WASHINGTON – Against a backdrop of sexual assault cases involving Air Force recruits in San Antonio and the reversal of a fighter pilot’s conviction, senators on Wednesday considered legislative changes to the way the military prosecutes sexual crimes.
Several military sexual-assault victims testified before the Senate Armed Services subcommittee on personnel that they were raped and suffered traumatic consequences while the perpetrators avoided prosecution.
“I am here today because I am not alone,” said Brian Lewis, a former Navy petty officer who was raped in 2000 by a non-commissioned officer, ordered not to report it, and then was misdiagnosed as having a personality disorder and discharged.
Lewis, now with the victim advocacy group Protect Our Defenders, told the Senate panel that 56 percent of the sexual assault victims in the military each year are men, and 44 percent women
Robert Taylor, the Defense Department acting general counsel, said the Pentagon is undertaking measures to make judicial, investigative and support programs more efficient.
The Senate hearing is the first in nearly a decade to address sexual assault in the military. The committee last reviewed sexual assault allegations involving the Air Force Academy in 2003.
Four victims who testified before the panel on Wednesday reported a culture within the military that allowed assaults to go unpunished.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., chairwoman of the panel, said there are an estimated 19,000 sexual assaults in the military each year, though only a third of those attacks are ever reported. “It has been allowed to go on in the shadows for far too long,” she said.
Gillibrand said legislative changes are needed to curb the number of assaults, encourage victims to come forward and prevent higher-ups from meddling in prosecutions to protect their own careers.
Lawmakers said they are looking at several legislative measures, including one which would remove investigations of sexual assault and prosecutions from the chain of military command and assign them to an independent counsel.
They cited the recent case of Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, an Air Force pilot and inspector general of the 31st Fighter Wing at Aviano Air Base in Italy who was found guilty last year of sexual assault and sentenced to one year in a military prison.
Last month, the jury conviction was overturned by Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, commander of the 3rd Air Force at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, who also ordered Wilkerson reinstated.
“Sexual assault is a heinous and violent crime, and it must be treated as such,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who urged her colleagues to enact legislative changes to “end this terrible legacy of sexual assault in the military.”
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said the Wilkerson case was not only troubling because of the reversal of a jury verdict, but also because Wilkerson initially received a one-year prison term.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, in a letter to Boxer, said he would review the commander’s reversal, which cannot be overturned, and military procedures that allowed the decision to be made.
The case has created an uproar in Congress, in both the Senate and House, where lawmakers are questioning military statutory authority and considering changes to the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
In a letter to Hagel on Wednesday, members of the House Armed Services Committee, including Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, said the issue could be addressed in the defense authorization bill for fiscal 2014, which begins Oct. 1.
In addition to the Wilkerson case, lawmakers are also grappling with the still unfolding sexual assault scandal at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, the Air Force installation for basic training.
Some 62 recruits and trainees have reported being raped, assaulted or inappropriately touched by instructors, and 32 instructors have been charged with illicit sexual contact or crimes since 2009.
But prosecutions have moved slowly. A 10th Air Force instructor goes to trial this week over sexual assaults at Lackland.
Lt. Gen. Richard Harding, judge advocate general for the Air Force, said there is “zero tolerance” for sexual assault. He said efforts were underway to change the climate and environment, improve leadership and hold offenders accountable.
A House hearing in January on the Lackland sex scandal saw both Republican and Democratic lawmakers sharply criticize two Air Force generals for delays in reporting the crimes and allowing a culture that fostered misconduct.
Gen. Edward Rice Jr., the head of the Air Force training command at Lackland, cited a subsequent report that there were insufficient safeguards and leadership oversight to stop the crimes from occurring.
And Gen. Mark Welsh III, Air Force chief of staff, told the House hearing that sexual assault is not confined to Lackland, and that the problem was being addressed throughout the service branch.
“It’s unacceptable,” Welsh said. “We are giving it our full attention.”