HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - A recent Pentagon study estimates 26,000 people in the Armed Forces were sexually assaulted last year. Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard calls it an epidemic that's "undermining the construct of our military".
Roughly 20% of all service members are female, but Gabbard says data indicates more than half of all military sexual assault victims are men.
"The fact of the matter is that it's affecting all service members, men and women, of all branches of the military. And it really goes to—the reality is there are predators who wear the uniform and who stand within our ranks," said Representative Gabbard, (D) Hawai'i District 2.
Gabbard says the alarming number of sexual assault cases in the military not only affects recruitment, but readiness and national security.
"When you have people who are afraid to go to work, you have people who are afraid to put that uniform on or who are looking over their shoulder – not for the enemy, not for the bad guy, but for their battle buddy because that violation of trust has occurred – it is an undermining of our ability to act cohesively and strongly as a unit," described Gabbard, who actively serves as a Captain in Hawaii's National Guard.
Congresswoman Gabbard says the solution starts with a victim-centered response. She co-sponsored a House version of the Senate's Military Justice Improvement Act, which would remove commanders from deciding whether sex assault cases go to court martial.
"We take this completely out of the chain of command, so that there is no fear of retaliation. There is no fear that my career will be ruined if I share my traumatic experience with someone else, and that no single person within that chain of command will have the power to overturn an independent investigation or overturn the results of a prosecution," explained Gabbard.
Representative Gabbard says the next step is implementing swift, serious consequences for anyone convicted of sexual assault.
"There's no question about the fact that anyone who has committed such a heinous act is not just kicked out of the military, but is kicked out of the military with a dishonorable discharge and serves time," said Gabbard.
Congresswoman Gabbard says military leadership has been unwilling for too long to admit this is a problem -- but she thinks an even bigger challenge is getting men and women who are trained to be fearless warriors to come forward when they've been victimized.
"It absolutely fuels my fire even greater, and I appreciate being able to be a part of bringing about a solution to solving this problem so that people who serve in the most honorable profession that we have are not serving in a state of fear," described Gabbard, who was awarded a Meritorious Service Medal for her first tour in Iraq.
Representative Gabbard says pressure has to exist within the ranks, amongst the public and from lawmakers to collectively say "we will not allow this to continue".
"There are bad people, unfortunately everywhere. There are bad people in our military and I will do everything within my power to make sure that they are not allowed to wear the uniform that I'm so proud to wear," said Gabbard.