WASHINGTON — What propelled the two lawmakers to join forces were the haunting stories of female soldiers, who lived in fear not of the enemy but of their fellow troops and felt they had nowhere to turn.
In 2007, Representative Mike Turner, a Republican from Ohio, then in his third term, and freshman Representative Niki Tsongas, a Massachusetts Democrat, barely knew each other.
But shocked to learn of an unchecked culture of sexual violence in the ranks of the US military — amounting to tens of thousands of cases reported each year — they committed to a common goal: ridding an epidemic of predation that they came to see as deeply ingrained and virtually ignored by Pentagon leaders.
Much of the public credit for the historic changes to how the Pentagon deals with sexual assault has recently gone to more high-profile senators who have advocated for many of the new regulations. But nearly all of the new laws enacted in recent years — including a sweeping set of laws signed by President Obama Thursday — are the result of the quiet diligence of Turner and Tsongas, representing a rare example of bipartisanship in Congress.
Methodically, year by year, the two members of the House Armed Services Committee have investigated abusive behavior and the military’s overall indifference to the problem. Together they won enactment of dozens of fixes, including new procedures for how the Pentagon investigates assault charges; how the military justice system adjudicates cases; new systems of reporting; prevention training; and procedures to shield victims from retaliation from their superiors after coming forward.
In some instances, the Pentagon has adopted its own reforms in response to steady pressure the lawmakers have generated.
“She had a list, I had a list and we really began working on what became an annual bill,” Turner recalled of his work with Tsongas, in an interview. “The great thing about this partnership is both of us are very nonpartisan. We are almost academic in our approach.”
For Tsongas the cooperation blossomed into what she describes as a nearly seamless working relationship that drew support from other members of the House Armed Services Committee.
“Since then we and our staffs have been working very much closely together,” Tsongas said in an interview.
Turner and Tsongas took on an institution with a deep-seated male culture where objectifying women has long been part of its macho creed, such as stenciling scantily clad women onto fighter jets or displaying pin-up posters in the barracks. They were driven by the knowledge that the gender makeup of the military has changed dramatically but the treatment of women has not. Women, who will soon be allowed to serve in combat units for the first time, make up about 15 percent of the ranks, a share that is expected to grow to as much as 25 percent over the next decade.
Among the most important changes the lawmakers are credited for: All assault cases have been taken out of the hands of junior commanders and are the responsibility of higher-ranking officers.
For Turner, both the scope of the problem and institutional indifference to it were crystallized in 2007 when the mother of female Marine who grew up in his district came to him for help. Her daughter said she had been raped by a fellow Marine but had few places to turn for legal assistance or to seek a transfer. Subsequently, 20-year-old Lance Corporal Maria Lauterbach was beaten to death by her assailant.
The seemingly preventable tragedy led Turner to open what he calls “a Pandora’s box.” He soon came to believe that if military authorities had fully investigated Lauterbach’s sexual assault charge and transferred her to another assignment — as her mother insisted she requested — her death could have been prevented.
Lauterbach’s attacker, who initially fled to his native Mexico, was ultimately extradited, tried, and sentenced to life in prison.
Around the same time as the Lauterbach case made headlines, the newly elected Tsongas attended a luncheon with some female soldiers. One confided that “I am more afraid of my own soldiers than I am of the enemy.” She also related that she lived in such fear of being sexually assaulted that she carried around a knife in her waistband.
It was the beginning of what Tsongas describes as her own “discovery process” of an issue affecting both women and men in uniform.
“I was taken aback by it,” she recalled.
Once they started working together the pair of lawmakers learned was that senior leaders in the Pentagon did not seem to much care.
“The higher ups were just not giving any attention to this issue at all,” Tsongas said, recalling a hearing where then-Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates exhibited little understanding of what the military was doing to address it.
What also soon became clear was that there would be no quick fixes.
For example, when Turner and Tsongas pushed through legislation in 2009 requiring the military to hire victims’ advocates to help sexual assault victims, they assumed victims would be able to confide in them without fear.
The victims “would find out later that any conversation they had could be used against them,” Tsongas recalled.
In 2011, the Defense Strong Act they coauthored guaranteed access to legal counsel for sexual assault victims; required confidentiality for victims when speaking with victim advocates; expanded prevention training at all levels of the arms forces; and established an expedited transfer process for victims of assault — directly addressing the failings of the system in the Lauterbach case. Those changes, too, became law.
The same year, they established the Military Sexual Assault Prevention Caucus, which now boasts 60 members from both parties and provides a formal forum for members to learn about the issue and discuss possible legislative actions.
Last year their work led to the creation of an independent Pentagon review panel. But the biggest victory to date, according to advocates, came last week when legislation that Turner and Tsongas coauthored in the House was passed by both houses of Congress. It was signed by President Obama Thursday.
Among a host of new measures contained in the annual Department of Defense spending bill is a law that prohibits top commanders from overturning verdicts in sexual assault cases.
The lawmakers had only learned last year that verdicts were being reversed.
“We were all outraged,” said Turner. “It was essential that we fix this.” He said victims were being assaulted twice, “once by the system, once by the sexual assault.”
“It is the first time in decades that a commander’s authority in these cases has been changed,” he added.
The new legislation also requires those who are convicted of sexual crimes to be dishonorably discharged from service. Victims, as Turner put it, “no longer have to salute their attackers.”
Both lawmakers agree that the Pentagon’s approach is decidedly different than when they started out; Turner thinks the battle has reached a turning point.
“We can’t legislate culture but we are seeing the administration and Department of Defense, as a result of this chipping away, show leadership in changing the culture,” he said.
But the pair is not ready to claim success. Despite some of the reforms of recent years, the military in 2012 it recorded 26,000 cases of sexual assault. It also found that 62 percent of victims who reported being sexually assaulted said they also experienced some type of professional retaliation for doing so.
“This is a multifaceted problem,” Tsongas said.