You can listen to U.S. Navy veteran Brian Lewis’ March 13, 2013 testimony to the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel here.
“Nearly 30 years ago, when George H. W. Bush was president and Dick Cheney was the secretary of defense, the Pentagon made a promise to our service members. Dozens of Navy and Marine Corps aviation officers had just been investigated for the infamous Tailhook sexual assault scandal, and America’s military leadership affirmed a “zero tolerance” policy toward sexual assault within their ranks. The military had a sexual assault problem, and pledged to solve it.
It’s painfully clear that the military has now failed at this mission by almost any metric. For years, survivor after survivor has told us the change in the system we needed to make to end this scourge — the same change that a number of our allies around the world have already made: take the adjudication of these crimes outside of the chain of command and allow trained military prosecutors to prosecute them.” Read more opinion at Military Timeshere.
“The Military Justice Improvement Act would take the prosecution of sexual assault and other serious crimes, such as murder, out of the chain of command. It would keep those crimes in the military justice system, but put the decision to prosecute them into the hands of actual military prosecutors who are trained to deal with complex legal issues.” –Senator Kirsten Gillbrand (Military Times, July 1, 2019)
Gillibrand Leads Bipartisan Coalition to Reform Military Justice System -Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (May 16, 2013)
U.S. House of Representatives
United States Senate
To Whom It May Concern:
This is a letter of support for Save Our Heroes. We recognized immediately that Save Our Heroes and victims of crimes both want similar changes in the military justice system. Save Our Heroes is asking for three specific legislative/policy changes to restore fundamental fairness in the military justice system:
1. Remove all Commanders authority from decision-making in the legal system.
2. The number of panel members should be increased to 12 for General Courts Martial.
3. Any conviction at Courts Martial shall require a unanimous verdict.
These requests by Save Our Heroes are similar to the overall changes that victims of crimes in the military have lobbied for, specifically that Commanders be removed from the reporting and decision-making process because of fear of bias, lack of investigative training, and the power to discharge and/or punish with the stroke of a pen. Save Our Heroes is requesting the same changes because ultimately both the victims and accused are looking for a military justice system that mirrors the civilian justice system while respecting the need of the Commanding Officer to ensure discipline is maintained within their command. We want a justice system where crimes are reported to legal authorities and not a Commander who is an authority figure with the power to impact your entire life. We want a justice system where crimes will be investigated thoroughly by unbiased military criminal investigative organizations looking for the truth. We want a justice system that provides the same constitutional rights as those provided in the civilian justice system. Save Our Heroes is specifically asking for changes that are commonplace in the civilian justice system, like a jury of twelve of our peers and a unanimous verdict. Our military deserves no less.
Victims of crimes in the military are asking for a military justice system that provides due process for the accuser and the accused. Crime victims want the ability to go to trial based on an independent prosecutor’s decision to charge because there was sufficient evidence to move forward with a case. Crime victims want those people who level false accusations, and engage in other abuses of the process, to be held accountable. While we recognize that false reports represent a small percentage of total reports (between 2-8 percent based on Bureau of Justice Statistics data), those who do falsely accuse are hurting the real victims of these crimes and should be held accountable through the same impartial military justice system. Both the accusers and the accused are asking for due process, which is best accomplished by a system that mirrors the civilian justice system. Currently, Commanders have control of the process when the accused, accuser, defense attorneys, and prosecutors should have control over the process.
Jennifer Norris, Military Justice for All
Stephanie Schroeder, US Human Rights Network & UN Board Member
Brian Lewis, Men Recovering from Military Sexual Trauma
In the Pentagon’s recently released survey, it was estimated that 26,000 cases of sexual assault and rape occurred in the military in 2012. Of these, more than half were estimated to have been committed against men; 14,000 attacks on men, 12,000 on women. This means there was an estimated 38 men and 33 women assaulted in the military every day. The survey also said that male survivors report at “much lower rates” than women. On the 16th, Navy veteran and military rape survivor Brian Lewis was interviewed by NBC News. He had spoken alongside Senator Gillibrand that day as she announced her new legislation (which I’ll get more into next week). Lewis offered insight on the culture that silences male survivors even more effectively than it does female ones.
“As a culture, we’ve somewhat moved past the idea that a female wanted this trauma to occur, but we haven’t moved past that for male survivors.”
“In a lot of areas of the military, men are still viewed as having wanted it or of being homosexual. That’s not correct at all. It’s a crime of power and control.”
“…there’s the notion…that you misconstrued their horseplay.”
A spokesperson for the Pentagon announced a plan to better support male survivors, but since it’s doubtful it will go far enough and does next to nothing to solve the actual problem, it looks like little more than a PR move.
“[The Pentagon] has reached out to organizations supporting male survivors for assistance and information to help inform our way ahead.”
Brian Lewis questioned how helpful this would be.
“I applaud the stand on behalf of male survivors. However, I would be interested in hearing what organizations they are partnering with considering there are none especially geared for male survivors of military sexual trauma.”
The Military Justice Improvement Act was introduced on May 16th by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. Of the six bills that have been introduced, this is the one that has gotten the most attention, likely because it dismantles the policies that allow the military’s rape culture to thrive.
“Under the legislation, discretion on whether to prosecute sexual assaults and other crimes punishable by more than a year in prison would be given to military prosecutors instead of the commanding officers.”
The bill also bans convening authorities from overturning a conviction or changing a conviction to a lesser offense. Taking the power away from the chain of command, giving it to legal professionals, and keeping it within the authority of military courts will fundamentally change the way that sexual assault cases are reported and prosecuted. This type of system has a much higher chance of being trusted and utilized by survivors.
Tamron Hall, host of News Nation on MSNBC, spoke with Jennifer Norris, a military rape survivor who was part of Senator Gillibrand’s press announcement on her new bill. She asked Norris about the confidence that women have in receiving justice under current policies.
“Women lost the confidence a long, long time ago. Hence the reason that today’s introduction of Senator Gillibrand’s bill was just so touching to me. It’s the first piece of legislation that actually has real substance to it to give us that confidence back.”
The kind of changes this bill would enact is being criticized by some who believe that making structural changes will cause more harm than good. The critics don’t seem to understand that wanting to hold on to this structure is the basis of the problem to begin with. Senator Lindsey Graham, for example, has said he is “adamantly opposed” to the bill and thinks “it will do a lot of damage.”
“For 200 years, military commanders have been the court martial authority.”
“And sexual assaults are not on the rise because the military justice system lets people go. It’s on the rise because of the culture that’s created in the military.”
What the Senator doesn’t realize is that the culture of the military is what allows the military justice system to “let people go.” That’s how rape culture works. It’s structural. And unless and until you change that structure, the problem will remain the same.
Hearing is Gillibrand’s First As Chair Of Senate Armed Services Subcommittee On Personnel – Has Been Leading The Fight To End Sexual Violence In Military
Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand released the following prepared remarks of her opening statement at today’s Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel hearing examining sexual assault in the military:
“It is an honor and privilege to Chair this hearing of the Personnel Subcommittee this morning. I want to thank the Ranking Member of this Subcommittee, Senator Lindsey Graham, for his support and working with me to move this hearing forward as quickly as possible.
“I know that all of our colleagues on the Armed Services Committee share our deep commitment to improving the quality of life of the men and women who serve in our all-volunteer force on active duty, or in the National Guard and Reserves, their families, military retirees, and Department of Defense Civilian personnel.
“And that is why this hearing today is so important to me personally…and to thousands of servicemembers…and their families across the country.
“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. The scourge of sexual violence in the military should be intolerable and infuriating to us all. Our best, brightest, and bravest join our armed forces for all the right reasons – to serve our country, protect our freedom, and keep America safe.
“The United States has the best military in the world and the overwhelmingly vast majority of our brave men and women serving in uniform do so honorably and bravely. But there is also no doubt that we have men and women in uniform who are committing acts of sexual violence and should no longer be allowed to serve.
“Too often, women and men have found themselves in the fight of their lives not in the theater of war – but in their own ranks, among their own brothers and sisters, and ranking officers, in an environment that enables sexual assault.
“And after an assault occurs, an estimated 19,000 sexual assaults happened in 2011 alone according to the Defense Department’s own estimates…some of these victims have to fight all over again with every ounce of their being just to have their voice heard…their assailant brought to any measure of justice… and the disability claims they deserve fulfilled. 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 have to do better by them.
“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.
“Because not only does sexual assault cause unconscionable harm to the victim — sexual violence is reported to be the leading cause of post-traumatic stress disorder among women veterans — but it destabilizes our military, threatens unit cohesion and national security. Beyond the enormous human costs both psychologically and physically, this crisis is costing us significant assets – making us weaker both morally and militarily.
“Already, this Committee and the Pentagon took some first steps on this issue as part of last year’s National Defense Authorization bill that President Obama signed into law. While obviously our work is not done, I am hopeful that we can build on these initial changes which include:
Ensuring that all convicted sex offenders in the military are processed for discharge or dismissal from the Armed Forces regardless of which branch they serve in;
Reserving case-disposition authority for only high-ranking officers in sexual assault cases;
Pushing the Pentagon to lift the combat ban that prevents women from officially serving in many of the combat positions that can lead to significant promotion opportunities. By opening the door for more qualified women to excel in our military, we will have increased diversity in top leadership positions, improving response from leadership when it comes to preventing and responding to sexual violence;
And an amendment introduced by my colleague Senator Jeanne Shaheen and based on my legislation, the MARCH Act, means that troops who become pregnant as a result of an act of rape no longer have to pay out of pocket to have those pregnancies terminated.
“Concerning our first panel of witnesses, I want to salute each of you for your courage today in telling your very painful and personal stories. It is my hope and belief that by committing this selfless act you are encouraging others to step forward and are also helping to prevent other crimes from going unpunished.
“We have a duty to you, and the thousands of victims you represent, to examine whether the military justice system is the most effective and fairest system it can be.
“Despite some very dedicated JAG officers, I do not believe the current system adequately meets that standard. The statistics on prosecution rates for sexual assaults in the military are devastating. Of the 2,439 unrestricted reports filed in 2011 for sexual violence cases – only 240 proceeded to trial. Nearly 70 percent of these reports were for rape, aggravated sexual assault or non-consensual sodomy.
“A system where less than 1 out of 10 reported perpetrators are held accountable for their alleged crimes is not a system that is working. And that is just reported crimes. The Defense Department itself puts the real number closer to 19,000! A system where in reality less than 2 out of 100 alleged perpetrators are faced with any trial at all is clearly inadequate and unacceptable.
“My view is that emphasizing institutional accountability and the prosecution of cases is needed to create a real deterrent of criminal behavior. The system needs to encourage victims that coming forward and participating in their perpetrator’s prosecution is not detrimental to their safety or future, and will result in justice being done. Because currently, according to the DOD, 47 percent of service members are too afraid to report their assaults, because of fear of retaliation, harm or punishment. Too many victims do not feel that justice is likely or even possible.
“We need to take a close look at our 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 we can get closer to a true zero tolerance reality in the Armed Forces. The case we have all read about at Aviano Air Base is shocking, and the outcome should compel all of us to take the necessary action to ensure that justice is swift and certain, not rare and fleeting.
“I had the opportunityto press Secretary Hagel on the issue of sexual violence in the military during his confirmation hearing. Secretary Hagel responded by saying, ‘I agree it is not good enough just to say zero tolerance. The whole chain of command needs to be accountable for this.’
“I could not agree more. I was very pleased with the Secretary’s public statement earlier this week that he is open to considering changes to the military justice system as well as legislation to ‘ensure the effectiveness of our responses to the crime of sexual assault.’
“It is with this spirit as our guide that I look forward to hearing from our witnesses.
“After Ranking Member Graham makes his opening remarks, we will hear testimony from my colleague from California, Senator Barbara Boxer who has been a leading voice on this issue. In last year’s Defense bill she successfully included an amendment that prohibits any individual who is convicted of a felony sexual assault from being issued a waiver to join the military.
“We will then have the following witnesses who have either been the victims of sexual assault while serving in the military, or are very knowledgeable advocates for addressing the issue of sexual assaults in the military:
Anu Bhagwati is Executive Director and Co-Founder of the Service Women’s Action Network. Anu is a former Captain and Company Commander, she served as a Marine officer from 1999 to 2004. While serving, Anu faced discrimination and harassment as a woman in the military, and has borne direct witness to the military’s handling of sexual violence.
BriGette McCoy, former Specialist in the U.S. Army. BriGette served in the U.S. Army from 1987 to 1991. She was just eighteen years old when she signed up to serve her country in the first Gulf War. While stationed in Germany from 1988 to 1991, she was sexually assaulted by a non-commanding officer.
Rebekah Havrilla, former Sergeant in the U.S. Army. Rebekah served in the U.S. Army from 2004 to 2008. She was the only female member of a bomb squad in eastern Afghanistan and was attacked by a colleague at Salerno Forward Operating Base near the Pakistani border during her last week in the country in 2007.
Brian Lewis, former Petty Officer Third Class, US. Navy. Brian enlisted in the U.S. Navy in June of 1997. During his tour aboard USS Frank Cable (AS-40), he was raped by a superior non-commissioned officer and forced to go back out to sea after the assault.
“I encourage you to express your views candidly and to tell us what is working and what is not working. Help us to understand what we can do to address this unacceptable problem of sexual assaults in the military.
“Later this afternoon at 2:00 p.m., we will have a third panel of witnesses from the Department of Defense, and the military services, including the Coast Guard. I want to acknowledge that many of those witnesses are here this morning to listen to the critically important testimony from our first and second panels and I would like to thank them for their participation.”