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    Monday, July 22, 2024

    House passes Courtney bill seeking to protect Coast Guard personnel

    President Joe Biden speaks at the beginning of his meeting with the Combatant Commanders in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, May 15, 2024, before hosting them for a dinner. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

    The U.S. House of Representatives voted late Tuesday night to pass Rep. Joe Courtney’s bill to prevent Coast Guard personnel from being punished for minor offenses when reporting a sexual assault.

    The provision passed as part of the Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2024.

    “I’ve worked over the last decade to institute safeguards to prevent and address sexual assault across the Coast Guard ― a serious issue that was brought to light because of the courageous cadets and faculty who brought this to my office’s attention in 2018,” Courtney, a Democrat who represents Connecticut’s 2nd District, said in a statement.

    “The overwhelming bipartisan passage of the safe-to-report policy in the House of Representatives demonstrates that Congress is working diligently and alongside Commandant Fagan’s action plan to ensure the entire service is better protected from sexual assault and harassment,” he said, referring to Adm. Linda Fagan, the Coast Guard commandant.

    The House action came amid a decrease in reported sexual assaults in the military as well as a 19% drop in the number of service members who said they had experienced some type of unwanted sexual contact, according to new figures obtained by The Associated Press.

    Both trends are dramatic reversals of what has been a growing problem in recent years.

    More than 29,000 active-duty service members said in the survey that they had unwanted sexual contact during the previous year, compared with nearly 36,000 in the 2021 survey, according to several defense officials. The decrease is the first in eight years.

    At the same time, 8,515 sexual assaults were reported last year involving members of the U.S. military, a decrease from 8,942 in 2022. And officials said the U.S. military academies also saw fewer reported sexual assaults in the school year that ended last spring versus the previous year.

    President Joe Biden hailed the improved numbers as he spoke Wednesday to his military commanders, who were gathered at the White House.

    “I’m proud that for the first time in nearly a decade, rates of sexual assault and harassment are, within the active-duty forces, are down. They’re down. That’s because of your leadership,” Biden said.

    Senior defense officials said the assault numbers are still far too high and there is much more work to do, but they expressed cautious optimism that the military could be turning a corner, with help from an array of new programs and increased personnel. Sexual assault reports in the military have gone up for much of the last decade, except for a tiny decrease in 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown.

    The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the report has not been publicly released.

    While the Coast Guard independently adopted a safe-to-report policy in February of this year, congressional action will ensure safeguards are codified into law.

    Courtney spoke on the House floor Wednesday in support of the safe-to-report bill. Connecticut’s senators, Democrats Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, introduced similar legislation in the Senate earlier this year.

    Passage of the Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2024 also included two other key priorities for the Coast Guard Academy:

    ∎ A $50 million authorization to complete repairs and improvements of Chase Hall Barracks, including remediation of asbestos, lead, and mold, and upgrading IT infrastructure in student rooms.

    ∎ A $10 million authorization to fund the creation of an Infrastructure Development Plan to upgrade and modernize the campus.

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