Iowa Senate nominee: I was sexually harassed in the military

Iowa state Sen. Joni Ernst speaks to supporters at a primary election night rally after winning the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate June 3, 2014, in Des Moines, Iowa.

AP Photo

Iowa Republican Senate nominee Joni Ernst said Friday that she's been sexually harassed during her service in the military, and she's citing that experience in deciding to back legislation that would remove the handling of sexual assault cases from the military chain of command.

"I had comments, passes, things like that," Ernst told Time magazine. "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."

Ernst, an Iowa state senator, has served for over 20 years in the military, including a deployment to Iraq in 2003 and 2004, and she currently commands a battalion in the Iowa Army National Guard. If she wins, she will be the first female combat veteran ever elected to the Senate.

The Senate passed a bill in March that would strengthen protections for victims and make commanders more accountable for their handling of sexual assault accusations, but it did not strip commanders of that responsibility altogether -- a change pushed by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and others.

If that bill does not make "significant progress" in addressing the problem, Ernst vowed to work with Gillibrand on new legislation removing the issue from the chain of command.

"This will not be an easy challenge," Ernst acknowledged in a statement. "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."

A report released in May by the Department of Defense charted a 50 percent increase in reports of sexual assault, and Pentagon officials said it's a sign that efforts to encourage victims to come forward are beginning to succeed.

Ernst is facing Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, in November's general election, and the outcome of the race could well determine which party controls the Senate in the next Congress.

Though Iowa leans Democratic, a strong primary showing by Ernst and a series of miscues from Braley have kept the race competitive. A CBS News/New York Times survey last month found Ernst ahead of Braley by one point, 48 to 47 percent.