WASHINGTON (AP) — Victims of sexual assault and violence in the military told Congress Wednesday they’re afflicted with a slow and uncaring system of justice that too often fails to hold perpetrators accountable and is fraught with institutional bias.
They testified to a Senate panel examining the military’s handling of sexual assault cases that the military justice system is broken and urged Congress to make changes in the law that would stem the rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment that they said are pervasive in the service branches.
Defense Department officials said they have taken aggressive steps to combat sexual assault in the ranks. In written testimony to be delivered later Wednesday, Robert Taylor, the Pentagon’s acting general counsel, called sexual assault an “abhorrent crime” that does enormous harm to the victim and undermines the good order and discipline that is essential in military units.
Rebekah Havrilla, a former Army sergeant, told the panel that she encountered a “broken” military criminal justice system after she was raped by another service member while serving in Afghanistan. Havrilla described suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and described how her case was eventually closed after senior commanders decided not to pursue charges.
“What we need is a military with a fair and impartial criminal justice system, one that is run by professional and legal experts, not unit commanders,” Havrilla said.
BriGette McCoy, a former Army specialist and a Persian 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 asked for 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 told the Senate Armed Services personnel subcommittee.
The subcommittee’s hearing comes as members of Congress are expressing outrage over an Air Force general’s decision to reverse a guilty verdict in a sexual assault case that is spurring support for legislation that would prevent commanding officers from overturning rulings made by judges and juries at courts-martial proceedings.
Anu Bhagwati of the Service Women’s Action Network told the panel that commanders are unable to make impartial decisions because they usually have a professional relationship with the accused and, often times, with the victim as well. Bhagwati, a former Marine Corps captain, said court-martial cases should be left in the hands of “trained, professional, disinterested prosecutors.”
Under military law, a commander who convenes a court-martial is known as the convening authority and has the sole discretion to reduce or set aside guilty verdicts and sentences or to reverse a jury’s verdict.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has ordered a review of Air Force Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin’s decision to overturn the sexual assault conviction against Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, a former inspector general at Aviano Air Base in Italy.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, the chairwoman of the military personnel subcommittee, called the Wilkerson case “shocking” and promised to take a hard look at the military justice system. Nearly 2,500 sexual violence cases in the military services were reported in 2011, but only 240 made it to trial, Gillibrand said.