Senator Joni Ernst in a recent hearing with military leaders.

Senator Joni Ernst in a recent hearing with military leaders.

Iowa Senator Joni Ernst, a Republican from Red Oak, has introduced legislation to help members of the military that have been sexually assaulted. Ernst says he Military Sexual Assault Victims Empowerment Act or SAVE,  has several goals.

“Including changing military culture and the overall prevention of sexual assault to stop this crime in the first place,” Ernst explains. “In addition, we must also ensure that strong support is in place for survivors of sexual assault in the military.”

Senators from both parties have signed onto the bill, which Ernst says will also help victims get access to the treatment they need. Ernst says the bill amends the current law to allow veterans who are military sexual assault survivors to use health care services outside the Veterans Administration regardless of the military requirements.

She says giving veterans flexibility in where they get their treatment is particularly important for rural states where veterans may have to travel a long way to get to VA treatment centers. Ernst says women are the fastest growing segment of military veterans in the U.S., with an estimated 10 percent of veterans now being women.

Ernst, who is a combat veteran who recently retired from the Iowa National Guard, has been working on another issue involving active military members. Ernst has talked with military leaders about the plan to integrate women into combat positions. She has also talked with men and women soldiers about the plan. “There are many women who are concerned they will be forced into these military occupational specialties which could hurt their careers. So there is a lot of concern out there,” Ernst says. “I think the administration has been in a rush to get this through. We need to slow down a bit to make sure we are not hurting our combat capabilities.”

Ernst says she does not want to see standards lowered for women, and the female soldiers she has talked to also do not want that. She says physical requirement are often used in placing soldiers in particular specialties, and women can score lower because they don’t have the same strength as men. Ernst says there needs to be a plan in place so women are not held back from moving up the command chain because of those differences.

“We’ve always had men in those roles, now we are opening to women, so understanding the physiological differences between men and women, what women are able to achieve. It is going to be very different from what they are able to achieve as young infantrymen or artillerymen,” according to Ernst. She says she wants to ensure that the women are not being set up for failure. Ernst says leadership plays a big role in changing the culture of the military and integrating women into the combat roles.

“And fostering respect within the teams or the squads — really encouraging a climate of dignity and respect — that’s what your leadership needs to focus on. And you will see that men and women will be able to work side-by-side and protecting (each other) whether it be your brother or their sister. They are going to be one part of one team,” Ernst says. Ernst, who is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, says she will continue following the integration issue to ensure all soldiers are given an equal opportunity.