It’s been dubbed an invisible war by the media, but Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and other lawmakers are working to bring the issue of rape in the military out of the shadows.
At a hearing Wednesday, a Senate Armed Services subcommittee chaired by the New York Democrat heard victims describe how they had been sexually assaulted and challenged military representatives on how they handle cases of rape.
“Too often, women and men have found themselves in the fight of their lives not in the theater of war but in their own ranks, among their own brothers and sisters, and ranking officers, in an environment that enables sexual assault,” Gillibrand told the panel.
The hearing, the first on sexual assault in the military in almost a decade, was prompted by a string of recent scandals and increased awareness of the military’s low conviction rate for reported cases.
“It is not enough that our military says it has zero tolerance for sexual assault,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA). “You can say anything, but the facts speak for themselves.”
The Pentagon estimates that 19,000 incidents of sexual assault occurred in 2010 alone, with only 13.5 percent of those reported and an even smaller percentage, 191 cases, convicted. In 2011, Gillibrand said, only 240 cases proceeded to trial.
The daylong hearing comprised two panels, one of victims and activists and the other of military personnel from each branch of the armed forces.
Three women and one man spoke candidly about their personal experiences as victims of sexual assault and rape. Their accounts focused largely on the attacks’ aftermath and the adversity they faced in trying to seek help and redemption.
“Unfortunately my case is not much different from the many other cases that have been reported,” Rebekah Havrilla, a former Army sergeant, told the subcommittee. “I feared retaliation before and after I reported … Many of the institutional systems set up to help failed me miserably, my perpetrator went unpunished despite admitting to a crime [under military rules], and commanders were never held accountable for making the choice to do nothing.”
Havrilla said her unit dealt with rape in a laughing manner, recalling the time she had sexual assault training: “One of our sergeants got up on the table and stripped completely naked and laughed at it.”
Anu Bhagwati, another witness, said she experienced a similar brush-off from the military, as if she had done something wrong herself, while her perpetrator wasn’t affected.
“Many of the women who were impacted by these incidents, including me, are no longer in the military. However, the officers who covered up this incident have retired or continue to work in the military,” said Bhagwati, co-founder of Service Women’s Action Network and a former service member.
Brian Lewis, a former third class petty officer in the Navy and the first man ever to testify before the Senate on military sexual assault, said he was forced out of service after reporting his attacker.
“In August 2000 I was raped by a superior noncommissioned officer. I was ordered by my command not to report this crime to the Naval Criminal Investigative Service,” he said. “After my command learned of this crime, I was misdiagnosed as having a personality disorder … and I was discharged in August 2001.”
Lewis said women were not the only ones subjected to sexual assault and humiliation while in service.
“Of those 19,000 victims, about 56 percent of estimated victims in our military are men,” he said. “This is part of the crisis that the Department of Defense does not acknowledge.”
The second panel brought on a more heated question-and-answer session between Gillibrand and military officials.
As the officials talked about the new training and measures they were putting into place, each was asked to comment on whether they believed a convening officer or unit commander should continue to exercise their current level of authority. A commanding officer’s authority allows him or her to determine whether a crime is reported and how it’s dealt with, including the right to overturn a military court ruling.
The five representatives unanimously said yes.
Gillibrand said she is “extremely disturbed based on the last round of questions and your answer that the convening authority is what maintains discipline and order within your ranks. If that is your view, then I don’t know how you can say that having 19,000 instances of assault a year is discipline and order.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) expressed concern for sexual assault victims but also for those facing accusations.
“Another problem that can harm a unit is for someone to be wrongfully accused,” Graham said, adding: “At the end of the day military justice is about rendering justice in an individual case and maintaining morale … This concern that it’s a buddy-buddy system, I just want the public to understand that convening authority for a general court-martial involved is a distance away from the rank of the people in question.”
The limit of a commander’s power sparked a recent debate after a scandal at Aviano Air Base last fall.
Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, a fighter pilot, was charged with aggravated sexual assault in November after fondling the breasts and genitals of a houseguest who was staying with him and his family. He was unanimously sentenced to one year in military prison and dishonorably discharged, but his sentence was reversed just three months later by his commanding officer, Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin. As commander, Franklin had the power to overturn the verdict.
“Many in Congress, our military, and our nation were stunned to read that the general used his discretion as the convening authority to throw out a military jury’s guilty verdict,” Boxer said.
Boxer, along with Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and Claire McCaskill (D-MO), has disputed the Wilkerson decision, saying the military rule makes it harder for victims to come forward because of fear of retaliation. Earlier this week, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced he would open an internal review of the case.
Another witness, BriGette McCoy, a former Army specialist, told The Daily Beast that the Senate hearing has made her hopeful for the future safety of women in the military.
“I believe that it is signifying a change, at least a desire to change, and with that people will be looking for solutions,” she said. “I have a daughter and a son, and I would never want them to go through this.”