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"Choking back tears and in voices edged with rage, two women and a man who served in the American military told a Senate panel on Wednesday how they were raped by superiors and then ridiculed or ignored by military officials from whom they sought help."

Witnesses at a Senate panel investigating sexual assault in the military. (photo: Christopher Gregory/NYT)
Witnesses at a Senate panel investigating sexual assault in the military. (photo: Christopher Gregory/NYT)



Veterans Testify on Rape and Scant Hope of Justice

By Jennifer Steinhauer, The New York Times

14 March 13

 

hoking back tears and in voices edged with rage, two women and a man who served in the American military told a Senate panel on Wednesday how they were raped by superiors and then ridiculed or ignored by military officials from whom they sought help.

The three former service members, the first military sexual assault victims to testify before a Senate panel, described a pervasive culture of harassment and danger in which victims had little or no redress.

One spoke of a rape she endured during her first months of service, and another told of a sergeant who stripped naked and danced on a table during an official sexual harassment training session. After spending a year repeatedly harassed, Rebekah Havrilla, a former Army sergeant deployed to Afghanistan from 2006 to 2007, was raped by a superior a week before returning home.

"I chose not to do a report of any kind because I had no faith in my chain of command," Ms. Havrilla said. When she sought help from an Army chaplain, she said, he told her "the rape was God's will" and urged her to go to church.

The hearing, the first the Senate has held in nearly a decade on sexual assault in the military, reflects the increasing attention to the issue because of revelations about pervasive sexual harassment at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas and throughout the military.

The Pentagon estimates that roughly 19,000 service members are assaulted annually. A small fraction of the incidents are reported because most victims fear retaliation or ruined careers, and only about 10 percent of those cases go trial. One in three convicted military sex offenders remain in the service, something many policy makers want immediately corrected.

"The issue of sexual violence in the military is not new, and it has been allowed to go on in the shadows for far too long," said Senator Kirsten E. Gillibrand, Democrat of New York, who convened the hearing as chairman of the Senate Armed Services personnel subcommittee.

Ms. Gillibrand delivered a blistering attack on the military for its handling of sexual assault cases: "Congress would be derelict in its duty of oversight if we just shrugged our shoulders at these 19,000 sons and daughters, husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, and did nothing. We simply have to do better by them."

The focus on the topic, which Ms. Gillibrand chose for the personnel subcommittee's first hearing in the current Congress, also demonstrates the tenaciousness of the women on the Senate Armed Services Committee, now at a record seven, who have worked to bring sexual misconduct in the military to public attention.

For several hours the three service members told stories with remarkably similar details to the senators and scores of military and other observers at the hearing. The three said they either hid their assaults or were subjected to further humiliations, distrust or protracted stabs at justice when they reported them.

"I no longer have any hope that the military chain of command will consistently prosecute, convict, sentence and carry out the sentencing of sexual predators in uniform," said BriGette McCoy, who was raped in 1988 when she was 18 years old and stationed in Germany.

The testimony of victims is "highly significant," said Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, who from her seat on the Armed Services Committee in 2004 grilled Gen. George W. Casey Jr., then a top commander in Iraq, on the issue.

"One reason it has been so difficult to move forward against sexual assault in spite of commitments in the Senate is because we've not put a human face on this," Ms. Collins said. "The victims make the violence very real and compel you to act."

Many members of the committee said they would like to see all sex offenders in the military discharged from service and would like to replace the current system of adjudicating sexual assault by taking it outside a victim's chain of command. The senators focused in particular on a recent decision by an Air Force general to reverse a guilty verdict in a sexual assault case with little explanation.

Military officials who testified appeared both chastened and defensive.

"The Air Force has zero tolerance for this offense," said Lt. Gen. Richard Harding, the judge advocate general of the Air Force, who testified later in the day.

General Harding declined to address whether justice had been served in certain cases brought to his attention by Ms. Gillibrand. She then told the military officials that she was "extremely disturbed that each of you believes that the convening authority is what maintains discipline and order within your ranks."

In the military, a "convening authority" is a commander in charge of the military justice system within his or her own ranks. As an example, the "convening authority" could be a commander of a victim's base or unit.

"If that is your view I don't know how you can say having 19,000 sexual assaults and rapes a year is discipline and order," Ms. Gillibrand said. "I appreciate the work you are doing, I honestly do, but it's not enough. And if you think you are achieving discipline and order with your current convening authority framework I am sorry to say you are wrong."

One victim, Brian K. Lewis, a former petty officer in the Navy, said he wanted to bring attention to male victims of sexual assault, who he said were often overlooked. Mr. Lewis testified that he was raped in 2000 by a superior officer, and when his command learned of the crime, "I was misdiagnosed as having a personality disorder."

 

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+9 # golferdawn 2013-03-14 09:58
Just another example of how this country is treating it's citizens.
 
 
0 # Doubter 2013-03-14 22:49
Sorry, but considering the situation we are in and everything that is going on, I can't say I am surprised except by the fact that there are enough volunteers to create and man (and 'woman') an imperial army.
 
 
+10 # Toribeth 2013-03-14 10:09
Somewhere in the past I remember placing my hand over my heart and saying, "with freedom and justice for all." I was only a kid then, That was many years ago---in the United States of America.
 
 
+21 # Artemis 2013-03-14 10:13
Thank goodness for Senator Gillibrand. It is time that someone tells these men that they are incompetent and delusional. The descriptions over the years of sexual abuse in the US Armed Forces is simply disgraceful and odious. It reminds me too of the evidence of abuse and sexual assault on campuses throughout the US. Not forgetting the denigrating jokes and chauvinism that goes on in the workplace all over America. What kind of people are being educated to believe they can get away with such abuse?
And they talk about abuse of women in the Muslim world!!!!
 
 
0 # phrixus 2013-03-16 09:27
And let's not forget the Catholic church...
 
 
+6 # jwb110 2013-03-14 11:28
This may be a problem that is more pervasive in an all volunteer military. I would suggest that if the draft were still in effect that a whole bunch of social and political issues would be different. The public doesn't have enough skin in the game to make it pay attention. If all Americans are drafted into the military there would be a wider world vision by the ranks and the country would bring pressure on the Gov't to stop the kinds of havoc being forced on the American People.
 
 
+1 # SOF 2013-03-14 16:53
Agree, but believe we will have a draft -which will now include women and gay men. Perhaps there will be strength in numbers. Meanwhile taking rape cases out of the line of command seems like a good idea. This has been going on for too many years without proper attention or response from military or civilians.
 
 
+1 # Rick Levy 2013-03-14 23:34
Anyone who advocates return of the draft who can't or won't enlist him/herself had better just shut up. During the Vietnam war there was a great deal of condemnation by those who didn't have to worry about involuntarily becoming cannon fodder vs. young men who were at such risk but refused to comply and either went Canada or prison. I hope that America never again takes on that "Let's you and him fight" mentality.

But what the hell, the song "Fortunate Son" expresses this sentiment more eloquently than I ever could.
 
 
0 # phrixus 2013-03-16 09:29
Maybe the first step should be not lying our way into unnecessary wars to begin with.
 

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