Top Pentagon officials are taking to Capitol Hill this week as controversy continues to grow over the case of a lieutenant colonel whose conviction for sexual assault was overturned late last month by a three-star general.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh and other members of the Air Force leadership met Tuesday with Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), a member of the Armed Services Committee, as she prepared to announce legislation that would amend the Uniform Code of Military Justice that allows a commander to overturn a military conviction.
"What this case has done is it has opened a window into what I think are some very weird provisions of the UCMJ, and they are the kind of provisions that are offensive to most Americans," McCaskill told The Huffington Post Tuesday. "The notion that this convening authority can overturn a jury decision for any or no reason at all."
Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, a former inspector general at Aviano Air Base in Italy, was convicted in November of aggravated sexual assault and sentenced to a year in prison and dismissal from the Air Force. But on Feb. 26, Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin threw out the decision, reinstating Wilkerson in the military and recommending him for a promotion, according to The New York Times.
Recently confirmed Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel responded to increasing calls for a review of the case in a letter made public Monday, an early test of his plans to address the pervasive issue of military sexual assault in U.S. armed forces.
Hagel called for a review of UCMJ provisions that give commanders the power to overturn court martial. He also said that neither he nor Welsh -- in effect, no one -- has the authority to overrule Franklin's decision.
"Under the [UCMJ], the convening authority's action is a final decision," Hagel wrote in response to a letter from Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H). "The decision of the convening authority cannot be changed."
McCaskill's planned announcement of legislation follows a similar bipartisan effort on the House side -- the Military Judicial Reform Act, introduced earlier Tuesday by Reps. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), Bruce Braley (D-Iowa) and Patrick Meehan (R-Pa.). On Wednesday, a Senate Armed Services subcommittee will hold the Senate's first hearing on military sexual assault in nearly a decade. Military representatives will face hard questioning on the Wilkerson case, according to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), the subcommittee chair.
According to the Air Force Times, Wilkerson was convicted by a military jury on charges of "abusive sexual contact, aggravated sexual assault and three instances of conduct unbecoming of an officer and a gentleman." Franklin reviewed the case for three weeks and deemed the evidence insufficient to "meet the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt," Hagel wrote.
The case highlights what many advocates and members of Congress call an institutional obstacle to combating the epidemic of military sexual assault. Under the UCMJ, it is primarily the accused's commander -- the "convening authority" -- who has the power to review the initial crime report and determine whether there is sufficient evidence to take action. That commander may know the victim and the accused personally. Later, once a verdict is reached, the commander has absolute authority to overrule the conviction and sentence. The accused also has a right to what Hagel called a "robust" appeals process.
Under the most recent National Defense Authorization Act, this discretionary power was moved to those higher up the command chain, but the reform does not prohibit Franklin's decision, given his high ranking.
"I think it's a perfect example of why moving a convening authority to a higher level may be a step in the right direction, but it doesn't solve the issue of institutional bias," said Gillibrand, who called the hearing.
Hagel noted in his letter Monday that the convening authority is not required to state a reason for a decision. He added that the department is seeking more about the "factual basis for the action taken" in the Wilkerson case.
"I believe this case does raise a significant question whether it is necessary or appropriate to place the convening authority in the position of having the responsibility to review the findings and sentence of a court-martial," Hagel wrote.
The victim in the case, a civilian physician's assistant who has not been identified, came forward to advocacy organization Protect Our Defenders when she found out that the conviction had been overturned, according to Nancy Parrish, the group's president, who said she spoke on the woman's behalf. The victim still works at Aviano, and learned of Franklin's decision when a senior officer walked into her office and told her.
"She was devastated," Parrish said Tuesday. "Franklin hadn't bothered to speak with her as a part of his decision and he hasn't reached out to her since … Just when she felt like she was getting her life back, this happened."
The victim has introduced testimony for the Senate hearing in the form of a statement. She has not yet told some friends and family members about the assault, which occurred as she was sleeping in a guest bedroom of Wilkerson's home last March, according to Shaheen's office.
"The defense did everything they could to drag my name and character through the mud," her statement reads. "I still went to work and did my job.
"What really scares me is that (the perpetrator) will remain in a position of military leadership. Really? Leadership?”
Critics are concerned about the potential chilling effect that the decision and public fallout may have on the already severe underreporting of sexual assault in the military. Instead, said McCaskill, more accountability and sexual assault convictions could hold a chilling effect for potential perpetrators.
"It's not, 'Do we have a buddy system, are women properly trained on how to avoid difficult situations, have we cleaned up the porn?'" McCaskill said Tuesday. "Rather, it's, 'We've got repeat offenders that are sexually assaulting women. We've got to find them, nail them, and put them away.'"
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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.