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Military sexual assault victims demand independent criminal system

Updated: Survivors of military sexual assault, both women and a man, shared their painful testimonies Wednesday at the first Senate Armed Services Committee hea

Updated: Survivors of military sexual assault, both women and a man, shared their painful testimonies Wednesday at the first Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the issue in 10 years.

“This isn't a crime that’s just about women victims, there are also men victims of this crime, and in this setting, the military setting, it’s important that we provide them assistance and services,” Sen. Clare McCaskill of Missouri told msnbc’s Lawrence O’Donnell.“To stay in a unit with your accused, to sometimes have to report to a command structure that may be friends with the accused or sometimes even the accused. It’s really important that we look at this as not just women, but also men."

Witnesses urged senators of the subcommittee on personnel to change the law so that perpetrators of sexual harassment and sexual assault can be convicted in all service branches.

"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," said Rebekah Havrilla, a former service member who said that she chose not to report her rape because she had "no faith in her chain of command."

Havrilla, one of the four members of the first panel of witnesses, testified that she was attacked by a fellow service member while serving in eastern Afghanistan.

A year after separating from active duty, Havrilla said she ran in to her alleged rapist at a store and that he immediately recognized her. She sought the help of an army chaplain who told her it was "God's will and that God was trying to get [her] attention" so that she would go back to church.

Six months later, a friend told her he had discovered pictures that the perpetrator had taken during her rape and posted them on a website.

Havrilla's senior commanders decided to close her case and not pursue charges.

According to the Department of Defense's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response office (SAPRO), an estimated 19,000 service members experience sexual assault a year and 80% of military sexual assaults go unreported. As for prosecuted cases, only 8% of them ever go to trial, and many of the accused offenders were cleared and even returned to the military. According to the department's own figures, women make up 14% of the military, and one in three will be sexually assaulted during her service.

"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," said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., chair of the subcommittee. "Beyond the enormous human costs both psychologically and physically, this crisis is costing us significant assets—making us weaker both morally and militarily."

During her testimony, Anu Bhagwati of Service Women's Action Network pointed out that one of three convicted sex offenders remain in the military and the Navy is the only service branch where all sex offenders are discharged. Unlike civilian authorities, the Defense Department does not keep a registry of military sex offenders.

Earlier, McCaskill articulated the focus of the hearing's mission—"getting the coward rapists out of the ranks." She said, "It's a crime of assault, power, domination and I believe based on my years of experience, that they only way that victims of sexual assault are going to feel empowered in the military is when they finally believe that the focus on the military is to get these guys and put them in prison. So I believe that the focus of our efforts should be on effective prosecution and what do we need to do to make sure that these investigations are done properly and professionally, that the victims are wrapped in good information, solid support and legal advice, that the prosecutors have the wherewithal and the resources to go forward in a timely and aggressive way, and you don't have the ability of some general somewhere who's never heard the testimony of factual witnesses in a consent case can wipe it out with a stroke of a pen."

BriGette McCoy, a former Army specialist and Persian Gulf war veteran, also chose not to report her rape after her first assignment in 1988. When she finally reported being raped and sexually harassed by other service members in her unit, McCoy was given a choice—"to get out or face UCMJ action [herself]."

"Can you tell me why did it take so long?" McCoy asked. "Why did I have to go through so much before anyone would listen to me? Why did I have to be violated again through the process of asking for help and seeking claim status?"

McCoy chose to get out was discharged from service.

Brian K. Lewis, a former petty officer third class in the U.S. Navy, shared his own story of assault and urged the committee to not forget that men are also victims of assault, emphasizing that 56% of military abuse victims are male.

"They have not addressed the root cause, which is that the military justice system is fraught with inherent personal bias, conflict of interest, abuse of authority and too often a low regard for the victim," Lewis said.

The conviction of Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, a F-16 pilot at the Aviano Air Base in Italy, for sexual assault prompted the hearing. Wilkerson was found guilty of the charges but had his conviction cleared by Lt. Gen. Craig A. Franklin. Wilkerson was then allowed to return to the Air Force. NBC News identified the victim in the Wilkerson case as Kimberly Hanks who still works as a physician's assistant at Aviano.

Outraged by Franklin's decision, Democratic Sens. Barbara Boxer and Jeanne Shaheen wrote a letter to newly confirmed Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel last week, asking him to review Lt. Gen. Franklin’s decision and if Hagel had the power to take action.

Shortly thereafter, Hagel responded to congressional inquiries and ordered a review of the military's policy for convicting rapists and the UCMJ as well.