WASHINGTON — Senators demanded answers on Tuesday from senior military leaders on why an Air Force commander dismissed charges against a lieutenant colonel after he was convicted of sexual assault.
"Do you really think that after a jury has found someone guilty, and dismissed someone from the military for sexual assault, that one person, over the advice of their legal counselor, should be able to say, `Never mind'?" Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., asked Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, the top officer at U.S. Central Command, at a Senate hearing.
Mattis explained that commanders, including female commanders, have the authority to act for a reason. "And I would just tell you that I would look beyond one case," he said.
McCaskill sent a letter to Air Force officials seeking an explanation while Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., wrote to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel asking him to review the case.
The Air Force Times reported last month that Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, a former inspector general at Aviano Air Base in Italy, had been convicted on Nov. 2 on charges of abusive sexual contact, aggravated sexual assault and three instances of conduct unbecoming of an officer and a gentleman. The incident had involved a civilian employee.
Wilkerson was sentenced to a year in prison and dismissal from the service. But Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, the commander of 3rd Air Force, later dismissed the charges. The Air Force Times reported that Franklin had concluded that the evidence was insufficient to meet the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
"This is a travesty of justice," Boxer and Shaheen wrote. "At a time when the military has unequivocally stated that there is zero tolerance for sexual assault, this is not the message it should be sending to our service men and women, and to our nation."
They asked Hagel for information on what was the basis for Franklin's decision and pressed him to act immediately to restrict such authority to dismiss military court decisions unilaterally.
McCaskill wrote Air Force Secretary Michael Donley and Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, that Franklin's decision "show ignorance, at best, and malfeasance, at worst."
"I strongly urge you to undertake an immediate review of his conduct and consider removing him from his leadership position," the senator wrote.
She pointed out that as the Air Force and "other military organizations are redoubling efforts to erase a culture that has often turned a blind eye on sexual assault, Lt. Gen. Franklin's conduct undermines this important shift."
In January, Welsh likened sexual assault in the Air Force's ranks to a cancer and vowed to tackle the problem by screening personnel more carefully and putting an end to bad behaviors like binge drinking that can lead to misconduct.
Welsh told a House oversight committee that the service recorded a disturbing number of reports of sexual assault last year even as it worked to curb misconduct in the wake of a sex scandal at its training headquarters in Texas. Dozens of young female recruits and airmen at Lackland Air Force Base near San Antonio were victimized by their instructors who sexually harassed, improperly touched or raped them.
Most difficult, Welsh said, is transforming a culture in which victims are often reluctant to report what happened because of guilt, shame or fear they won't be believed.
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'Full Battle Rattle'
Rebekah Havrilla, out on patrol in Afghanistan. The former Army sergeant and Explosive Ordnance Disposal specialist enlisted in 2004, seeking out job training, education, "some patriotic element" after 9/11 and a way out of South Carolina. "I went in with the idea of making a career out of it," she says. "I thought, I can't be Special Forces, I can't do Rangers because I don't have a penis -- closest thing I can get to actually doing that type of job is EOD [Explosive Ordnance Disposal]."
Havrilla crouches in the remnants of a "demolition shot" she and her team did of a "bunch of captured enemy munitions" outside of Forward Operating Base Gardez, in Afghanistan. "It's a very male dominated, hypermasculine environment, so you've got to be the tomboy, kind of, 'let's play cowboys and indians. And soldiers,'" she says. But to some, this also meant persistent sexual harassment and even assault.
Havrilla says intense nightmares kept her from sleep, night after night, after she got back from Afghanistan -- until recently, when she moved to New York. Though Havrilla says that at first she suffered from the kind of hyper-vigilance described by fellow combat veterans in urban settings, she loves the city -- namely because it is so different than where she grew up, in a conservative Christian family in rural South Carolina. She is getting her Masters and working for the Service Women's Action Network (SWAN).
An early photo of Tia Christopher, who joined the Navy at age 18 in 2000 and was out just under a year later, honorably discharged with a "personality disorder."
Tia Christopher and her friend Aston Tedford at a women veterans retreat in Arizona several years ago. Christopher now works as an advocate for veterans, in particular victims of MSA, and has written guidance on the subject.
Tia Christopher in a favorite photo.
'I'm Beautiful Despite The Flames'
Tia Christopher sent this photo of her recently completed tattoo Friday, Sept. 28. Written in Arabic, she says "her motto" -- which covers scars from her assault -- more literally translates: "Despite the flames that devoured my flesh, I am still beautiful."
Claire Russo in a childhood photo.
Claire & Coconut
Claire Russo pictured at 10 years old, in 1989 with "Coconut." Russo grew up near Washington, D.C., and worked on the Hill. "I was sort of -- well no, a really privileged middle-class kid," she says. "I was just fascinated with the debate, and the decisions the government was making … And I remember a very strong desire to serve."
Claire Russo Salutes Her Cousin
Claire Russo in 2004 at Quantico, right after being commissioned, saluting her cousin Tom Winkle, a Navy lieutenant and pilot. Russo lived with Winkle in San Diego, and was with him the night of her assault, at the Marine Corps Ball. It was Winkle that reported Russo's assault; she did not want to report, being afraid for her career.
Claire Russo (right) with her roommate at The Basic School in Quantico, Va., after finishing a field exercise. Russo says that one of the 30 females in the class of 180 was raped in the barracks while she was at The Basic School.
Claire Russo in a courtyard in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2006, when she served as the targeting officer for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. She deployed two weeks after testifying at the discharge hearing of the serviceman who raped her, Douglas Alan Dowson -- he was already in prison.
'Citizen Of Courage'
Claire Russo (front) salutes the flag during the national anthem, before she was given the "Citizen of Courage" award from the San Diego District Attorney's office in 2006. Behind her is San Diego District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis and First Marine Expeditionary Force (IMEF) Commanding General John Sattler, who Russo says is the "only commander to ever apologize to me for what I experienced."
Russo And San Diego DAs
Deputy District Attorney Gretchen Means, Claire Russo and District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, after Russo received the "Citizens of Courage" award from the San Diego District Attorney's office at Camp Pendleton in 2006.
Down The Aisle
Claire Russo at her wedding to Josh Russo. Lt. Josh Russo was stationed at Camp Pendleton, some 40 miles north, at the time of Russo's assault in 2004. He remains in the military.
Claire And Josh Russo
Claire and Josh Russo on their wedding day, with friends from the Marines.
Russo And Her Motorcycle
"Me on my Russian Minsk 120 cc dirt bike, in Laos. This was one day on an 8 month trip/honeymoon Josh and I took. We rode motorcylces through SE Asia, Australia and went to Africa," Russo describes in a recent email.
Claire Russo in Afghanistan near the Pakistan border, on a mission with the 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry Army Paratroopers. "I spoke with the district governor that day about how we could help to get a woman working for the Ministry of Womens Affairs working in his district," Russo writes.
Claire, Josh And Genevieve Russo In Paris
Claire Russo and her husband, Josh Russo, and their baby Genevieve, here four weeks old, in Paris. Josh serves in the U.S. Army.
"My 4 week old daughter Genevieve and I in front of a painting of Saint Genevieve, the patron saint of Paris, who saved the city from the Huns," Russo writes.
Marti Ribeiro In Front Of Village
Marti Ribeiro served with the Air Force, Army, Navy and Marines over eight years as a combat correspondent.
As a combat correspondent, Marti Ribeiro accompanied medical convoys to remote areas without local doctors. Such clinics were set up in specific locations, so the locals needed significant advance warning of their arrival. When one such convoy came under attack, Ribeiro returned fire, earning her a <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/14/women-at-war-unseen_n_1498291.html#slide=964342">Combat Action Badge</a>, though as a female, she officially should not have been in a position to take fire.
'Afghan Girls On Rooftop'
A photograph of Afghan girls, taken by Marti Ribeiro during her deployment.
Ribeiro In 2006
Marti Ribeiro and an Afghan boy in 2006.
'Soaked To The Bone And Miserable'
Marti Ribeiro titles this photo -- taken in Afghanistan in 2006 -- as "soaked to the bone and miserable."
Marti Ribeiro And Her Daughter Bela
Marti Ribeiro and her daughter, Bela, in San Antonio, Texas.