The VVA Veteran® Online

January/February 2014

Military Sexual Trauma: Building Coalitions


Anu Bhagwati and I first met nearly four years ago at a roundtable on women veterans hosted by former Rep. Bob Filner (D-Calif.). Bhagwati is the executive director of what was then the newly formed Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN), whose main cause was military sexual trauma. We kept in contact, and she viewed VVA as an ally.

Early in the summer it became emphatically clear that the leadership of the Department of Defense was not interested in considering language from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) to remove the reporting of sexual assault from the chain of command. This led to the idea of making Sen. Gillibrand’s bill an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDA Act) of 2013. Her bill became the Military Justice Improvement Act (S. 967); sixty senators needed to vote in favor of it to amend the NDA Act.

Sen. Gillibrand’s Call to Action Meeting at the Capitol resulted in a small, dedicated coalition formulating consolidated advocacy strategies. That group consisted of VVA, SWAN, and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA). We came together as veterans with a history of avid advocacy who represented both genders and several generations, some of whom had been victims and survivors of military sexual trauma.

Last fall conference calls were held regularly to identify misunderstandings on the content of the bill, to educate Senate staff, and to develop responses to frequently asked questions. Our coalition’s public affairs staff coordinated media at all levels. We developed timelines and action items. A list was developed of key senators to contact. We recognized the need for victims to be heard. But, in this effort, some tried to frame the advocacy as one of civilian vs. military. We didn’t want to marginalize victims from the military—many remain a part of it.

On November 19 VVA participated in a press conference organized by Sen. Gillibrand. I was proud to deliver our statement, along with Tom Berger, executive director of VVA’s Veterans Health Council. Our statement was one of unwavering commitment to the resolution of the escalating tragedy of MST in the military, and it underscored the unified voice of VVA, SWAN, and IAVA.

Then we waited for the National Defense Authorization Act to return to the floor of the Senate for amendment considerations and a final vote. We waited. And we waited. The Thanksgiving congressional break came and went. Finally, before the Christmas recess, after some Senate maneuvering, the NDA Act passed without any amendments.

This was disappointing, but we take heart that many items in the act address other MST policies and procedures.

The opportunity for VVA to work and advocate in tandem with two other veterans organizations on an important piece of legislation was a strong move. Multi-pronged strategies were developed. Workloads were shared. Energy was drawn from the collective body of the coalition. Strong working partnerships have forged lasting relationships for future activities.

Coalitions can work if the ego of each is off the table and the mission takes front seat. I was honored to have been part of this process. I offer my thanks to SWAN, IAVA, and the staffs of each organization for their behind-the-scenes effort.

National Vice President Marsha Four can be contacted at

The VVA Veteran® is a publication of Vietnam Veterans of America. ©All rights reserved.
8719 Colesville Road, Suite 100, Silver Spring. MD 20910 | | contact us