ST. LOUIS (AP) — Sen. Claire McCaskill has long been a vocal advocate for victims of sexual assault in the military, so the Missouri Democrat said she was surprised to be singled out in newspaper and Facebook ads calling her a roadblock to reforming the way cases are prosecuted.
Protect Our Defenders, a Washington-based advocacy group for military victims of sexual assault, took aim at McCaskill over her opposition to an amendment proposed by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. Gillibrand's proposal would authorize military lawyers — rather than commanding officers — to decide which cases go to trial.
Gillibrand believes she has support of 41 other senators, but she needs 51. McCaskill is not among them because she instead favors reforms approved in the Senate Armed Services Committee and adopted by the House — measures that McCaskill helped write.
Protect Our Defenders purchased a half-page ad in Tuesday's St. Louis Post-Dispatch that included an open letter to McCaskill from Terri Odom, a St. Louis-area Navy veteran who said she was "raped and left for dead" by a superior in 1987. The group said it also plans ads on Facebook that specifically target McCaskill.
"Without your support, perpetrators may continue to go free; victims will be too afraid to come forward; and our military readiness will suffer," Odom wrote in the newspaper ad.
McCaskill found the ad puzzling given her history of criticism of the military's handling of sexual assault cases.
"I think it's unfair," McCaskill said in an interview. "It's pretty hard to look at the facts and not realize that I've been at the forefront and trying to get at this problem in a way that will protect victims and result in more prosecutions and more lengthy prison sentences for perpetrators."
Even Gillibrand's office declined to criticize McCaskill.
"Senators Gillibrand and McCaskill have been working closely together on a number of reforms to combat the epidemic of sexual assault in the military," Gillibrand spokeswoman Bethany Lesser said in a statement. "While they may not agree on every reform, they share the same goals."
McCaskill, who turned 60 on Wednesday, is a senior member of the Armed Services Committee and the daughter of a World War II veteran. She and other female members of the committee have complained that the military's reporting process fails to recognize the seriousness of rape. She is co-sponsor of a bill that would require any service member found guilty of rape or sexual assault to receive a minimum punishment of a dismissal or a dishonorable discharge.
McCaskill is blocking the nomination of Air Force Lt. Gen. Susan Helms to serve as vice commander of the U.S. Space Command because Helms overruled a military jury's conviction of captain who had been found guilty of sexually assaulting a female lieutenant.
The handling of military sexual assault cases drew renewed attention in November after Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, a former inspector general at Aviano Air Base in Italy, was found guilty by a military panel of abusive sexual contact and aggravated sexual assault. He was sentenced to a year in prison and dismissal from the service.
But Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, commander of the 3rd Air Force in Germany overturned the guilty verdict, saying he found Wilkerson and his wife more believable than the alleged victim.
A Pentagon report estimated that 26,000 members of the military experienced unwanted sexual contact in 2012. But most cases go unreported, in part because of victim concerns about retaliation.
The plan backed by McCaskill calls for taking away the authority to reverse courts-martial rulings. It also establishes dismissal or dishonorable discharge as the mandatory minimum sentence under military law for service members found guilty of rape, sexual assault, forcible sodomy or an attempt to commit those offenses.
Commanders also would be barred from reducing or commuting the minimum sentence except in situations where the accused substantially aided the government in the investigation or prosecution of another assailant.
The measure stops short of taking those cases outside the chain of command, as Gillibrand's bill proposes.
On Wednesday, Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., stepped up his opposition to Gillibrand's legislation, releasing two letters from senior Defense Department officials that support keeping commanders involved in decisions on whether to prosecute sexual assault cases.
Odom, 48, of Imperial, Mo., told The Associated Press that she is a longtime supporter of McCaskill and campaigned for her re-election in 2012.
"I just worship her, and my heart's broken that she has taken this stance," Odom said.
Odom was serving in Sicily 27 years ago when a superior asked to walk her home. She said that when they got to her apartment he raped her and violently beat her, leaving her for dead in a pool of blood.
Each time Odom tried to report the crime she was dismissed or told to keep quiet, she said. The lack of support led to suicide attempts. Odom said she became pregnant by the rape and was forced to have an abortion.
"Everyone who talks to you tells you this was your fault," she said. "It re-victimized me a thousand times over."
McCaskill, a former prosecutor for Jackson County, Mo., which includes Kansas City, believes removing the chain of command will actually hinder, rather than help, prosecutions, and could lead to even more retaliation against victims.
She said she plans to reach out to Odom.
"I look forward to talking to her in person about this because I think when she hears some of the facts we've been able to gather around these reforms, she'll realize the approach that we're taking will protect victims more from retaliation," McCaskill said.