March 20 (Bloomberg) -- The best nominated film not to win an Oscar this year is “The Invisible War,” a riveting account of sexual assault in the military focusing on the elite Marine barracks in Washington, just blocks from the White House and a bridge away from the Pentagon.
With harrowing interviews of those preyed upon, the documentary shows what little recourse victims have, how reprisals are more likely than justice, and how perpetrators are as likely to get promoted as to get charged. Two of those interviewed filed lawsuits against the military over an atmosphere that tolerates rapists while quieting the survivors.
The sequel to the documentary played out last week in Congress as the Senate Armed Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Personnel tried to make the invisible visible. In its first hearings since an inquiry into the Air Force Academy scandal in 2003, the committee had a fresh case to consider.
Lieutenant Colonel James Wilkerson, a former fighter pilot at Aviano Air Base in Italy was accused of sexual assault after a late-night party at his house in March 2012. At trial, Wilkerson, who didn’t take the stand, was convicted, sentenced to a year in prison and dismissed from the Air Force. Then last month his commanding officer, Lieutenant General Craig Franklin, overturned the conviction, clearing Wilkerson’s record and returning him to duty.
The subcommittee heard from four former service members who found themselves endangered not by the enemy but from their own. Former Army Sergeant Rebekah Havrilla testified that she was raped by a fellow service member in Afghanistan and told by an Army chaplain that it was God’s way of getting her to go back to church. She didn’t press charges until she found out that her assailant had posted pictures of her on a pornographic website. Then the married officer said the sex was consensual, and officials in his chain of command decided not to charge him with the assault (or adultery).
One of the more poignant moments was the testimony of Brian Lewis, a burly former Navy petty officer, who wanted to expose the problem in the shadows: men attacking men. He told about being raped by a superior while serving in Guam. He was the first man ever to testify before Congress on the subject, despite estimates that more than half the violence is committed by men on men.
When the subject is violence in the military, those in charge are always horrified and determined to do something: Tailhook in 1991, the Aberdeen Proving Ground in 1996, the Air Force Academy in 2003. Now, with more women in the military and in Congress, things are looking up. Is there anything more sad or horrible than young recruits going off to basic training and being attacked by their drill instructors? That was happening with frequency at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, but as of January, some 59 recruits are seeing justice done as 32 drill instructors have been prosecuted or are under investigation.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, chairman of the subcommittee, pinpointed the problem: Commanders can’t be left to police their own ranks. Just as the Roman Catholic bishops did with priests who abused children, officers are more likely to shield the perpetrator they know than the victim they don’t. Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta realized that in April 2012 when he saw “The Invisible War”: Two days later, he ordered that all sexual assault cases be handled by senior officers with the rank of colonel or higher.
Justice may not come, in fact, until these cases are removed from the military system entirely and handled by civilians.
In the Wilkerson case, the victim got further than those who testified last week. She got before a panel of officers, who weighed the evidence and the credibility of witnesses and found the defendant guilty. It didn’t matter. With his signature, Franklin overturned the verdict.
Similar cases abound. One military expert testified that such absolute power in the hands of officers is necessary to maintain military order and discipline. But is an atmosphere in which more than 3,000 assaults are reported yearly (although the Pentagon estimates that 19,000 occur) orderly and disciplined?
The Wilkerson case is worth a movie all its own. If you doubt the system is cockeyed, consider this: Even Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel can’t overrule Franklin. As one of his first official acts, Hagel ordered a review of that policy.
(Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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