When will real action be taken to end sexual assault in the military?

March 14, 2013
Military Senate sex assaults
Anu Bhahwati, Brigette McCoy, Rebekah Havrilla, and Brian Lewis (L-R) testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Military Personnel (Win Mcnamee/Getty Images)

The victim was asleep in a guest room in the home of Lt. Col. James Wilkerson and his wife.

Wilkerson’s wife Beth, the victim said, had invited her to stay the night after an “impromptu” party at their home.  The victim did not have a ride back to the Aviano Air Base in Italy at the conclusion of the party.

The victim testified that she “was awakened by feelings of ‘discomfort’ as she was being groped.”   A light came on.  She said she saw Lt. Col. Wilkerson’s “face inches from her own.”  Mrs. Wilkerson, who was “standing in the doorway,” commanded the victim to leave their home.

Barefoot, the victim of this sexual assault left the Wilkerson home by foot at 3 a.m., according to court testimony,

In November, in a court martial, an all-male jury found Wilkerson guilty of aggravated sexual assault. He was sentenced to one year in jail,  “forfeiture of all pay and dismissal from the service.”

After Wilkerson’s court martial and conviction, Col Joseph Bialke, a staff lawyer and adviser to Lt. Gen. Craig A. Franklin, commander of the Third Air Force in Europe and the senior officer in Wilkerson’s chain of command, found that “defense claims of legal errors in the court martial were ‘without merit.’”

Bialke recommended that Franklin approve Wilkerson’s conviction but double his prison sentence from one to two years.  Bialke also recommended reversal of Wilkerson’s dismissal from the service. Reversing his dismissal from the service would have allowed Wilkerson and “his family to collect retirement pay and benefits.”

Instead, without explanation, last month, Franklin “threw out the sexual assault conviction of Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, overruled his sentence and reinstated Wilkerson into the Air Force.”  Under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), Franklin is permitted to take this course of action and is not required to explain his reasoning in doing so to any one.

This case is a prime example of the medieval and barbaric attitudes toward the victims of rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment in the military.

The victims of military sexual assault, rape, and harassment have no redress in civil courts and the UCMJ allows commanders to reverse the results of courts martial.  If one cannot turn to the civil courts for justice and there is no real protection for the rights of victims in the UCMJ, can justice ever really be had?

Two months after a hearing in the House of Representatives involving sexual misconduct by basic training instructors at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel held a hearing examining sexual assault in the military.  Convened by U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), it was the first Senate hearing to be held on military sexual violence in almost 10 years.

What a difference a hearing convened and led by a woman can make.  The tone, tenor, organization, witnesses called, and most importantly, the respect accorded victims of military sexual assault was in stark contrast to the Jan. 23 hearing on sexual misconduct at Lackland conducted by the House panel.

During the Senate hearing, there was never any question about whether advocates for the victims of military sexual assault would be heard.  Nor was there ever any question as to whether the voices of victims of military sexual assault would be heard or whether a female member of the armed services would actually testify about what was being done to prevent these crimes.

Victims and advocates testified first.  A senior, female member of the Armed Services testified. Also, it was made clear that military sexual assault is not “just” a “woman’s issue.” It is an issue of hostility towards perceived weakness and affects women and men alike. And female members of the US Senate made it clear that this issue is one that will not be swept under the rug.  As Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.),  a former Jackson County prosecutor and a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, stated, “Rape is the crime of a coward—and rapists in the ranks are masquerading as real members of our military.  The focus of our efforts should be on effective prosecution. There’s no reason a general who’s never heard the testimony of factual witnesses should be able to wipe out a verdict with the stroke of a pen.”

After hearing from ranking member Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), a leading voice on this issue, testified.  Her testimony was followed by that of Anu Bhagwati, a former Marine captain and executive director and co-founder of the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN); Brigette McCoy, a former specialist in the U.S. Army; Rebekah Havrilla, a former sergeant in the U.S. Army and outreach and education coordinator for SWAN; and Brian Lewis, a former petty officer third class, U.S. Navy.

After listening to their testimony, one couldn’t help but ask why it is so difficult to put the perpetrators of these crimes in prison.

Bhagwati testified that during her five years as a Marine officer, she “experienced daily discrimination and sexual harassment.” She said that at Camp LeJeune, N.C., she witnessed “reports of rape, sexual assault and harassment swept under the rug by a handful of field grade officers.  Perpetrators were promoted or transferred to other units without punishment, while victims were accused of lying or exaggerating their claims in order to ruin men’s reputations.”

McCoy, who describes herself as a “Gulf War era service-connected disabled veteran,” said she was raped during military service and during her first assignment at her “first and only” duty station.  She was 18 and had been in country less than 90 days.

Havrilla was an “Explosive Ordinance Disposal Technician.”  She says that she achieved the rank of sergeant in three years and three months. During her tour, she said that one of her team leaders “continuously” sexually harassed her and was sexually abusive towards her.  According to Havrilla, one week before her unit was scheduled to return to the U.S., she was raped by another service-member that had worked with her team.

Lewis was the first male survivor to testify before Congress about sexual assault in the military.  According to his testimony, during his tour on the USS Frank Cable (AS-40), in August 2000, he was raped by a superior, non-commissioned officer.  Lewis said that he was ordered by his command not to report this crime to the Naval Criminal Investigative Service.

Testimony in the afternoon session by a panel of witnesses representing the U.S. Department of Defense and the military services, including the Coast Guard, made it clear that there is a belief that sexual assault in the military can be “trained” away and that the reporting, investigation, and adjudication of sexual assaults should remain in the chain of command.

The testimony of the witnesses who testified in the afternoon was an enormous disappointment. However, it was refreshing to see a woman in a significant leadership position in the Armed Services testify.  This was not the case during the January hearing conducted by the House panel,  where no women in uniform testified.  At the Senate hearing, the presence and testimony of Vice Admiral Nanette M. “Nan” DeRenzi, the 42nd Judge Advocate General of the Navy was important. Women’s voices must be heard about how the military and the civilian population will put an end to crimes against women and men in the military.

McCaskill announced that she is proposing legislation that curtails the authority of commanders to dismiss jury convictions against sex offenders.

In the House of Representatives, Reps. Jackie Spier (D-CA), Bruce Braley (D-IA) and Patrick Meehan (R-PA) introduced a bipartisan bill called the “Military Judicial Reform Act.”  It would amend articles 60 and 63 of the UCMJ, so that the convening authority no longer has the ability to dismiss, commute, lessen a finding or order a rehearing after a jury or judge has found the accused guilty and delivered a sentence.

The women and men of the House and Senate mean business. (Or at least some of them do).

As Gillibrand stated, “We need to take a close look at our military justice system, and we need to be asking the hard questions, with all options on the table, including moving this issue outside of the chain of command, so we can get closer to a true zero tolerance reality in the Armed Forces.  The case we have all read about at Aviano Air Base is shocking, and the outcome should compel all of us to take the necessary action to ensure that justice is swift and certain, not rare and fleeting.”

Rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment should not be incidental to service in the U.S. military. This, is a national disgrace.

 

Michelle D. Bernard is the president & CEO of the Bernard Center for Women, Politics & Public Policy.  Follow her on Twitter @michellebernard.

 

 

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