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Survivors Share Experiences of Sexual Assault in the Military

March 13, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Women in combat zones are more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by the enemy. Of nearly 4,000 reports of sexual assault in the military last year, only 191 defendants were convicted. Judy Woodruff reports on testimony from male and female sexual assault victims about attacks they suffered while in the military.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, we return to the issue of sexual assaults in the military.

Earlier today, victims testified before Congress about what they went through and the changes they think need to be made in the armed forces.

Women in combat zones are more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by the enemy. But of the nearly 4,000 reports of sexual assault in the military last year, only 191 defendants were convicted at courts-martial. And because very few victims actually come forward, the real number of cases is estimated at 19,000.

Those numbers from the Pentagon have fixed new attention on the problem, with stories in The New York Times and Rolling Stone magazine on rape survivors, and the Oscar-nominated documentary “The Invisible War,” filled with testimonials from military veterans who were sexually assaulted.

TANDY FINK, U.S. Army: I reported it two different times to my squad leader. And he told me that there was nothing he can do about it because they didn’t have any proof.

TIA CHRISTOPHER, U.S. Army: And they took me before my lieutenant commander. He says, do you think this is funny? And I said, what do you mean? He’s like, is this all a joke to you? I was like, what do you mean’ And he goes, you’re the third girl to report rape this week. Are you guys like all in cahoots? You think this is a game.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Today, a Senate Armed Services subcommittee took up the issue, starting with Anu Bhagwati of the Service Women’s Action Network.

ANU BHAGWATI, Service Women’s Action Network: 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 both in the United States and overseas.

JUDY WOODRUFF: From there, the panel heard first-hand accounts from victims, both women and men.

BriGette McCoy is a former Army specialist.

FORMER SPC. BRIGETTE MCCOY, U.S. Army: I’m a Gulf War era service-connected disabled veteran. I was raped during military service and during my first assignment. That was 1988. I was 18 years old. It was two weeks before my 19th birthday.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Former Navy Petty Officer Brian Lewis also appeared, said to be the first male victim of military rape to testify before Congress.

FORMER PO3 BRIAN LEWIS, U.S. Navy: During my tour on the USS Frank Cable, I was raped by a superior noncommissioned officer. I was ordered by my command not to report this crime.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Rebekah Havrilla, a former Army sergeant, said she didn’t report her rape initially, and then:

FORMER SGT. REBEKAH HAVRILLA, U.S. Army: 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 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 God was trying to get my attention so that I would go back to church.

Six months later, a friend called me and told me they had found pictures of me online that my perpetrator had taken during my rape. At that point, I felt that my rape was always going to haunt me unless I did something about it. So, I went to Army Criminal Investigation Division, CID, and a full investigation was completed.

The initial CID interview was the most humiliating thing that I have ever experienced. I had to relive the entire event for over four hours with a male CID agent who I have never met and explain to him repeatedly exactly what was going on in each of the pictures.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, chairing the subcommittee, got a mixed response when she asked if an outside prosecutor would help in reporting crimes by moving the process outside the chain of command.

BRIAN LEWIS: An independent prosecutor would have made a world of difference. It would have gotten — it would have gotten the reporting outside the chain of command and not enabled my commanding officer to sweep this under the rug.

REBEKAH HAVRILLA: Had I actually gone through with a full investigation while serving, I still would have had to live with many of the men who were abusive towards me. And that was — that’s not anything that I would have ever wanted to go through, independent prosecutor aside. The challenge is partially changing the culture within the military of how women are viewed.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Later, Defense Department officials acknowledged the military culture must change.

Maj. Gen. Gary Patton directs the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office.

MAJ. GEN. GARY PATTON, Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office: Underpinning all efforts is a need for enduring culture change, requiring leaders at all levels to foster a command climate from top to bottom where sexist behavior, sexual harassment and sexual assault are not tolerated, condoned, or ignored.

I believe we will know changes occurred when prevention of sexual assault is as closely scrutinized as a prevention of a fratricide or friendly-fire. We will changes occur know sexist behavior and derogatory language produce the same viscerally offensive reaction as hearing a racist slur. We are not there yet.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The new defense secretary, Chuck Hagel, promised stronger leadership on the issue at his confirmation hearing.

DEFENSE SECRETARY CHUCK HAGEL, United States: It’s not good enough just to say zero tolerance. The whole chain of command needs to be accountable for this all the way down.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Hagel has already ordered a review of an Air Force general’s decision to overturn a sexual assault conviction against an officer who served in Italy.