WMC News & Features

Verdict Is In on Sexual Assault in the Military

3 13 13 Senate Hearing

Survivors and advocates insist on the need for a system of reporting and trying sexual assault cases independent of the chain of command, writes the author, an expert of gender-based violence.

When a superior non-commissioned officer raped Brian K. Lewis, former petty officer third class, U.S. Navy, his command ordered him not to report the crime. Lewis, the first man to ever testify about military sexual assault, bravely shared his story during the Senate Armed Services Committee's Personnel Subcommittee Hearing in mid-March, on behalf of all male survivors.

Rebekah Havrilla, a former Army sergeant and now an advocate at the Service Women’s Action Network, was another survivor who spoke during the Senate hearing.  After she was raped by a service member, she testified that she was terrified of the repercussions of reporting it. When she finally decided to report, she found the process was re-victimizing. It ended in no charges for her rapist.

Over the past two months, I have attended three high level hearings on military sexual assault, a crime that 19,000 soldiers experience annually. Also in March, I attended the presentation of an annual report on sexual assault in the military academies given to the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services (DACOWITS).

While sexual assault is an under-reported crime in the civilian world for many reasons, military survivors face additional barriers. While new programs in the military mean survivors can have access to victim advocates and trained military lawyers, ultimately, it is up to their commander to decide the verdict, or to overturn it.

At each of the three recent hearings, survivors and survivor advocates said their main recommendation for stopping military sexual assault is the creation of an independent system for reporting and trying cases so that more people can safely report crimes, more perpetrators will be convicted, and there will be a real deterrent for would-be assailants.

As it stands, now, too often the chain of command includes the rapist or his friends, and, the commanders neither are impartial judges of the situation nor are they trained legal experts. As a result, less than 10 percent of the reported perpetrators are prosecuted and only 2 percent of those ends in convictions.

The military disagrees with this recommendation.  At each hearing, military leaders openly acknowledged that sexual violence is a problem, stated that the military has “zero tolerance” for it, and talked about how they now have more prevention and training initiatives in place. But they also said they will not change the reporting and prosecution process because they believe it will prevent the maintenance of “good order and discipline.”

The story was not much different at the DACOWITS event. Nathan Galbreath, the senior executive advisor of accountably and assessment, shared that reports of sexual assault at the three military academies were higher than in the past and then primarily discussed new prevention efforts. When someone asked him what kind of accountability there is for the crimes, he refocused the discussion to prevention, saying, “We cannot prosecute our way out of this.”

While the military’s stance is frustrating, I have been heartened by the response of the women of Congress, especially by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), who organized the Senate hearing within days of becoming the chair of the Personnel Subcommittee. This was the first Senate hearing on the topic in nearly 10 years.

Senator Gillibrand passionately called out the military leaders who testified at the hearing, saying, “I appreciate the work you’re doing, but it’s not enough.”

When the military leaders defended the command’s authority by saying it constitutes “good order and discipline,” she retorted, “I don’t know how you can say having 19,000 sexual assault cases a year is discipline and order. It is the exact opposite of discipline and order.”

She brought up a recent egregious case where Air Force pilot Lieutenant Colonel James Wilkerson was found guilty of aggravated sexual assault in November by an all-male jury at Aviano Air Base in Italy. Then, Lieutenant General Craig A. Franklin, commander of the Third Air Force in Europe, ordered his release from prison and revoked the conviction without explanation.

Gillibrand asked Lieutenant General Richard C. Harding (USAF) if justice was served in this case. He could not give a direct answer and Gillibrand shot back saying, “If you are the victim in that case, to have gone through eight months of testimony, of providing evidence, I can assure you, she did not believe justice was done.”

To ensure that justice is served in more cases, Representatives Jackie Speier (D-CA), Bruce Braley (D-IA), and Patrick Meehan (R-PA). recently introduced legislation in the House that would remove military commanders’ power to overturn legal decisions or lessen sentences. Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) plans to introduce similar legislation in the Senate.

Congresswoman Speier also will soon reintroduce her bill, the Sexual Assault Training Oversight and Prevention Act (the STOP Act), to create an impartial office within the military to handle cases of rape and sexual assault outside of the chain of command.

Contact your representatives and encourage them to support the Military Judicial Reform Act of 2013 now and the other pieces of legislation once they are introduced. If the military continues to refuse to listen to the advice of survivors and advocates, it is up to us to ensure that Congress passes legislation that makes them listen.

The commentary has been corrected as of 3 PM, March 26, 2013.

More articles by Category: Politics, Violence against women
More articles by Tag:



Sign up for our Newsletter

Learn more about topics like these by signing up for Women’s Media Center’s newsletter.