WASHINGTON, March 13 (RIA Novosti) As the US Congress looks to change the way the American military handles sexual assault cases, victims testified before a Senate subcommittee Wednesday, painting an ugly picture of sexual violence, intimidation and an uncaring system of justice.
“The issue of sexual violence in the military is not new. And it has been allowed to go on in the shadows for far too long,” said Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York State, chairwoman of the personnel subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Several former service members testified on Wednesday that they were victims of sexual attacks while in the military and their commanders did little or nothing about it.
Former Army sergeant Rebekah Havrilla, who came forward to share her story, told the panel that after she was raped in 2007 by another service member in Afghanistan, she found a “broken” military criminal justice system when her case was eventually dismissed after senior commanders decided not to pursue charges.
Havrilla said she tried to get counseling from an Army chaplain and was told “that the rape was God’s will and that God was trying to get my attention so that I would go back to church.”
Wednesday’s Senate hearing comes as members of Congress are expressing outrage after a US Air Force lieutenant general overturned the aggravated sexual assault conviction and one-year sentence handed down by a military jury last year against a lieutenant at Aviano Air Base in Italy.
Under current US law the general’s decision to reverse the verdict cannot be overturned.
“It looks to me like he is protecting one of his own,” said Kimberly Hanks, who identified herself as the victim of that attack during an interview with NBC News. She said the message to other women who have been sexually assaulted in the military is “it’s not worth it. Don’t bother.”
New US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said he would conduct an internal review of how the case was handled.
Several senators said they want to change the law and strip US military commanders from being able to overturn sexual assault verdicts.
“Giving military commanders with no legal experience the ability to completely nullify a jury’s verdict without even requiring justification is against everything that we believe about justice in this country,” said Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri in a statement Wednesday.
“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,” said Havrilla.
Gillibrand said there were nearly 2,500 military sexual assault cases reported in 2011, but only 240 made it to trial, according to the Associated Press.
Several members of the US House of Representatives introduced legislation Tuesday that would strip military commanders of the power to overturn legal decisions or reduce sentences.