The House of Representatives passed a bill on Friday that cracks down on sexual assault in the military an issue that has plagued female personnel for many years, but finally got the attention it needed when information was released that showed 26,000 reports of sexual assault in the military in 2012.
We have all heard the military’s philosophy of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” What is even more disturbing is their philosophy on handling sexual assault within their rank and file.
According to a report released by the Department of Defense, there were 26,000 cases of sexual assault reported in the military in 2012, an increase of 34.5 percent from 2011. It is believed that 92 percent of the victims never report their attacks.
Not only are these numbers disturbing but the military’s system of justice is equally alarming.
The new bill includes a mandatory two-year sentence for military service members convicted in a military court of rape or sexual assault. The bill also removes the power of commanding officer’s ability to overturn convictions in rape and sexual assault cases. Furthermore, it demands dismissal or dishonorable discharge of service members convicted of attempting or committing sex crimes. It also gives the victim the option of requesting a permanent transfer out their unit and allows commanders to remover those who have been accused of the crime.
The bill is a part of a broad annual defense spending bill that now has to go to the Senate for passage. Hopefully it will not get caught up in any political power struggles in the senate. Both Chambers seem committed to reforming the military’s handling of sex crimes, especially in light of the staggering number of assaults.
This week the Senate Armed Services Committee worked on a bipartisan measure that calls for a review of any case where a commander or military lawyer decides not to prosecute a sexual assault complaint and makes it illegal for anyone to retaliate against the victim. It will also make it illegal for commanding officers to dismiss court-martial convictions.
On Wednesday, the U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel heard the testimony of Rebeka Havrilla, the only female in a bomb squad assigned to eastern Afghanistan. Who reported being raped days before returning to the United States.
“The rape,” she said, “was the icing on the care.”
Havrilla told a horrific story of how it started as sexual jokes, innuendos and escalated into groping, slapping and harassment, ultimately ending in rape before she left Afghanistan in 2009. When she reported her case it was dismissed by her military commanders.
Havrilla is one of many women in the military who have met with the unjust practices in the military legal system also known as the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). In this system sexual assault reporting and prosecution is at the discretion of Commanders. This presents a serious conflict of interests when the victim is more than likely reporting a higher level ranked official.
“Even if you felt uncomfortable about something, you learned pretty quickly not to say anything, or to express any type of indignation or you’d be targeted for more,” Havrilla said.
This is not the first time sexual assault claims in the military have come before legislatures. In 2003, the chairman of the Senate Armed Service Committee requested a review of the Air Force after several sexual assault allegations. Although the House, Senate and Department of Inspector General’s Office all made recommendations for changes, it appears that no action was taken.
The hearing on Wednesday comes after an accumulation of complaints filed by 28 service members in 2011 against former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Susan Burke, who represented the victims, gave graphic details, case by case, of the sexual assaults the victims have endured. The case was dismissed because the court ruled it had no jurisdiction in military legal matters.
A more recent revelation was at the Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, where 62 female recruits came forward alleging sexual assault and harassment by their instructors.
The case that has gained widespread attention and a primary focus of the hearing on Wednesday, is that of Lt. Col. James Wilkerson whose sexual assault conviction was overturned. Wilkerson, a pilot and inspector general of the 31st Fighter Wing at Aviano Air Base in Italy, was found guilty of sexual assault and sentenced by a jury. Consequently, Lt. Gen. Craig A, Franklin decided to overturn the conviction and allowed Wilkerson to be reinstated in the Air Force. Lawmakers were enraged at these actions and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered a review of the case and the UCMJ too.
According to Anu Bhagwati, executive director and co-founder of Service Women’s Action Network, reform should consist of two points. Military commanders should not have the power to manipulate the system or decide which cases go to trial, and military personnel need access to the civil courts so that victims can file damage claims.
“There is no recourse at the end of the day,” Bhagwati said. “You can’t just increase
Col. Martha McSally, a retired United States Air Force Colonel with 26 years of service is also an advocate for reforming the present military culture. She believes the work environment has more to do with leadership not just the perpetrator.
“You are responsible as the commander to set the climate. Am I going to set a climate of inappropriate jokes or am I going to set a climate that we are all on a team together?” said McSally. “It’s about a climate of professionalism and respect. It’s not just the perpetrator but also the facilitators.”
“Bad leadership, good leadership, it makes a big difference,” said Havrilla.
The military has treated sexual assault as if it were some minor infringement, but maybe with both the House and Senate advocating for reform, the climate in the military which appeared to bolster these horrendous acts will change and the 26,000 women who have been violated will see justice in their cases.
By: Veverly Edwards