Victims of military sexual assaults give dramatic testimony to senators

Victims of sexual assaults in the military called for changes to the armed services during a Wednesday hearing that spotlighted Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand's (D-N.Y.) bill removing sexual assault cases from the chain of command.

The victims testifying before Gillibrand’s Senate Armed Services Personnel subcommittee endorsed her legislation as they told of how their assailants received light punishments for the assaults, and how they were ostracized for reporting the crimes and seeking help.

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They also discussed their issues receiving proper care from both the military and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Jeremiah Arbogast, a retired Marine Lance Corporal, told of how naval investigators made him confront his perpetrator while wearing a wire. His assailant was ultimately given a dishonorable discharge and no jail time.

Arbogast said he struggled with military sexual trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) afterward and was retired from the Marines. He eventually tried taking his life with a 9mm gun, and is now in a wheelchair due to a spinal cord injury.

“I joined the Marines in order to serve my country as an honorable man. Instead, I was raped and thrown away like a piece of garbage,” he said.

Arborgast said that the command was not equipped to properly handle sexual assault cases. 

“A sexual assault is more or less a burden on the command, and then it creates a morale problem and a cohesion problem,” he said.

Jessica Kenyon, who was assaulted while serving in the Army, agreed.  

“There’s enough on the commander’s plate, and the fact is there’s just entirely too many conflicts of interest,” she told the panel.

“Even if they do want to do the right thing, there’s pressures from every direction that creates almost an impossible environment in which justice could be served,” she said.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), one of the most vocal opponents of Gillibrand’s proposal, took issue with the witnesses’ recommendations, however, telling them that removing commanders from the equation was the wrong way to tackle the issue.

“This is a problem that can never be solved if you tell the commander this is no longer your problem,” Graham said. “I do believe that the role of the commander, when it comes to dispensing military justice, is essential.”

The hearing comes as Gillibrand is pushing to reach 60 votes in the Senate for her legislation, which would take the decision to prosecute sexual assault and other major criminal cases away from commanders, giving it instead to military prosecutors.

She and her supporters have argued that removing the cases from the chain of command will encourage victims to report their crimes because they currently fear retaliation.

Gillibrand’s list of Senate supporters rose to 55 on Tuesday, as Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) said he would support it.

But Gillibrand remains short of the 60 votes she’s expected to need if her legislation gets a vote on the Senate floor.

Gillibrand’s proposal is opposed by the Pentagon, as well as Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.).

McCaskill has an alternative measure that makes other reforms but keeps cases within the chain of command.

McCaskill is not on the Personnel subcommittee, but she joined Wednesday’s hearing and discussed the reforms that were enacted late last year. She focused on the steps forward in the reforms passed in last year’s National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), such as expanding a program giving sexual assault victims their own attorney.

“I’m hoping that what we’ve done — which is remarkable that we are going to require this for all victims — is going to set a standard,” McCaskill said, asking the witnesses whether they would have benefited from that system.

She also vowed to remove the “good soldier defense” from the judicial system, which is part of her proposal and is also supported by Gillibrand.

It remains unclear when the Senate will vote on the proposals from Gillibrand and McCaskill.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) tried to bring up the Gillibrand and McCaskill bills on Monday, but he was blocked by Moran.

Moran, who came out in favor of Gillibrand’s bill a day later, objected because he wanted a vote on a bill to pass new sanctions against Iran should the nuclear negotiations falter.

The sanctions fight could make it difficult to hold votes on the sexual assault proposals. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Wednesday called on Reid to allow a vote on the sanctions measure as Republicans also pushed for voting on it as part of a veterans measure.

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