Troop appreciation, women’s rights and military sexual assault were all topics discussed on Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler’s trip to Afghanistan over the weekend.
The Camas Republican, who left for Central Asia and the Middle East on Thursday and returned to the U.S. on Tuesday, said the trip also helped her gain new insights into the sacrifices U.S. servicemen and women have made since the war in Afghanistan began in 2001.
Herrera Beutler was joined on her trip by three Democratic and two Republican congresswomen. For the past several years, a group of various congresswomen have traveled to Central Asia to meet with troops and Afghan women over Mother’s Day weekend.
The congresswoman was stunned by the stories she heard from Afghan women about the social progress they’ve made, she said. Some of the women said that before U.S. involvement in the nation, the best life they could hope for involved marrying a man who wouldn’t beat them too much. Now, they work at colleges or within nongovernmental organizations.
“Today we have education, we have rights, we have hopes and dreams,” Herrera Beutler said the women told her. She said in an interview with The Columbian on Thursday that part of the trip’s purpose was to highlight the importance of women’s progress in Afghanistan.
“I do think that history is going to judge our success based on whether Afghanistan is able to maintain the progress it’s made,” she said.
During her travels, Herrera Beutler stopped in the Afghan cities of Herat and Kabul, and she also visited the Middle East, with a stop in the city of Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.
The experience broadened Herrera Beutler’s views regarding U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and sexual violence in the military, she said.
Herrera Beutler said she supports maintaining diplomatic, intelligence and foreign aid efforts in Afghanistan even after military troops withdraw from the country.
She said that 65 percent of the Afghan population is younger than 25, and the nation has a 40 percent unemployment rate, opening the door for political extremists to entice disadvantaged youth in the fragile country.
“This is definitely a situation where they’re not out of the woods,” she said, “especially when you have terrorists who are trying to get their hooks in.”
Military sexual assault
Herrera Beutler said she plans to co-sponsor “whistle-blower” protection of sorts for servicemen and women who are victims of sexual assault. That legislation would protect them from workplace retaliation if they report their sexual assaults to someone outside of the military.
According to a recent Pentagon report, an estimated 26,000 sexual assaults occurred last year in the military. That’s a 37 percent increase when compared to the previous year. About 6 percent of women and 1.2 percent of men surveyed said they experienced some form of unwanted sexual contact while serving in the military in 2012, according to the report.
Of the servicewomen who said they experienced unwanted sexual contact last year, 31 percent said they were raped and 26 percent said they experienced an attempted rape. Of the servicemen who said they experienced unwanted sexual contact last year, 10 percent said they were raped and 5 percent said they experienced an attempted rape. The rest said they experienced unwanted sexual contact or touching, or they did not specify the nature of the assault.
Herrera Beutler also said she is leaning toward supporting the creation of an independent commission to investigate military sexual assault. She said she understands that the military’s chain of command and autonomy is important, but “that doesn’t mean we can set up a system by where violations happen over and over and over again, over decades.”
Herrera Beutler said she believes that most men and women in the military are “honorable,” but there needs to be a better way to weed out sexual predators.
“We should have zero tolerance,” she said.
The federal government has come under increasing scrutiny since that Pentagon report was released. On Thursday, President Barack Obama reportedly said the military is failing at preventing sexual assaults, and that those assaults undermine the trust servicemen and women are supposed to build with each other. The president vowed to “leave no stone untuned” in an effort to halt the abuses.
Meeting with troops
While in Afghanistan, Herrera Beutler handed out letters of thanks to troops that were written by elementary school students from Clark County.
The congresswoman said it was “humbling and sacred” to visit the grounds where U.S. men and women have died to serve their country. She also said the Afghan women she spoke with expressed their gratitude to those military members for their sacrifices.
Herrera Beutler also asked troops: What’s the one thing you want me to tell people back home?
“ ‘We’re still here and things need to be completed,’ ” they told her. “ ‘This still is a crucial mission to complete successfully.’ ”
Herrera Beutler was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2010. Last weekend’s trip was her first overseas travel on behalf of Congress and her first trip to Central Asia or the Middle East.