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A difficult conversation about the military occurred today at a Senate panel on Capitol Hill. Victims of sexual assault testified that the military's criminal justice system is broken. They spoke of commanders who brushed aside their claims, prosecutors who decided not to pursue charges, and a military culture that protects predators. The hearing comes after a general's decision to overturn an officer's conviction on sexual assault. NPR's Tom Bowman has the story.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Rebekah Havrilla was a soldier serving in Afghanistan several years ago, the only woman on a bomb squad. She told senators her male sergeant - her team leader - sexually harassed her. Then, something worse happened.
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REBEKAH HAVRILLA: One week before my unit was scheduled to return back to the United States, I was raped by another service member that had worked with our team.
BOWMAN: But because of the harassment from her superior, and the sex jokes and rape jokes he tolerated among the men, Havrilla never filed a report.
HAVRILLA: Because I had no faith in my chain of command.
BOWMAN: Havrilla is not alone. The Defense Department estimates that about half of all victims of sexual assaults don't file a report because they fear retaliation or indifference from commanders. And officials say the numbers are revealing. The most recent data from the Pentagon says there are about 2,500 sexual assault cases reported to authorities. Only 240 of those made it to trial. The Pentagon believes the true number of sexual assaults in the ranks, is about 19,000.
SEN. KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND: Too often, women and men have found themselves in the fight of their lives.
BOWMAN: New York's Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand chaired today's hearing.
GILLIBRAND: Not in the theater of war but in their own ranks, among their own brothers and sisters and ranking officers, in an environment that enables sexual assault.
ROBERT TAYLOR: We must combat this scourge with all the resources at our disposal.
BOWMAN: That's acting Pentagon general counsel Robert Taylor. He says the Air Force recently teamed up sexual assault victims with special counselors, to help guide them through the legal system. But the hearing came just after a decision by a senior Air Force officer, illustrated the problems women face. Last month, Air Force Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin overturned a sexual assault conviction against Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, a former inspector general at Aviano Air Base in Italy.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has told senators the law does not allow him to reverse Gen. Franklin's decision, and he's reviewing the matter. Pentagon officials say the role of the commanders in criminal cases has been narrowed somewhat, but preserved by Congress. Anu Bhagwati, a former Marine officer with the Service Women's Action Network, said commanders must be removed from overseeing criminal cases against their subordinates.
ANU BHAGWATI: Commanding officers cannot make truly impartial decisions because of their professional affiliation with the accused and oftentimes, with the victim as well.
BOWMAN: Several lawmakers are introducing legislation to do what Bhagwati is suggesting. Today, the victim in the Aviano case, a 49-year-old physician's assistant released a statement to the committee. [POST-BROADCAST CLARIFICATION: The correct term is physician assistant.]
She wrote: Why bother to put investigators, prosecutors, judge, jury and me through this, if one person can set justice aside with the swipe of a pen?
Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.
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