Senate Hearing Brings Military Sexual Assault Out of the Shadows

Last week, the U.S. Senate held a subcommittee panel on sexual assault in the military, its first in over a decade. Three former service members testified before the panel about “a pervasive culture of harassment and danger in which victims had little or no redress.”

The subcommittee’s hearing comes as senators expressed outrage over a controversial case in which a sexual assault conviction was thrown out by a three-star general. Air Force Lt. Col. James Wilkerson had been convicted of aggravated sexual assault in November, but had his conviction thrown out and was reinstated by Air Force Lt. Gen Craig Franklin in February.

In her opening statement, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) stated, “The issue of sexual violence in the military is not new. And it has been allowed to go on in the shadows for far too long.” She’s right. A mere 240 of the 2,439 formal reports submitted in 2011 concerning sexual violence proceeded to trial. A Pentagon study reported that around 19,000 sexual assaults took place in 2010, and one in three convicted military sex offenders remain in the service.

Rebekah Havrilla, a former Army Sgt. testifying at the panel, told senators about a military chaplain who counseled her by saying her rape was “God’s will” and that she should go to church more often. She also discussed the hostile and sexist environment she faced as a woman while serving in her unit.

But men, too, face rape in the military. Brian Lewis, a former Navy petty officer third class, told the panel that he never reported his rape for fear of retaliation, and said, “The military justice system is fraught with inherent personal bias, conflict of interest, abuse of authority and too often a low regard for the victim.” BriGette McCoy, who was raped at 18 while stationed in Germany, said she has no hope that the military chain of command “will consistently prosecute, convict, sentence and carry out the sentencing of sexual predators in uniform.” The three service members urged the panel to require independent review of claims of sexual assault and to remove the authority to reverse decisions from high-ranking officers so cases like Wilkerson’s won’t happen again.

Sen. Gillibrand passionately told military officials in attendance (see video below) that they were not doing enough to achieve “discipline and order” and keep service members safe. Hopefully, the subcommittee panel will push the U.S. military to enact the initiatives necessary to protect and serve those who fight to protect and serve our nation.

Photo via Flickr user U.S. Department of Defense Current Photos under Creative Commons 2.0