Survivors of military sexual assault testifying before the Senate armed services committee on Wednesday told the panel that the military criminal justice system is "broken" and that the "epidemic" of sexual violence is a direct result of a misogynistic culture and a system that allows assault to be "swept under the rug."
The victims spoke specifically about the fear and intimidation implicit in the "chain of command" system of prosecution in which military commanders—rather than an independent justice system—are responsible for overseeing justice, including the ability to throw out convictions and sentences.
Despite the approximately 19,000 incidents of violent sexual crime which occur each year, this was the first Senate hearing into sexual abuse in the armed forces in a decade. According to the Pentagon's numbers, women in combat zones are more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by the enemy.
And sexual crimes against men are equally widespread. The Pentagon estimates that of the 19,300 sexual assaults in 2010, 8,600 of the victims were female and 10,700 male.
Rebekah Havrilla, a former army sergeant who was raped by another service member while in Afghanistan, told the Senate panel that after her attack what she experienced was a "broken" criminal justice system.
Reporting on her testimony, the Guardian writes that Havrilla described the military investigation into her case as being the "most humiliating thing that I have ever experienced," noting that it was eventually closed after senior commanders decided not to pursue charges.
During her testimony, Havrilla spoke to the dominant military culture and the clear "lack of understanding" about rape and sexual abuse. "The hostility is not towards women," she said. "The hostility is towards the feminine, towards the weak. It was not a gender issue. They are targeting what they see as less than.[...] In my mind it comes down to what was allowed by leaderships."
Brian Lewis, the first male survivor of military sexual abuse to testify before Congress, added that the "conflict of interest" inherent in the current system of reporting and prosecution was prolonging this "epidemic" of sexual violence. "Service members must report rape to their commanders," he explained. "However, if their commanders take action and prove that rape occurred, they also prove a failure of their own leadership."
Of the nearly 4,000 reports of sexual assault last year, only 191 defendants were convicted at courts-martial. Many of those testifying referred to these numbers as a statement of suppression. The US Department of Defense estimate that 86.5% of violent sexual crimes go unreported.
"I witnessed reports of rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment swept under the rug by a handful of field grade officers," said retired Marine Corps Captain Anu Bhagwati, who founded the Service Women's Action Network. "Perpetrators were promoted, were transferred to other units without punishment, while victims were accused of lying or exaggerating their claims."
The hearing comes amidst controversy over the reinstatement of Air Force Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, who was found guilty of aggravated sexual assault.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), who chaired the panel, blasted the military’s "chain of command" handling of sexual assault. "If you think you are achieving 'discipline and order' with your current [...] framework. I think you're wrong."