Note: This is a guest post from Holly Kearl. Holly advocates for gender equity in the workplace and schools by managing the AAUW Legal Advocacy Fund, and she advocates for safe public spaces for women and girls through the organization she founded, Stop Street Harassment.
After Rebekah Havrilla, a former Army Sergeant, was raped by another service member, she sought assistance from an Army chaplain. The chaplain told her, “the rape was god’s will and that god was trying to get her attention so she would go back to church.”
Later, despite being terrified of repercussions, Havrilla finally decided to report the rape after a friend told her that photos of her rape were circulating online. The reporting process was re-victimizing and ended in no charges for her rapist.
Havrilla was one of several survivors of military sexual assault who testified this week at the Senate Armed Services Committee’s Personnel Subcommittee hearing. This was the first Senate hearing on the topic in nearly 10 years. Chairwoman Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), organized the hearing and she passionately called out military leaders, saying, “I appreciate the work you’re doing, but it’s not enough.”
For anyone who has seen the Academy Award nominated documentary “The Invisible War” or has followed news about this issue, you know that sexual assault is a rampant problem in our military. As many as 19,000 soldiers are sexually assaulted annually, according to the Department of Defense’s own estimates.
What is less understood is how the military justice system is broken. When a soldier is raped, she or he must report it up the chain of command. Thanks to new programs in the military, survivors now have access to victim advocates and trained military lawyers, but their commander has the final say over the outcome. As a result, few assaults are reported and less than 10 percent of the reported perpetrators are held accountable for their crime. Commanders are not impartial nor legally trained judges.
Although Lt. Col. James Wilkerson was found guilty of aggravated sexual assault in November by an all-male jury at Aviano Air Base in Italy, Lt. Gen. Craig A. Franklin, commander of the Third Air Force in Europe, recently ordered Wilkerson’s release from his one-year prison sentence and tossed out his conviction without explanation. Franklin, like all commanders, has that authority.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered a review of the case and it might lead to changes in the military’s legal procedures. In the meantime, Wilkerson remains an officer in the Air Force.
Three High Level Hearings and New Legislation
Thanks to mounting public pressure, over the past two months there have been three high level hearings on military sexual assault, and I’ve attended all three. First, there was a hearing called by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights; next, a hearing in the U.S. House Armed Services Committee; and last, the hearing this week in the Senate.
During each hearing, a panel of survivors, like Havrilla, and survivor advocates bravely spoke about not only their own experiences of terror and injustice, but also about the problematic nature of the reporting and prosecution process in the military. Every single person advocated for an independent process, outside the chain of command.
In the Senate hearing, Brian Lewis, a former Naval Petty Officer, was the first male survivor to ever testify on this topic. He pointed out that while percentage-wise, more women than men are sexually assaulted in the military, the actual number of assaults is larger for men since they make up around 85 percent of the military. He also addressed the problematic nature of the military’s prevention campaigns, including how they neglect male survivors. One example was the laughable “prevention” campaign that had the tagline, “Ask her when she’s sober.”
The most frustrating part of each hearing has been the testimonies by military leaders. One by one they testified about how they have “zero tolerance” for sexual assault, how they have new initiatives like victim advocates and bystander trainings, but that no, they do not want to change the current reporting and prosecuting process because it will prevent the maintenance of “good order and discipline.” How will anything really change within the military if the process does not change?
I left the first two hearings very frustrated, but this time, I left the Senate Hearing feeling hopeful. Senator Gillibrand and other members of the Senate subcommittee did not accept the military members’ answers and really pressed them on the issue.
“If the convening authority is the only decision-maker of whether a case goes to trial or proceeds and the only decision-maker about whether to overturn a case, well then all that training and all those excellent lawyers and prosecutors you have, don’t mean a difference,” said Senator Gillibrand.
She also pointed out, “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.”
In large part thanks to brave survivors and advocates and passionate lawmakers like Senator Gillibrand, I believe there will be change in the military.
This week, Reps. Jackie Speier (D-CA), Bruce Braley (D-IA) and Patrick Meehan (R-PA), 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 legislation in the Senate that would change the Uniform Code of Military Justice by preventing a convening authority from overturning a decision reached by a jury.
Congresswoman Speier 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.
What can you do? Contact your representatives and encourage them to support the Military Judicial Reform Act of 2013 now and to support the other pieces of legislation once they are introduced. It is only through our collective outrage and action that Congress will force the military to take real steps to stop sexual assault.
Photo: Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, courtesy of Holly Kearl.
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