Republican State Sen. and now candidate for the U.S. Senate Joni Ernst says she experienced sexual harassment in the military and is breaking with her party and the Pentagon on how such cases should be handled. She is not, however, fully endorsing legislation previously offered by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand.
Ernst would be the first female combat veteran in the Senate, if elected. She served in Iraq from 2003 to 2004 and currently commands the Iowa Army National Guard’s largest battalion.
Ernst says the issue is a personal one for her ever since she volunteered for a battered women’s shelter for two years in college, carrying a pager for the hospital and helping women overcome the physical and emotional results of abuse.
It’s anticipated that Ernst will endorse taking cases of sexual assault in the military outside the chain of command during a scheduled speech tonight at the Iowa Federation of Republican Women’s Diamond Anniversary dinner in Sioux Falls.
“I had comments, passes, things like that,” Ernst tells TIME. “These were some things where I was able to say stop and it simply stopped but there are other circumstances both for women and for men where they don’t stop and they may be afraid to report it.”
“This legislation must ensure that sexual crimes in the military are both independently investigated and prosecuted,” Ernst writes in a draft of her Sioux Falls speech, provided to TIME by her staff. “This will not be an easy challenge. I understand many in my own party in Washington will oppose this plan, as will many in the military and Pentagon. However, this should not be a partisan issue, and as a woman in uniform, I know that we must act now.”
Ernst isn’t endorsing Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s bill, her staff says, which would refer all sexual harassment cases to the Judge Advocates General Corps, but she pledged to work “with Senator Gillibrand and other Senate leaders in seeking bipartisan support for new legislation.” Ernst would refer all reports to an independent investigator outside of the chain of command and if criminal charges are warranted, then those cases would be referred to “an independent, experience prosecutor.”