Today the Senate held a panel discussing sexual violence in the military. This is a growing issue primarily because of how the military covers up sexual violence. People who report abuse not only face a wall of silence, but some of them face counter charges and potential discharge. The cover-up, much like that of the Vatican, starts from the top. So many people in power are aware of the problem and yet do nothing.
The Senate heard testimony from three ex-service members — BriGette McCoy, Rebekhah Havrilla, Anu Bhagwati, and Brian Lewis — concerning the situation:
BriGette McCoy described how she was raped on her first military assignment, two weeks before her 19th birthday. She described how, later that year, she was raped by another soldier in her unit.
Then came sexual harassment by two officers — including one who requested that she be moved to work directly for him, she said Wednesday.
Testifying before lawmakers, the former Army specialist described the “anguish” and “entrapment” she felt, and the horror of the ordeal that followed.
“I no longer have any faith or hope that the military chain of command will consistently prosecute, convict, sentence and carry out the sentencing of sexual predators in uniform without absconding justice somehow,” she told the Senate Armed Services Committee’s subcommittee on personnel.
“It even starts at recruitment,” she said. “We have quite a few of our men and women that are being raped and sexually harassed during the recruitment process.”
Brian Lewis was the first male survivor of military rape to testify in front of the Senate, which speaks volumes about how gendered the coverage of military sexual violence has been. Fortunately, most of the coverage I have seen today has not only mentioned male survivors but also acknowledged that they make up the majority of the victims. This is not a competition, however, I think it is important for people to highlight that this is not the gendered issue it has been painted as in the recent past.
Lewis shared part of his story with the Senate:
After enlisting in the Navy in 1997, he was raped by a superior officer during his first tour, he said.
“I was ordered by my command not to report this crime.”
Then, he said, “I was misdiagnosed with a personality disorder” and was discharged. That remains on his record, he said.
According to Lewis, this happens to many survivors and because it remains on their records it can affect their military benefits and their employment opportunities. The discharges and diagnoses can also hurt survivors’ efforts to apply for medical treatment and claims.
Lewis also noted the need to reach out to male survivors:
“We also need to ensure that prevention efforts are inclusive of male service members. … We cannot marginalize male survivors and send a message that men cannot be raped, and, therefore, are not real survivors,” the former officer said.
That comment may have been inspired by what happened to Lewis and Michael Matthews a few weeks ago. They gave interviews for Kirby Dick’s film The Invisible War, however, Dick only gave the two men five minutes in the finished film. The film instead focused on the women Dick interviewed and painted the problem of military sexual violence as a women’s issue. As noted above, men make up 56% of the victims of sexual violence in the military, yet most of the coverage and outreach has only been directed at women.
Regarding the prosecution of military sexual violence, the situation is abysmal:
According to a 2010 Defense Department study, only 8% of sexual assailants are referred to military court, compared with 40% of similar offenders prosecuted in the civilian court system.
The article does not note how many of those cases result in convictions. It is likely that few of them do given the difficulty of proving rape cases and the military bureaucracy. That presents a frightening situation because many offenders abuse multiple victims. By having such a low rate of prosecutions let alone convictions, most of the offenders are free to abuse again.
We will have to see what comes from the panel. Many changes must be made, however, given how entrenched this ideas are within the military, that change may not come easily.