Testimony before Senate Armed Services Committee points to larger problem

The story she has to tell is horrific. Unfortunately, her experience is all too common. She made the decision to serve her country, and she ended up being violated–not by the enemy–but by her colleagues. According to Sergeant Rebecca Havrilla, the only female member of a bomb squad in eastern Afghanistan, her entire military experience was marred by mistreatment, culminating in rape just days before she was to return to the US. She first experienced harassment and groping during basic training in 2004. This abuse continued throughout her military career, until she was raped in Afghanistan in 2009: “Havrilla’s story gets worse before it gets better: she ran into her alleged rapist at a shop on Fort Leonard Wood; says she was told by a military chaplain that ‘it must have been God’s will for her to be raped’; and says a friend found pictures of the attack on a pornography website” (CBS). She pressed charges, only to see those charges dismissed.

This week victims of sexual assault in the military, including Rebecca Havrilla, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee about the epidemic of sexual harassment and assault within its ranks. This testimony comes on the heels of a recent case that grabbed national headlines when Lt. Gen. Craig A. Franklin overturned the conviction of Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, a pilot and inspector general of the 31st Fighter Wing at Aviano Air Base in Italy who had been found guilty of sexual assault and sentenced by a jury (CBS). The victim in that case, Kimberly Hanks, was stunned to hear that the conviction was overturned: “It looks to me like he is protecting one of his own” (todaynews). According to Hanks, other victims will now hesitate to file reports. They have been sent the message that “it’s not worth it. Don’t bother” (todaynews).

Since 2005, among commanders holding the rank of Lieutenant Colonel or above who were relieved of duty, over 4 in 10 lost their positions because of personal misconduct (Yahoo News). Over the past eight years, over 30 percent of military commanders who lost their positions were guilty of sexual misconduct. In one recent case, Army Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair, who served five tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, faces 25 charges, including forcible sodomy, sexual misconduct and violating orders.

A second recent allegation includes the sexual assault of Air Force recruits by their instructors at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. In previous testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, the Air Force Chief of Staff, testified that poor oversight of instructors at Lackland led to rampant misconduct. During his testimony, he admitted that “’weaknesses developed in each one of our institutional safeguards’ that led to a poisonous culture in which the instructors believed they could easily get away with repeatedly preying on young woman recruits” (NY Times). The Lackland case involves 32 instructors who are accused of abusing 52 female recruits (NY Times).

Before that there were other scandals, including Tailhook in 1991, where dozens of women were accosted and sexually molested by naval pilots at a convention in a Las Vegas hotel. More than 4,000 officers, including 35 Navy admirals and two Marine Corps generals, attended the convention, consuming $33,500 worth of alcohol (LA Times). “It started about 9 p.m. when 200 or so Navy and Marine aviators began to mill about a third-floor corridor of the Las Vegas Hilton Hotel waiting for their prey. By that time, Navy investigators said, most of them were so drunk that the hallway reeked of the smell of stale beer, urine and vomit but things were destined to get far uglier as the night wore on. If a woman approached–and over the three nights of the 1991 Tailhook Assn. convention hundreds did–a scout would shout out ‘clear deck’ and when she tried to make her way through, the walls would close in with a flurry of grabbing, pinching and groping of her breasts, buttocks and legs. Some women had part of their clothing ripped off” (LA Times). At least 83 women were assaulted, and while 140 officers were originally charged, more than 70 were cleared of wrongdoing, and the rest received minor penalties for their actions (LA Times).

While there has been testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee in the past, including a review of the Air Force in 2003, little progress has been made in addressing sexual assault in the military. Perhaps this time will be different, as seven women now serve on the Armed Services Committee (US Senate). Perhaps a female presence is what is needed to lead to real reform. For the sake of all previous victims, and women who currently serve in the military, I hope the current committee takes action. I hope they listen to victims like Rebecca Havrilla: “”The people that were supposed to help me, take care of me, protect me, and I them – it goes both ways — were the ones that caused the most harm. They were the ones that did the most damage” (CBS News).

Diane DeBella

As a writer, teacher, and speaker Diane has spent over twenty years examining women’s issues. She is the author of the collective memoir *I Am Subject: Sharing Our Truths to Reclaim Our Selves*, and editor of the anthology *I Am Subject Stories: Women Awakening*. As a long-time faculty member at the University of Colorado, she received the CU Women Who Make a Difference Award and the CU-LEAD Alliance Faculty Appreciation Award. Through her organization I Am Subject, Diane helps us understand how we—as women—are impacted by the society in which we live. By claiming ourselves as subjects of our own lives, we become empowered and also provide strong role models for other women and girls. In healing ourselves we help others—a beautiful way for women to create nurturing, supportive communities.

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