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Truly Dishonorable: Military Justice System Betrays Survivors of Sexual Assault

Elayne Weiss,
Washington Legislative Office
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March 15, 2013

Rebekah Havrilla, a former Army sergeant, received no justice after she was raped by a fellow soldier while serving in Afghanistan.

On Wednesday, Rebekah testified before the Senate Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee at a hearing on military sexual assault, recounting her traumatic and downright appalling time serving in a command culture that tolerated sexual assault and harassment. Her subsequent experience with the military justice system re-traumatized her after she decided to come forward and report her rapist.

At first, Rebekah decided not to report her rape, because “I had no faith in my chain of command, as my first sergeant previously had sexual harassment accusations against him.” But after leaving active duty and entering the reserves, Rebekah unexpectedly ran into her rapist on base. Shocked by the encounter, she immediately sought assistance from an Army chaplain, who told her that the rape was “God’s will.”

Finally, Rebekah decided to file an unrestricted report, leading to a full investigation, after she found pictures of herself online taken by her assailant during his attack. Enough was enough.

But the military justice system let her down. Rebekah said, “The initial [] interview was the most humiliating thing that I have ever experienced. I had to relive the entire event for over four hours with a male [Criminal Investigation Division] agent, whom I never met, and explain to him, repeatedly, exactly what was going on in each of the pictures.” She heard nothing from CID for four months, until they again asked her to retell her story to another investigator who was taking over her case.

During the entire process, Rebekah lived in constant fear of retaliation or the possibility of again running into her rapist. In the end, her assailant went unpunished, and commanders were never held accountable.

Rebekah’s story is not unique. Three other veterans also testified at the hearing alongside her, recounting their own experiences of sexual assault and harassment. Anu Bhagwati, a former Marine Captain and Executive Director of the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN), told the subcommittee, “Perpetrators were promoted [and] transferred to other units without punishment, while victims were accused of lying or exaggerating their claims in order to ruin men’s reputations.”

More than 3,100 reports of sexual assault were made in FY2011, but we know that the incidence of sexual assault is significantly underreported. The Department of Defense estimated that more than 19,000 incidents of sexual assault occurred in 2010 alone.

While these statistics alone are alarming, the problem of military sexual assault is compounded by the perception and reality of a military justice system that fails to deliver actual justice when sexual assault, harassment or rape is alleged. Adding insult to injury, service members who leave the service find that the Department of Veterans Affairs does not adequately recognize the trauma they experienced, a problem that can and should be corrected by Congress.

The ACLU has a long history of working to protect the rights of service members and preventing and responding to gender-based violence and harassment in the workplace. As part of Women’s History Month, we have been highlighting the work that still must be done to end discrimination against women (although it’s important to note that the problem of military sexual assault isn’t limited to one gender). We’re asking Congress to reexamine the military justice system— in particular the scope of command authority and discretion, and access to civil remedies—and the way in which Veterans Affairs treats claims filed by sexual assault survivors.

We are thankful that both Congress and the Department of Defense continue to address the problem of military sexual assault, and that some lawmakers, like Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) who convened the hearing, are making this issue a priority. But there is still much work to be done.

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