Every day, thousands of young men and women enlist in the Armed Forces prepared to lay down their lives to defend our country. The last thing on their mind is that they could fall victim to a sexual assault from someone within their own ranks.
A recent Pentagon study revealed the bitter reality that sexual misconduct is not only prevalent in the military but rising at an alarming rate. The Defense Department's report said that 26,000 members of the U.S. armed forces were sexually assaulted in 2012 -- a 33 percent jump from just two years earlier.
What is even more disturbing is that the Pentagon officially counted only 3,374 formal complaints, meaning the vast majority of sexual assaults go unreported. In many cases, victims fear reprisals from their attackers, denial of a fair hearing and rejection from their peers for issuing a complaint.
For this reason, I have co-sponsored bipartisan legislation authored by Michael Turner, R-Ohio, and Niki Tsongas, D-Mass., to crack down on the growing number of sexual assaults in the military.
Specifically, the "BE SAFE Act" would require that any member of the armed forces found guilty of rape, sexual abuse or forcible sodomy be dishonorably discharged. The bill also seeks repeal of an antiquated law that allows commanding officers to change or dismiss a guilty verdict for sexual assault.
A prime example of why we need this reform is the case of Lt. Col. James Wilkerson. In November of last year, Lt. Col. Wilkerson was found guilty of aggravated sexual assault by a military court, sentenced to a year in prison and discharged from the military.
Just three months later, Wilkerson's commanding officer quashed the conviction, set him free and wiped his record clean.
They say in the military that "rank has its privileges" but compounding the injustice by setting a sexual predator free should not be one of them. Helping the victims of sexual violence, whether it be in the military or civilian life, is not a political issue -- it is a moral issue.
We must do everything in our power to protect the victims of abuse while bringing their perpetrators to justice.
I am pleased to report that the BE SAFE Act is expected to pass the U.S. House of Representatives soon and move to the Senate for review.
Having served six years in the Air National Guard, I am appalled by any act that dishonors military service. The men and women who risk their lives to protect America deserve all the respect a grateful nation can offer.
As a member of Congress, I represent 85,000 of these heroic Americans and pledge to fight every day to make sure their voice is heard in every corner of this country.
And while a single piece of legislation will not by itself rid the military of sexual misconduct, it is imperative that we act immediately to correct this injustice and restore the honor and integrity so many have sacrificed to protect.
U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Fla., served four years on the House Veterans Affairs Committee.