They were women from very different worlds: a Hollywood star; two legislators—one in the House, one in the Senate—who’d cut their teeth as district attorneys; and veterans from all eras, ranks, and branches of the U.S. military. They’d converged in Washington, D.C. on April 17, 2013, to address an age-old crime.

The crime in question is sexual assault in the U.S. military, also known as military sexual trauma (MST). In the clip above, from the web series Lauren, an Army major, played by Jennifer Beals, describes just a few of the barriers faced by MST survivors both male and female. That role prompted Beals (Flashdance, The L Word) to come to Washington on April 17 for Truth and Justice:  The 2013 Summit on Military Sexual Violence.

Full disclosure: This cause—achieving justice for military sexual-assault survivors—changed the course of my career. I first went to D.C. to talk about rape in the military about 16 years ago.  I was there as an advocate with a handful of veterans who’d formed the short-lived Survivors Take Action Against Abuse by Military Personnel (STAAAMP–the link is to its ghost site at archive.org).  ABC News’s 20/20 had just run “Rape in the Ranks,” after a basic-training rape scandal at Aberdeen Proving Ground. I’d become involved, as a counselor on the GI Rights Hotline, after scandals at Tailhook, the Air Force Academy (the 1993 one), and the release of a monumental 1995 Veterans Administration study on the issue. Talking every week to survivors of MST taught me a lot about the the Catch-22 of retaliation, re-traumatization, and betrayal they’d experienced. I became a journalist in part so I could better understand and tell part of this story. Last month, the women and men at Truth and Justice  converged to share their stories and brainstorm ways to translate them into change.

Senator and former prosecutor Claire McCaskill, who has been working against sexual assault for 40 years.

Senator and former prosecutor Claire McCaskill, who has been working against sexual assault for 40 years.

 The climax of the summit, a two-day event organized by Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN), was the unleashing of hundreds of veterans as lobbyists on Capitol Hill. Their mission: to raise awareness of the issue and to present very real public-policy solutions. On the first morning, attendees heard from three Armed Services Committee members who have been working with SWAN to try to undo the damage that the military justice system inflicts on sexual-assault survivors. Those advocates were Senator Amy Klobuchar, Rep. Loretta Sanchez, and Senator Claire McCaskill, one of the survivors’ fiercest advocates, who gave the keynote address.

All three acted quickly this year when a general based in Aviano, Italy, reversed the conviction of Lt. Gen. James Wilkerson for aggravated sexual assault, saying that he found the defendant “more credible” than the victim who’d convinced a jury that Wilkerson had digitally raped her. The legislators then went to new Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, who proposed something once inconceivable: “to essentially strip commanding officers of their ability to reverse criminal convictions of service members.” That proposal may soon be enacted into laws that change the 50-year old Uniform Code of Military Justice.

Such legislation felt nearly impossible as recently as three years ago, SWAN policy director Greg Jacob said at the summit:  In 2010, when he was hired, “I couldn’t even get a meeting” with legislators afraid to “try to tell the military what to do.” I’d experienced similar obstacles with STAAAMP in 1997, but the most recent changes have been so rapid as to take my breath away.

Columbia University’s Helen Benedict wrote an iconic book on the subject. Visionary filmmaker Kirby Dick made the documentary those brave survivors deserved.  And while STAAAMP is no more, it has been more than succeeded by SWAN and  grassroots networks such as VetWOW and Protect Our Defenders, all of which had members at the Washington event. They applauded the progress on Aviano and clustered around the Q&A mike, some telling their stories for the first time: “I was military intelligence also, had a TSSCI [Top Secret – Secured Compartment Information] clearance” before her rape, said one young woman with tears in her voice. “I lost my promotion, lost my top secret classification” after being raped three times and reporting it, said another. “I retire in two weeks.” For every single one, the chief betrayal came not from the assailant, but from commanders and a military system that refused to help her/him heal and continue serving.

Rep. Loretta Sanchez.

Rep. Loretta Sanchez.

Rep. Loretta Sanchez, who has served for 17 years on the House Armed Services Committee, knows the pain in those voices well. “I can’t tell you how many times I’m in an airport, or town meeting, and a woman comes up to me—I can tell she’s a vet,” Sanchez said. “Often she’ll start to cry, saying Thank you” for Sanchez’s work on the issue. “Many of these women are in their 60s, 70s, 80s.”

On Day One, Sanchez, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, and Senator Jeanne Shaheen were accepting the Maria Lauterbach Truth and Justice Award, named for a marine found murdered in 2007 before she could testify against the fellow marine who had raped her. Sanchez was also praised at the summit as the legislator who has managed to get the most provisions on sexual violence into this year’s defense appropriations bill: a far cry, she said, from her early years on the committee. Back then, “the committee would vote every year about whether women should BE in the military—and vote no.”

Ruth Moore, accepting the Voice of Change Award.

Ruth Moore, accepting the Voice of Change Award.

Following the Lauterbach Award came the winner of the Voice for Change Award, Navy veteran Ruth Moore—who, after 23 years of fighting for compensation for MST from the Veterans Administration, has helped birth legislation to make it easier for vets to do so.
“Why me? Why should I get this award, when so many have endured much more than me?” Moore reflected, before providing the answer:  the Ruth Moore Act.  “My story added to 160,000 on a petition.  A book of public feedback with 400 letters addressed to me.” Moore swallowed.  “I cried until there were no more tears.” Thanking about her husband and daughter—“my hope, my strength, without them I would have committed suicide”—Moore also called out to all her fellow veteran activists. “We didn’t just speak sorry, we yelled Hoorah!” (the most common military response chant, meaning We’re here, we’re ready to kick ass on your behalf).

Retired General Evelyn Foote told me at the summit that “I’ve been trying to fix this problem for almost 50 years.” She, like most of the rest in Washington that day, was energized for the next day’s lobbying on Capitol Hill. The lobbyists’ stated goal: to ensure that real change is under way.