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Testimony Begins In Senate Hearings Regarding Military Sexual Violence

Rebekah Havrilla (L) and Anu Bhagwati (R) of SWAN

Rebekah Havrilla (L) and Anu Bhagwati (R) of SWAN

Military sexual trauma and military sexual violence are the hidden dangers that many women in the United States military face every day while working in an environment that protects male entitlement with the ability to simply sign away a conviction. Today, the Senate opened its first hearings into military sexual violence in over a decade.

Military sexual assault claims at least 19,000 victims per year, and that estimate comes from 2011. This amounts to more than fifty per day. While the focus is largely on women who have been sexually assaulted in the military, it should be noted that military sexual assault also hits men. Allegations surfaced of sexual misconduct and even sexual assault against Eric Massa, a former Naval officer and then-US Representative, while in office. During the scandal evidence surfaced that Massa had assaulted his fellow male sailors.

In her opening statement, subcommittee chair Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York stated “The issue of sexual violence in the military is not new. And it has been allowed to go on in the shadows for far too long. We need to take a close look at our military justice system, and we need to be asking the hard questions, with all options on the table, including moving this issue outside of the chain of command, so we can get closer to a true zero-tolerance reality in the Armed Forces. The case we have all read about at Aviano Air Base is shocking, and the outcome should compel all of us to take the necessary action to ensure that justice is swift and certain, not rare and fleeting.”

During her testimony, former Marine Captain Anu Bhagwati, the executive director of the Service Women’s Action Network, stated:

Military sexual violence is a personal issue for me. During my five years as a Marine officer, I experienced daily discrimination and sexual harassment. I was exposed to a culture rife with sexism, rape jokes, pornography, and widespread commercial sexual exploitation of women and girls in the United States and overseas.

My experiences came to a head while I was stationed at the School of Infantry at Camp LeJeune, North Carolina from 2002 – 2004, where I witnessed reports of rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment swept under the rug by a handful of field grade officers. Perpetrators were promoted or transferred to other units without punishment, while victims were accused of lying or exaggerating their claims in order to “ruin men’s reputations.”

As a Company Commander at the School of Infantry, I ultimately chose to sacrifice my military career to file an equal opportunity investigation against an offending officer. I was given a gag
order by my commanding officer, got a military protection order against the officer in question, lived in fear of retaliation and violence from both the offender and my chain of command, and watched in horror as the offender was not only promoted but also given command of my Company.

Many of the women who were impacted by these incidents chose not to re-enlist. I left by the skin of my teeth. However, all of the officers who were complicit in covering up these incidents have since retired or are still serving on active duty.

I was devastated, because I loved the Marines.

Rebekha Havirlla gave a first hand account of what happened to her while working in one of the most dangerous fields within the military out there. She said, in part:

My deployment brought more than just the stress of occupational hazards. During my tour, one of my team leaders continuously sexually harassed me and was sexually abusive towards me. This behavior caused me so much anxiety that I ended up self-referring to mental health and on medication to manage not just the stress of my deployment, but also the stress of having to live with an abusive leader and co-worker. 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. Initially, I chose not to do a report of any kind because I had no faith in my chain of command as my first sergeant previously had sexual harassment accusations against him and the unit climate
was extremely sexist and hostile in nature towards women. After disclosing my rape to a few close friends, I ended up filing a restricted report sixty days before I left active duty against both my rapist and my team leader, but had no intentions of ever doing a formal investigation.

I began a job as a contractor and entered the Reserves at Fort Leonard Wood, MO and tried to start a different life for myself. Reintegration was challenging and I had few support systems to rely on. I struggled with depression and the effects of Post-Traumatic Stress. Approximately a year after separating from active duty, I was on orders for job training and during that time I ran into my rapist in a post store. He recognized me and told me that he was stationed on the same installation. I was so re-traumatized from the unexpectedness of seeing him that I removed myself from training and immediately sought out assistance from an Army chaplain who told me among other things, that the rape was god’s will and that go d was trying to get my attention so that I would go back to church. Again, I did not file an unrestricted report against my rapist.

You can read the rest of Captain Bhagwati’s testimony here, and the rest of Ms Havrilla’s testimony here.

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