Breaks with party, Pentagon on stance and talks about her experience with harassment for the first time
Republican State Sen. Joni Ernst, who is running for Senate and served more than 20 years in the military, said Friday that she was sexually harassed in the military and, given her experience, is backing the removal of cases of sexual assault from the military chain of command, a position that puts her at odds with much of the GOP.
“I had comments, passes, things like that,” Ernst tells TIME. “These were some things where I was able to say stop and it simply stopped but there are other circumstances both for women and for men where they don’t stop and they may be afraid to report it.”
If elected Ernst, who was deployed in Iraq in 2003-2004 and currently commands the largest battalion in the Iowa Army National Guard, would be the first female combat veteran to serve in the Senate. Ernst says the issue is a personal one for her ever since she volunteered for a battered women’s shelter for two years in college, carrying a pager for the hospital and helping women overcome the physical and emotional results of abuse. Because of this experience, Ernst is expected on Friday in an evening speech the Iowa Federation of Republican Women’s Diamond Anniversary dinner in Sioux City to endorse taking cases of sexual assault outside of the chain of command.
“This legislation must ensure that sexual crimes in the military are both independently investigated and prosecuted,” Ernst writes in a draft of her Sioux City speech, provided to TIME by her staff. “This will not be an easy challenge. I understand many in my own party in Washington will oppose this plan, as will many in the military and Pentagon. However, this should not be a partisan issue, and as a woman in uniform, I know that we must act now.”
Ernst isn’t endorsing Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s bill, her staff says, which would refer all sexual harassment cases to the Judge Advocates General Corps, but she pledged to work “with Senator Gillibrand and other Senate leaders in seeking bipartisan support for new legislation.” Ernst would refer all reports to an independent investigator outside of the chain of command and if criminal charges are warranted, then those cases would be referred to “an independent, experience prosecutor.”
Taking the process outside the chain of the command was opposed by the Pentagon and, ultimately, the Gillibrand bill came five votes short of a breaking a filibuster in March. Gillibrand has vowed to bring the bill up again next session. Ernst’s vote would not get her one vote closer as Senator Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat Ernst is vying to replace, voted for the measure. Eleven Republicans also voted for the measure, though the majority of the conference opposed it.
Rep. Bruce Braley, Ernst’s Democratic opponent, currently has a television ad up in Iowa about legislation he sponsored strengthening protections for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence in the military. The bill is called the Holley Lynn James Act, for a woman in the military killed by her husband. In the ad James’s father thanks Braley for his strong support of women in the military. Braley also endorsed Gillibrand’s bill early on. “Those who oppose these reforms are on the wrong side of history and I’m going to do everything I can to support reforms that address this crisis,” Braley said when the bill failed the Senate.
Sexual assault in the military is reaching epidemic proportions, discouraging many women from enlisting, though both men and women are victims of such crimes. In 2012, of the 26,000 cases of unwanted sexual contact in the military only 3,000 were reported and only 400 went to trial. After the Senate tightened some of those rules, thanks to the efforts of Gillibrand and other female senators who pushed the issue, in 2013 more than 5,000 cases were reported and nearly 500 went to trial. There are more than 200,000 women serving in the armed forces, making up less than 15% of those in uniform.