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Iowa GOP Senate candidate takes on military sexual assaults, armed with personal story

As a combat veteran who served in the Iraq war, Iowa Republican candidate Joni Ernst knows first-hand how difficult it is to fight a war on two fronts.

Yet, that's exactly what Ernst is doing as she battles a seasoned Democratic rival, Rep. Bruce Braley, for the state's open Senate seat -- while locking horns with her former bosses and some in her own party over the reporting of sexual assaults in the military. 

"This will not be an easy challenge," Ernst said recently at a campaign event. "I understand many in my own party in Washington will oppose this plan, as will many in the military and the Pentagon. However, this should not be a partisan issue, and as a woman in uniform, I know we must act now." 

The candidate wants to take such reporting out of the military chain of command. For Ernst, who served as a company commander in Kuwait during the Iraq War in 2003-2004, the issue is a personal one.

She recently told Time magazine she was sexually harassed during her more than two decades of service.

“I had heard comments, passes, things like that,” she told the magazine. “There 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, now a lieutenant colonel in the Iowa National Guard and U.S. Army Reserves, says she wants to take her personal experiences and push for a culture change in Washington.

Sexual assault and harassment had been the military’s dirty little secret for a long time, and efforts to stop it have only recently started gaining traction.

Of the estimated 26,000 cases of unwanted sexual contact in the military in 2012, only 3,000 were reported and of those, just 13 percent went to trial.

Last year, New York Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand introduced a bill in Congress that would have changed the way sexual assault cases are handled, by taking them out of the military chain of command. Prosecutors, not military brass, would be tasked with investigating complaints and punishing those found guilty – a radical change from the way the military justice system currently deals with sexually based crimes.

The bill was supported by a handful of Republicans including Iowa’s senior senator, Chuck Grassley, who has been campaigning with Ernst. It was opposed by a majority of Republicans, and fell five votes shy of breaking a filibuster in March.

Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.; Carl Levin, D-Mich.; and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., were among those who came out strongly against the bill. They argue military officers should have more responsibility, not less, for the conduct of their troops.

Despite the defeat, Gillibrand pledged to bring the bill back up next session.

“Our carefully crafted common sense proposal was written in direct response to what the victims told us,” Gillibrand said shortly after failing to secure the votes needed to break the filibuster. “This is not a Democratic idea. It is not a Republican idea. It is a good idea that meets the needs of the victims, creates transparency and accountability and created the needed objectivity that this issue deserves.”

During the past congressional session, only 11 of the Senate’s 45 Republicans supported Gillibrand’s bill. If Ernst is elected, securing her vote could bring the military sexual assault bill one step closer to being passed. The GOP nominee has not specifically said whether she'd support Gillibrand's legislation, but she has backed its provisions. 

On the campaign trail, however, the push may not win Ernst much support from the other side of the aisle. 

Her Democratic challenger Braley says if elected he’d vote for Gillibrand’s bill.

Some Democrats have tried to brush off Ernst's personal background, accusing her of exploiting her military experience and role as a mother just to appeal for votes. 

During a speech at the Iowa State Fair, the head of the Democratic National Committee unflatteringly called Ernst “an onion of crazy.” Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., added, “The more you peel back the layers, the more disturbing it is.”

With polls tightening in the race, Democrats have also released a new ad tying Ernst to former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. The ad ends with the narrator saying, “Palin. Ernst. Too extreme for Iowa.”

Ernst campaign spokeswoman Gretchen Hamel told FoxNews.com that Braley’s camp is hitting below the belt out of desperation, adding that they “will simply not succeed.”