AFP – Former US troops who were raped during their time in uniform recounted their traumatic experiences at a Senate hearing and demanded changes to the military’s justice system.
Four victims, three women and a man, told lawmakers Wednesday in poignant testimony how they had been sexually assaulted and harassed, that their attackers had escaped punishment and that they suffered retaliation and intimidation under a legal code that offered them little recourse.
“The military criminal justice system is broken,” Rebekah Havrilla, a former Army sergeant, told lawmakers.
Havrilla said she was raped by a member of her unit at the end of her tour in Afghanistan in 2007, where she served as a bomb disposal specialist.
Her rapist later posted photos of her online taken at the time of the assault, prompting her to report the crime to military authorities.
But despite having to describe her ordeal through hours of uncomfortable questioning by investigators, her attacker was never punished.
At one point, she sought out help from an Army chaplain.
But the chaplain “told me, among other things, that the rape was God’s will and that God was trying to get my attention so that I would go back to church,” she said.
The former soldier and fellow victims told the Senate Armes Services subcommittee on personnel that the military’s legal code had to be changed so that commanding officers are not allowed to wield authority over cases involving their subordinates.
“What we need is a military with a fair and impartial criminal justice system, one that is run by professional legal experts, not unit commanders,” Havrilla said.
Lawmakers at the hearing agreed and later grilled military lawyers and officials at a second hearing over a recent case that saw an Air Force general overturn a guilty verdict against Lieutenant Colonel James Wilkerson, who had faced a one-year prison sentence over sexual assault charges.
Amid outrage among lawmakers, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has ordered a review of the Wilkerson case as well as the military rules that grant authority to commanding officers to reverse verdicts.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat from New York who presided over the hearing, called the Wilkerson case shocking and said the military’s response to the problem was untenable.
“Too often, women and men have found themselves in the fight of their lives,” she said. “Not in the theater of war but in their own ranks, among their own brothers and sisters and ranking officers in an environment that enables sexual assault.”
Some lawmakers are pushing for legislation that would strip commanding officers of authority over decisions by juries and judges at court-martial proceedings.