veterans, when one of them, a nurse who had been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, approached her with a stunning declaration.
“Ma’am, I’m more afraid of my own soldiers than I am of the enemy,” Tsongas recounted in an interview last week.
What Tsongas had suspected was a serious problem suddenly crystallized as a major issue.
Since then, she has emerged as one of a handful of legislators who have successfully pushed the military to end years of denial about sexual assault in the military. To be sure, progress has come in fits and starts. But for perhaps the first time, empty excuses and promises to do better are not enough.
As someone who grew up as an Air Force brat, Tsongas comes by her interest in the military honestly. She has served on the Armed Services Committee since she was elected to replace Marty Meehan in 2007.
“That this crime takes place is such a betrayal of those who serve our country and astonishing to them,” Tsongas said. “I think it’s something the military can ill-
afford to ignore.”
Unfortunately, ignoring the issue has been a time-honored tradition. In 2008, a blue-ribbon panel made 35 recommendations for curbing sexual crimes after a series of high-profile incidents. The brass implemented exactly none of the suggestions. The military has long taken the position that they don’t need outside advice, even as the epidemic has only gotten worse.
Some of the measures Tsongas has successfully championed would be seen outside the military as simple common sense. One of them was to allow alleged victims of sexual assault to transfer out of their units within 72 hours of reporting attacks, removing them from the threat — and often the reality — of harassment and retaliation from their attackers.
Another made confidential the communication between victims and their victim advocates. Until a couple of years ago, victim advocates were often called as prosecution witnesses against those they had counseled in supposed confidence. You can imagine the chilling effect that had on the willingness to come forward and report abuse.
As Tsongas takes on the issue, she has found a partner in Representative Mike Turner, a moderate Ohio Republican. But much of the push against the inaction of military leadership has come from women in Congress.
“There is no denying that historically women have been taking the lead on this issue,” Tsongas said. She notes that, in raw numbers, there are actually far more male victims of sexual assault in the military than women, another issue the generals prefer not to discuss. “This is a power issue,” she said. “And it affects men as well as women.”
The looming issue is whether to remove prosecutions of sexual assault from the military chain-of-command. The military adamantly opposes reducing the authority officers have to address offenses within their units. But they are defending a status quo that has clearly failed to keep women, or men, safe.
For now, Tsongas and Turner have cosponsored a bill that would take away the right of commanders to overturn most jury convictions and limit their right to reduce sentences. It would also guarantee that those who are convicted of sexual assault are kicked out of the military, which they often are not now. The bill passed the House June 14, and awaits action in the Senate.
Recently, the Pentagon announced that all combat units will be opened to women for the first time. Tsongas said that the change underscores the urgency of creating a military where women can serve free of the constant fear of abuse. If the Pentagon won’t act, Congress very well may.
“They’ve got a window of opportunity, and they have to deal with it,” she said.Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com.