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Rape on duty: Senate panel members suggest overhaul of military justice system

BriGette McCoy joins MSNBC's Richard Lui to talk about her testimony on sexual assault in the military and her concern over the lack of changes.

The investigation of accused military rapists should be removed from the chain of command and handed to trained prosecutors, perhaps installing an era of civilian oversight within the armed forces justice system, according to senators who Wednesday heard testimony from three ex-service members who were sexually assaulted while on duty. 


The push for an overhaul in how the military handles reported rapes in its ranks was repeatedly underscored during the hearing by references to the recent decision by a top Air Force general to overturn a military jury’s verdict against a fellow pilot convicted of raping a woman who had been assigned to a hospital at Aviano Air Base in Italy.

The Aviano ruling — which set aside a one-year brig sentence for the convicted rapist — is “yet another example of an abuse of authority taken by a commander that will have a chilling effect on military judges, prosecutors, and juries and inhibit victims from coming forward,” testified Brian Lewis, a former Navy petty officer, who was raped in 2000 by a senior non-commissioned officer service. Lewis became the first male rape survivor ever to testify before Congress about such an assault. The hearing also marked the first Senate attention to military sexual assault in nearly 10 years.

“The epidemic has not been successfully been addressed in decades of review and reform by the Department of Defense or by Congress … (There is) inherent bias and conflict of interest present in a broken military justice system,” Lewis testified. “The reporting, investigation, prosecution and adjudication of sexual assault must be taken out of the chain of command and (placed) into an independent office with professional, military and civilian oversight. (The current system) … is another way that the Department of Defense fails us.”


Another veteran, former Army Sgt. Rebekah Havrilla, told the panel — part of the U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services — that she was raped in 2007, a week before she was scheduled to leave Afghanistan for the United States. When she confided the attack to an Army chaplain, he told her the rape “was God’s will and that God was trying to get my attention so that I would go back to church,” she testified, adding that her rapist later posted on the Internet images of her sexual assault.

Havrilla testified that she initially decided to not report the rape because she feared retaliation from the male members her her bomb-disposal unit. After she did report the rape to her commanders, the alleged offender was not punished, she further testified.

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“Commanders were never held accountable for choosing to do nothing. What we need is a military with a fair and impartial criminal justice system, one that is run by professional and legal experts, not unit commanders,” Havrilla testified.

At least four senators on the Senate subcommittee said they favored the notion of adding independent prosecutors to the portion of the military-justice system that deals with sex assaults - or agreed that some version of fundamental reform is needed in how the armed forces handle rape reports. 

“I do not believe that the current system adequately meets our standard,” said the subcommittee’s chairwoman, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. “A system where less than one than one out of 10 reported perpetrators are taken to trial for their alleged crimes is not a system that is working. And that is just the reported crimes. The defense department itself puts the real number closer to 19,000 (rapes and unwanted sexual contacts per year, which means only) one out of 100 alleged perpetrators are faced with any accountability at all.

“We need to take a close look at the 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 that we can get closer to a zero tolerance policy.” She added that the Aviano reversal, made by Air Force Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, was “shocking, and should compel all of us to take the necessary action to ensure that justice is swift and certain, not rare and fleeting.”

Equally disturbing, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., argued that military rapes and how such cases are treated within the ranks are so destructive, they could potentially harm the future retention and recruitment of forces, particularly of women. 

"This issue really demands immediate action and not just tinkering around the edges," Blumenthal said. "The problem is the equivalent of having an IED in every unit."

Leaders from all five branches also testified about the litany of policy and cultural changes being installed to prevent and prosecute sex assaults, and to encourage more victims to report. They argued, however, that the power to investigate and ultimately punish suspected sexual offenders must remain within the confines of each branch. 

"For so long as we hold our commanders accountable for everything that a command does or fails to do then they must have these types of authorities," Marine Corps Maj. General Vaughn A. Ary. "They are responsible for setting command climate. They are are responsible for the culture. And it is their leadership that we have to hold accountable. They need to be able to preserve the good order and discipline to accomplish their missions."

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