Sexual assault survivors criticize military culture, justice system
Anu Bhagwati, executive director of the Service Women’s Action Network and a former Marine captain, testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Personnel in Washington, March 13, 2013.
WASHINGTON — Rebekah Havrilla, a former Army sergeant and explosive ordnance disposal technician, told the Senate Armed Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Personnel that when she sought counseling from an Army chaplain after being attacked, she was told that her rape was “God’s will.”
Later, after a friend found photos of Havrilla that the alleged rapist had taken during the attack and posted on the Internet, Havrilla went to Army investigators. The interview with the Criminal Investigation Command “was the most humiliating thing I’ve ever experienced.”
In the first such hearing in the Senate in nearly a decade, military survivors of sexual assault on Wednesday told their stories in emotional detail, urging senators to change a pervasive culture of rape and harassment and a justice system that failed them.
Brian Lewis, a former petty officer third class in the Navy, told senators that his commander ordered him not to report being raped. He was later misdiagnosed with a personality disorder and given a general discharge, he said.
“I carry that 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.
Subcommittee Chairwoman Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., called sexual assault a threat to national security and said the military’s legal system must change “to ensure justice is swift and certain, not rare and fleeting.”
“Too often,” Gillibrand said, “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.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said something is “obviously wrong” with a system in which nearly 50 percent of victims are too intimidated to come forward. But, he said, the justice system must also be fair for the accused, and not allow troops who say they are wrongly accused to feel they have no voice or means to defend themselves.
All the veterans noted problems with the military culture and the justice system. Anu Bhagwati, executive director of the Service Women’s Action Network and a former Marine captain, said one of the persistent issues is inconsistent messaging in training and a focus on assisting victims instead of also weeding out attackers.
“Today, we are looking at an institution that desperately needs to be shown the way forward,” she said.
Several members of Congress have spoken out about a recent case at Aviano Air Base in Italy, in which a pilot’s sexual assault conviction and sentence was thrown out by the lieutenant general who convened the court-martial.
In response, Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., on Tuesday introduced a bill that would amend the Uniform Code of Military Justice to take the authority to overrule or overturn verdicts and sentences away from commanders with no legal training or experience.
On Wednesday, Sen. Claire McCaskill announced she will introduce a similar bill that would take away a commander’s authority to vacate or nullify a jury verdict, and would require a commander to provide written justification for any decisions to commute or lessen a sentence after a guilty verdict in a court martial.
The victims and advocates who testified Wednesday also called for broader change, including taking the authority to pursue a case out of the chain of command.
Unfortunately, Lewis said, the DOD “is not leading the charge” to make positive changes.
“I would love for the Department of Defense to come out with a poster that says, ‘Don’t rape.’ Don’t rape, end of story,” she said.