Isn’t it refreshing when legislators get upset about things that matter? Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., this Wednesday told a panel of judge advocate generals (or Jags) from the Army, Navy and Air Force that she was “extremely disturbed” by the self-serving answers they gave during a Senate inquiry into military sexual assault.
According to those leaders, the power of “convening authority”—which grants commanders the right to overturn convictions by military juries—is necessary to maintain “good order and discipline” in the armed services, and the military’s existing due diligence requirements in matters of sexual assault are sufficient. Rather than accept their answer, Gillibrand stated the obvious: an estimated 19,000 sexual assaults within the military each year, 86 percent of which the Defense Department believes goes unreported, is a direct refutation of “good order and discipline” and the adequacy of due diligence, not evidence of them.
The Senate Armed Services Committee hearing marked the first time in 10 years that Congress has examined the issue of sexual assault in the military. That fact alone strongly suggests that rape and sexual assault do not fall within the current military leadership’s judicial concerns.
The hearing was prompted by a recent series of incidents at Aviano Air Base in Italy. Earlier this month, Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin reversed a conviction of sexual assault given to a senior fighter pilot in February. The 49-year-old victim of that case said she was “shocked and scared” that the man who had been convicted of attacking her, 44-year-old “air force superstar” Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, would be allowed to “remain in a position of military leadership.” She was incredulous that one person, her commander, could “set justice aside, with the swipe of a pen.”
Two issues were on trial at this week’s hearing: the prevalence of sexual assault (against males and females) in the military, and the judicial theory that enables and encourages it. Experts and witnesses say that theory has prevented thousands of victims from reporting the crimes committed against them, out of the assumption that commanders will take “good order and discipline” to mean not rocking the boat with time-consuming and embarrassing investigations into sexual assault allegations.
Survivors expressed these fears while testifying at the Senate hearing. One solution, said Rebekah Havrilla, a former Army sergeant who was raped by a fellow soldier in Afghanistan, “is a military with a fair and impartial criminal justice system, one that is run by professional and legal experts, not unit commanders.”
Brian Lewis, a male who was raped by a noncommissioned officer on board a Navy ship and the first such victim to testify before Congress, confirmed the view that the priorities of commanders deter the vast majority of victims from reporting abuse. He and his fellow testifiers believe it is decisions like these that undermine “good order and discipline” by shaking victims’ and concerned observers’ faith in the military chain of command.
Were it not for legislators like Gillibrand, uniformed men and women who suffer sexual assault may never get a meaningful hearing in Washington and the press. For telling the Jags that their efforts to resolve the military’s sexual abuse crisis were “not enough,” we honor Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand as our Truthdigger of the Week.