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Sen. Duckworth on sexual assault in military: ‘In many ways, it's worse than it was before’

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“Through Her Eyes” is a weekly show hosted by human rights activist Zainab Salbi that explores contemporary news issues from a female perspective. You can watch the full episode of “Through Her Eyes” every Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET on Roku, or at the bottom of this article.

Iraq War veteran Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., is at a loss as to why sexual harassment and cases of sexual assault continue to plague the U.S. military, telling Yahoo News “I don’t know” why the problem persists despite efforts from lawmakers.

Sexual assault in the military spiked 13 percent in 2018, with more than 20,000 cases reported, according to statistics from a recent Pentagon survey. (The Pentagon survey defines sexual assault as rape, sexual assault, forcible sodomy, aggravated sexual contact, abusive sexual contact and attempts to commit those offenses.)

Sexual assault cases have been reported across multiple branches of the military, including the Air Force, the branch in which Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., recently disclosed in a Senate hearing that she had been raped by a superior officer.

“We don't know what this issue is,” Duckworth said in her interview with Yahoo News show “Through Her Eyes.” “But one thing we do know is that there still continues to be a problem with the military's judicial system, as it pertains to sexual harassment and sexual assault in the military. I don't see the same reports with other crimes in the military. But I do see it with the sexual crimes.”

She continued: “Obviously, there's something wrong within the system, that despite everything that the military's tried and despite everything that legislators like myself or Kirsten Gillibrand or Claire McCaskill have tried over the last 10 years, it's still a problem.”

“And in many ways, it's worse than it was before,” she added.

A lieutenant colonel in the Army for 23 years, Duckworth lost both of her legs in 2004 when the Black Hawk helicopter she was co-piloting was shot down by Iraqi insurgents.

Authority over sexual assault crimes in the military resides with military commanders, but as allegations of sexual misconduct continue to rise, some veterans groups and critics in Congress like Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., are pushing for these crimes to be shifted away from the military and into the hands of independent prosecutors. Duckworth is one such critic; she now says cases of sexual harassment need to be moved out of the military’s jurisdiction.

“So I'm now, you know, getting to the point where I do support moving the investigation, prosecution, decision making and all of the sentencing of those crimes out of the military judicial system, out from underneath the chain of command,” she told “Through Her Eyes.”

Separately, Duckworth is also taking on sexual harassment at one of the largest fast food chains in the United States — McDonald’s — and has teamed up with fellow senators, including Sens. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Bernie Sanders, independent-Vt., to demand safer conditions for workers.

“They have this great sexual harassment policy in theory, on paper. But they don't actually implement it,” she said.

McDonald’s workers recently filed dozens of new sexual harassment charges, alleging groping, indecent exposure and propositions for sex — and retaliation against those who complained.

Last month, Steve Easterbrook, the chief executive of McDonald’s, responded to a letter from Duckworth saying that the company had improved and clarified its policies on harassment. But with more than 90 percent of its locations franchised, McDonald's has long maintained that it should not be liable for how employees in franchised restaurants behave.

Duckworth doesn’t accept this as an excuse.

“If you have the kind of power to tell them how many pickles to put on a hamburger, you certainly have the power to tell them, you know, not to discriminate or retaliate against women or victims of sexual harassment," she said.

Duckworth also has her eye on the 2020 presidential race, and the Illinois Democrat said she is particularly invested in seeing a Midwesterner make it to the final debate stage.

“I'm so excited that Amy Klobuchar is in the race. And of course, Pete Buttigieg is really tearing it up out there,” she said of the Minnesota senator and the South Bend., Ind., mayor. “So I want these folks to stay in the race as long as possible.”

She said she sees a Midwestern nominee as a prudent political move for Democrats if they are to compete with President Trump, who surprised many pundits by winning states like Michigan and Wisconsin in 2016.

“We can't win without talking to the folks in the mountain states,” she said. “And you certainly cannot win without talking to the industrial Midwest.”

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