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Panel criticizes military on sexual assault cases

BriGette McCoy, left, Anu Bhagwati and Rebekah Havrilla testified about the military’s efforts to curb sexual assault Wednesday on Capitol Hill before a Senate panel.

Associated Press

BriGette McCoy, left, Anu Bhagwati and Rebekah Havrilla testified about the military’s efforts to curb sexual assault Wednesday on Capitol Hill before a Senate panel.

WASHINGTON — In a stinging rebuke of the military's efforts to curb sexual assault, members of a Senate panel hammered Defense Department officials on Wednesday for making too little progress in combating the crimes and failing to improve a military justice system that victims described as slow and uncaring.

During a two-part hearing, the panel heard harrowing testimony from several victims, who said military justice is broken and pushed for Congress to take action to stem rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment.

Pentagon officials said they are taking the problem seriously.

But lawmakers pointed to a decision by Air Force Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin to reverse a guilty verdict in a sexual assault case as evidence of how the military fails victims who come forward to report the crimes. Under military law, a commander who convenes a court martial has the sole discretion to reduce or set aside guilty verdicts and sentences or to reverse a jury's verdict.

Her voice rising, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said all the promises of "zero tolerance" from the witnesses amount to nothing if a convening authority is the only individual who can decide whether to overturn a case. Gillibrand is the chairwoman of the Senate Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee.

"I appreciate the work you're doing, but it's not enough," she told the military officers arrayed at a long witness table.

Rebekah Havrilla, a former Army sergeant, told the panel she encountered a "broken" military criminal justice system after she was raped by another service member while serving in Afghanistan. Havrilla described how her case was eventually closed after senior commanders decided not to pursue charges.

"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," Havrilla said.

BriGette McCoy, a former Army specialist and a Persian Gulf War veteran, said she was raped when she was 18 and at her first duty station, but she did not report it. Three years later, she reported being sexually harassed and asked for an apology and to be removed from working directly with the offender.

"They did remove me from his team and his formal apology consisted of him driving by me on base and saying 'sorry' out of his open car door window," McCoy told the subcommittee.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has ordered a review of Franklin's decision to reverse the sexual assault conviction against Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, a former inspector general at Aviano Air Base in Italy.

Panel criticizes military on sexual assault cases 03/13/13 [Last modified: Thursday, March 14, 2013 12:36am]

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