WASHINGTON — The best way to end widespread underreporting of sexual assaults in the military is to require independent review of claims, survivors of sexual assault testified in a Senate hearing Wednesday.
The witnesses suggested taking the final authority over assault charges out of the hands of high-ranking officers, who have in some cases reversed decisions by military juries.
In the first Senate examination of sexual assault in the military in nearly a decade, the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel weighed a range of potential solutions to a long-standing problem that affects every branch of the military.
The controversy was amplified by a recent case in which an Air Force lieutenant general overturned a military jury’s verdict and sentence for Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, who had been found guilty of sexual assault and sentenced to one year in prison.
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Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., pressed officers from each branch of the military at the hearing on whether they thought justice was served in that case. She asked whether they thought the jury was mistaken. In her view, Gillibrand said, “justice was not done.”
Rebekah Havrilla, a victim of military sexual assault who has become an advocate of change through the Service Women’s Action Network, said the Wilkerson case is a high-profile instance of a common occurrence in the military.
Of the 2,439 formal reports submitted in 2011, 240 proceeded to trial. Anonymous surveys of military personnel for the same year showed that 19,000 instances of sexual harassment or assault went unreported in 2011.
Havrilla testified she had endured sexual harassment and been raped while serving in the Army in Afghanistan. She hesitated to report the rape because she had seen previous accusations against her commanding officer go nowhere. Also, she said, “the unit climate was extremely sexist and hostile in nature toward women.”
BriGette McCoy, a former Army specialist and a Gulf War veteran, said she was raped when she was 18 and at her first duty station. But she did not report it. Three years later, she reported being sexually harassed and requested an apology and to be removed from working directly with the offender. “They did remove me from his team and his formal apology consisted of him driving by me on base and saying ‘sorry’ out of his open car door window,” McCoy testified.
Brian Lewis, a former Navy petty officer, told the subcommittee not to forget that many victims of sexual assault and harassment in the military are male. Lewis said he was raped in 2000 by a noncommissioned officer who outranked him. His commanders ordered him not to report the crime to Naval Criminal Investigative Service. Lewis said he was later misdiagnosed with having a personality disorder, and he was discharged from the service in 2001. “I carry my discharge as an official and permanent symbol of shame, on top of the trauma of the physical attack, the retaliation and its aftermath,” Lewis said.
Military officers testified about a number of efforts in recent years to improve training of investigators. The Air Force has implemented a pilot program to provide independent counsel for victims. The officers raised concerns that the outside reviews could threaten the leadership roles of commanding officers and could slow responses to the reports they do receive.
Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.