One man and three women who were sexually assaulted and harassed in the military shared their personal experiences with a Senate subcommittee Wednesday morning–the first hearing on sexual assault in the military in 10 years.
Former Army Sgt. Rebekah Havrilla, who was raped by a fellow service member while serving in Afghanistan, recounted how she sought guidance from an Army chaplain after she unexpectedly encountered her assailant a year after the assault, and the chaplain told her it was “God’s will” that she was raped.
“I was so re-traumatized from the unexpectedness of seeing him that I removed myself from training and immediately sought out assistance from an Army chaplain who 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,” Havrilla told the subcommittee on personnel for the Senate Committee on Armed Services Wednesday.
Havrilla’s statement about the military chaplain prompted Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., to request she supply the name of the army chaplain at a later time, and Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said she was “furious” about the incident.
Six months after she re-encountered her rapist, Havrilla was informed by a friend that the perpetrator had taken pictures of her during the rape and posted them on pornographic websites. This prompted Havrilla, who previously had only filed a restricted report on the assault, to file an unrestricted report and a full investigation was conducted, during which Havrilla had to describe in detail to a male Criminal Investigation Division agent what was happening in the photographs – a question and answer period that lasted four hours.
Havrilla’s assailant later admitted to what he described as “consensual” sex while he was married, but the chain of command opted not to charge him with the assault or adultery and closed the case.
“The military criminal justice system is broken,” Havrilla said.
With military commanders seated in the audience, each of the victims testifying Wednesday advocated for removing reporting and prosecutions of sexual assault out of the chain of command and allowing for civil courts to handle prosecutions to ensure commanding officers do not weigh their previous affiliations with the accused perpetrators and victims when determining the case.
“I no longer have any faith or hope that the military chain of command will consistently prosecute, convict, sentence and carry out the sentencing of sexual predators in uniform without absconding justice somehow,” said BriGette McCoy, a former specialist in the United States Army, who was raped on her first assignment in the military at the age of 18.
Brian Lewis, who was raped by a superior while serving in Guam and is the first male victim of sexual assault in the military to testify before Congress, told the committee that it’s time the military pays more attention to the sexual assaults and harassment of men that is occurring in the military.
“We cannot marginalize male survivors and send a message that men cannot be raped and therefore are not real survivors,” Lewis, a former petty officer third class in the United States Navy, said.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who chairs the subcommittee, voiced her concern that the military has fostered an environment where sexual assault and harassment persists and noted that 47 percent of service members are afraid to report their assaults in fear of retaliation and punishment.
“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,” Gillibrand said in her opening statement. “The scourge of sexual violence in the military should be intolerable and infuriating to us all. Our best, brightest, and bravest joined our armed forces for all the right reasons – to serve our country, protect our freedom, and to keep America safe.”
“Congress would be derelict in its duty of oversight if we just shrugged our shoulders at these 19,000 sons and daughters, husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, and did nothing. We simply must do better by them,” Gillibrand said. “When brave men and women volunteer to serve in our military, they know the risks involved. But sexual assault at the hands of a fellow service member should never be one of them.”
Earlier this week, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel called for a review of rules which allow a military commander to overturn court martial convictions by military judges.
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill have expressed outrage after a recent case where an Air Force general threw out an aggravated assault conviction of an Air Force pilot. Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, an F-16 fighter pilot, was convicted of aggravated assault by a jury, but Lt. Gen Craig Franklin, the inspector general of Wilkerson’s home base in Aviano, Italy, overturned the conviction, reinstated Wilkerson and cleared his record.
ABC News’ Matt Larotonda and Luis Martinez contributed to this report.