- Associated Press - Saturday, March 15, 2014

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - Iowa lawmakers are not waiting for Congress to toughen laws against sexual assaults in the military. Instead, they’ve begun their own effort to hold the state National Guard accountable for such abuses.

The U.S. Senate unanimously approved legislation this week to better protect victims in allegations of sexual assault within the ranks and to make sure a defendant’s fate is determined solely by evidence. The House could take up the bill in the coming weeks.

The issue has also drawn widespread attention because of a high-profile trial at Fort Bragg, N.C., where the jury in the trial of an Army general accused of sexual assault was dismissed this week to allow his defense time to work out a new plea deal with the military.

Iowa state Sen. Steve Sodders, D-State Center, said it’s not just a problem in national forces, and decided to write a bill that would ensure victims are aware of their right to report assaults and require the guard to comply with certain reporting standards.

“We have those same issues here with our own National Guard,” he said.

In the past 2½ years, there have been 26 reported cases of alleged sexual assaults involving state military personnel, Iowa National Guard spokesman Col. Greg Hapgood said in a statement. Of those, 17 occurred while on duty and the perpetrator was a member of the forces. The others occurred while off-duty and the perpetrator had no affiliation with the guard. All were turned over to civilian law enforcement, Hapgood said.

These numbers do not account for the cases that have gone unreported, maintained within the military system or dismissed.

Miyoko Hikiji, now 37, served in the Iowa National Guard from 1998 to 2004. During her six years of service, she said there were instances of harassment, but one stands out from the rest.

In early 2002, Hikiji said she was forced to undergo a strip search in the presence of four guard members- three men and one woman - and called it an assault that was sexual in nature. When Hikiji brought the case to her officer-in-charge, she was advised against taking her allegation further.

“I just felt absolutely powerless,” Hikiji said. “I was absolutely certain that some crime had occurred.”

The Associated Press generally does not name victims of sexual assault but Hikiji said that she has come forward because she is a stakeholder in the legislation and because she wants to put a face on the issue.

A year after the incident, Hikiji was deployed to Iraq. When that ended, she didn’t re-enlist; she said she had to get out.

Hapgood said that the guard cannot look into cases without written consent from the individual, and therefore could not comment about the allegation.

The guard has tried to be proactive in addressing sexual harassment and assault, Hapgood said. Annual training on sexual assault prevention is required for all members, and Iowa’s forces have also complied with national screening requirements to ensure state military personnel are sensitive to the issue. This year, the guard will conduct two events to help raise awareness and promote prevention, he said.

Under Sodder’s proposal, state military forces would be required to file an annual report to the governor and the Legislature detailing sexual abuse allegations. It would also make it illegal for a commander to interfere in the reporting process.

Victims would have the choice to file restricted reports, in which the cases would be handled exclusively within the forces, or unrestricted reports, in which the commander would be obligated to notify local law enforcement. Victims would also maintain the right to report to local law enforcement independently.

The number of both restricted and unrestricted filings would have to be reported to the Legislature.

“I think it is the duty of the state of Iowa and the Legislature to make sure we’re keeping our people safe in our military at the National Guard, and that’s why this legislation is needed,” Sodders said.

The legislation won bipartisan support and unanimously cleared the House Veterans Affairs Committee on Thursday. It is now eligible for House floor debate.

Two National Guard members met privately with majority Republicans on the committee prior to Thursday’s vote, but the National Guard did not publicly testify. Hapgood said he couldn’t comment on pending legislation.

Hikiji said she fears the legislation protects the National Guard, saying it’d be difficult to reach a commander to report instances of sexual abuse as required by the bill. And a clause that would punish people for actions that discredit the state military forces could be used against a victim, she said.

“I lived it,” Hikiji said. “I know how it works.”

But, she said, if the bill becomes law, “more women are going to report.



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