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Column: Ensuring victims have access to critical support they need

One of my guiding principles in Congress is to ensure our women and men in uniform receive the support they need to continue the dangerous and difficult task of securing the safety of our country.

As a 25-year veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, whose wife is a retired career Army Nurse and whose son has served three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, I take the issue of sexual assault in the military seriously.

The number of sexual assault victims among our sons and daughters serving our nation is unacceptable. According to a Department of Defense report issued last month, reports of sexual assault in the military have risen 50 percent in the last year – 5,061 in 2013 compared to 3,374 in 2012.

I remain committed to preventing potential predators from joining our ranks, ensuring victims have access to the critical support they need, and eliminating the scourge of sexual assault in our armed forces.

In April, Maj. Gen. Rick Nash, the adjutant general of the Minnesota National Guard, brought to my attention an important discrepancy in legal services for victims of sexual assault in the National Guard and Reserve.

Under current policy, a member of the Minnesota National Guard who was sexually assaulted while not on their drill weekend or military duty cannot access critical Special Victims Counsel services. Congress established this important legal program to serve as a resource for victims of sexual assault.

A Special Victims Counsel provides legal advice and helps victims to come forward knowing they will have assistance throughout the process. As Nash, has said “a full-time ‘Special Victim Counsel’ is an essential resource for victims on active duty, and the same legal service should be available for members of the National Guard.”

I agree with Nash and want to ensure victims of sexual assault serving in the National Guard and Reserve across the country are not denied the same services available to other service members. To end this unequal treatment, last week I introduced the National Guard and Reserve Equal Access to Legal Services Act, legislation that provides members of the National Guard and Reserve access to a Special Victims Counsel in the aftermath of a sexual assault.

After hearing from Nash, I spoke with Secretary of the Army John McHugh to convey my belief that the men and women serving in the Minnesota National Guard should have access to critical services following an assault.

Additionally, I worked alongside Sen. Amy Klobuchar to lead the Minnesota Congressional delegation in calling on the Army to ensure the Minnesota National Guard has the tools they need in order to fully assist victims of sexual assault. I commend my colleagues for joining forces in standing behind the Minnesota National Guard to underscore the importance of this issue.

Both the active and reserve components of our military serve a unique mission in the defense of our country. However, we can all agree there must be no disparity in services when it comes to helping the victims of sexual assault.

Our sons and daughters in uniform are sacrificing a great deal to protect the freedoms you and I enjoy. They have an incredibly difficult job to do, and are often an ocean away from their loved ones while doing it. We must address the issue of sexual assault in the military and continue to make sexual assault prevention and prosecution a focus of defense legislation.

Congressman John Kline serves on the House Armed Services Committee. He also serves as the Chairman of the Education and the Workforce Committee. He and his wife, Vicky, live in Burnsville.