Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) is bringing the ongoing crisis of sexual assault in the military into the spotlight, hoping to use a recent outrageous case as a springboard to change.
The Senate Armed Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Personnel, chaired by Gillibrand, met on Wednesday to begin the process of reforming the military justice’s handling of sexual assault cases, speaking to panels of both survivors of sexual assault in the military and top military law experts.
Gillibrand appeared on MSNBC on Thursday to present the hearing’s findings, leaving host Andrea Mitchell stunned. Over 19,000 allegations of Military Sexual Trauma (MST) were made in 2011 alone, but as Gillibrand informed Mitchell there were only 2,400 cases where action was taken. The disparity, according to Gillibrand, comes from fear of retaliation and “not being able to stay in the military and having no ability to be promoted.”
Both women shared their disbelief that the military justice system could take such a lax approach to a clear problem:
MITCHELL: I don’t understand the Military Code of Justice, in that it was a reason for dismissal for expulsion from the military until last year, if you violated Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. Yet, if you were found guilty in a military court of a criminal assault, of rape, you could go back to your unit. How is that possible?
GILLIBRAND: It’s outrageous and it’s something that should outrage every American. When we look at our best and bravest, our strongest, our most courageous. When you enter the military, you may expect to lose a limb. You may expect to lose your life. But no one should be expecting to be assaulted or raped by one of their colleagues.
Watch their exchange here:
The permissive culture towards sexual violence Gillibrand described was underscored by the testimony of former Sgt. Rebekkah Havrilla. Havrilla told the subcommittee of the U.S. Army’s failure to provide proper assistance following several instances of alleged sexual assault and rape. At one point, an Army chaplain told Havrilla “that the rape was God’s will and that God was trying to get my attention so that I would go back to church.”
“Rape and assault are violent, traumatic crimes, not mistakes, leadership failures or oversights in character,” Anu Bhagwati, Co-Founder of the Service Women’s Action Network told the panel. Bhagwati offered a series of possible reforms to the military criminal justice system to the senators, including opening civil courts to military sexual assault victims.
Currently, the Uniform Military Code of Justice features an article that allows a commanding officer through his or her “convening authority” to overturn the conviction of a jury in courts-martial. Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin used that ability last week to overturn Lt. Col. James Wilkerson’s conviction of sexual assault, waive the one-year prison sentence, and reinstate Wilkerson in the Air Force. Under the law as written, Franklin’s decision can’t be overturned by the Secretary of Defense or the Secretary of the Air Force.
Wilkerson’s reinstatement has sparked outrage from both houses of Congress and prompted a review of the statute in question by the Department of Defense’s top lawyers. A bill has already been introduced in the House of Representatives related to the Wilkerson case. Reps. Jackie Spiers (D-CA), Bruce Braley (D-IA), and Patrick Meehan (R-PA) put forward the bill on Tuesday to strip commanders of their ability to overrule juries and lessen sentences.