When an Air Force general took it upon himself last month to reverse the sexual assault conviction of a lieutenant colonel under his command, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand was hopping mad.
“I believe it is a travesty of justice and an outrage,” the New York Democrat told me on Tuesday, on the eve of chairing Wednesday’s daylong Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on sexual assault in the military. “I think it’s disgraceful, and shows the fallibility within the system. It also underscores why we shouldn’t have the type of review that’s in place right now and could undermine an entire jury’s decision."
Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, a fighter pilot and inspector general at Aviano Air Force Base in Italy, was court-martialed and convicted last year on charges of groping the breasts and genitals of a woman who was staying in the spare bedroom of the house where he was living with his wife and child. The sexual assault charge potentially carried a 30-year sentence. Wilkerson was found guilty by unanimous verdict, sentenced to a year in prison and dishonorably discharged without pay, pension, or benefits.
Exercising his prerogative under the military justice system as Wilkerson’s commanding officer—that is, the “convening authority”—Lt. General Craig Franklin tossed out the verdict and reinstated Wilkerson’s previous active-duty status. Franklin’s legal adviser counseled against reversing the court martial, according to news reports. The general, commander of the Third Air Force, offered no explanation for big-footing the jury beyond his opinion that Wilkerson’s guilt was not proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
“I don’t think we should have a convening authority that makes these decisions,” said Gillibrand, who chairs the Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel, “and I also don’t think there should be the possibility of the kind of reversal that we’ve seen in the Aviano case.”
The general’s reversal of the Wilkerson verdict, which has provoked widespread anger and prompted Sens. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Barbara Boxer of California, and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire to demand an investigation by Air Force leadership and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, is just one of the cases that will be discussed during Wednesday’s hearing on the military’s sexual assault problem. Around 3,000 complaints are filed annually by victims who are largely female service members. But, according to published estimates, that figure underreports a virtual crime spree that amounts to as many as 19,000 sexual assaults per year. Fear of retribution accounts for much of the underreporting.
“We have to create a climate where these cases, No. 1, are reported, No. 2, are prosecuted, and No. 3, are convicted—and those who are convicted are expelled from the military,” Gillibrand told me. “I think it’s a very broad-based approach. I think it starts with professionalizing the military criminal-justice system in creating an avenue for reporting that’s outside the command structure.”
Gillibrand was especially influenced by The Invisible War, a powerfully upsetting Oscar-nominated documentary on sexual assault in the military, which argues that because of a male-dominated military culture it is more frequently ignored or concealed than dealt with as a serious problem. Wednesday’s witnesses will include a panel of defenders of the status quo, including judge advocate general officers from the Air Force, Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard.
They can expect a fusillade of incoming from Gillibrand and her colleagues.
“I think it will be an opportunity to ask some tough questions about their current views,” she told me. “I’ve met with a number of our panelists in advance. I think their viewpoint is very different from that of the senators who will attend the hearing. I think they’re satisfied with the convening authority making judgments at the criminal level.”
Will the senator draw them out and hold them accountable for their views?
“Yes, that is my intention,” Gillibrand said.
She said she is reserving judgment on whether Air Force Lt. General Franklin should be relieved of command, a suggestion of McCaskill among others. “I think that will be part of Secretary Hagel’s review,” she said. “I’ll let Secretary Hagel do his review, and if I find it inadequate I will call for further review.”
As for solving the sexual assault problem, which has been deeply ingrained in military culture for decades, ever since women began serving alongside men (although women are not exclusively victimized), Gillibrand said a change in policies and attitudes will help.
“If you can instill some accountability in the system, you’ll begin to not only rid the military of these criminals who are serving in the military, but you will also create a climate where there is less fear by those who are assaulted—so that victims will feel that there is an avenue for justice,” she said. “The more justice that is meted out will continue to create a safer climate for the men and women who are serving and who are currently being targeted as victims by these perpetrators.”
Unfortunately, she added, the problem is not simply a military issue.
“It is not isolated to the military. I think it’s a broad-based issue that will have to be addressed in many levels of society,” Gillibrand said. “That’s one of the reasons I fight so hard for more women in leadership, whether it’s in Congress, whether it’s in corporate America, or whether it’s in the military. That’s why making sure women could engage in combat was so important to me as we wrote the last armed services authorization bill.”