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‘I experienced daily discrimination and sexual harassment’: ex-marine Bhagwati

Testimony at hearing points to rampant exploitation in the Services.

Bureau Report

WASHINGTON, DC: Anu Bhagwati, an ex-marine who is now the executive director and co-founder of the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN), shared her years of sexual harassment and gender discrimination in service, testifying at the first Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the issue in 10 years, at Capitol Hill.

Anu Bhagwati
Anu Bhagwati

During her testimony, Bhagwati pointed out that one of three convicted sex offenders remain in the military and the Navy is the only service branch where all sex offenders are discharged. Unlike civilian authorities, the Defense Department does not keep a registry of military sex offenders.

“During my five years as a Marine officer, I experienced daily discrimination and sexual harassment. My experiences came to a head while I was stationed at the School of Infantry at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina from 2002 to 2004, where I witnessed reports of rape, sexual assault and harassment swept under the rug by a handful of field-grade officers,” said Bhagwati.

Perpetrators were promoted or transferred to other units without punishment, while victims were accused of lying or exaggerating their claims in order to ruin men’s reputations, said Bhagwati.

Bhagwati finally chose to sacrifice her career as a Marine to file an equal opportunity investigation against an offending officer.

“Many of the women who were impacted by these incidents, including me, are no longer in the military. However, all of the officers who were complicit in covering up these incidents have since retired or are still serving on active duty,” she said, adding that sexual assault and sexual harassment are “pervasive throughout the military” and such cases occur in every branch of service.

“Congress must ensure that men and women in uniform can access the remedies available to all other aggrieved individuals under the Federal Tort Claims Act and the Civil Rights Act,” she said.

“This isn’t a crime that’s just about women victims, there are also men victims of this crime, and in this setting, the military setting, it’s important that we provide them assistance and services,” Sen. Clare McCaskill of Missouri told MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell, after the hearing. “To stay in a unit with your accused, to sometimes have to report to a command structure that may be friends with the accused or sometimes even the accused. It’s really important that we look at this as not just women, but also men.”

Witnesses, like Bhagwati, urged senators of the subcommittee on personnel to change the law so that perpetrators of sexual harassment and sexual assault can be convicted in all service branches.

“What we need is a military with a fair and impartial criminal justice system, one that is run by professional and legal experts, not unit commanders,” said Rebekah Havrilla, a former service member who said that she chose not to report her rape because she had “no faith in her chain of command.”

Havrilla, one of the four members of the first panel of witnesses, testified that she was attacked by a fellow service member while serving in eastern Afghanistan.

A year after separating from active duty, Havrilla said she ran in to her alleged rapist at a store and that he immediately recognized her. She sought the help of an army chaplain who told her it was “God’s will and that God was trying to get (her) attention” so that she would go back to church, reported MSNBC.

Six months later, a friend told her he had discovered pictures that the perpetrator had taken during her rape and posted them on a website. Havrilla’s senior commanders decided to close her case and not pursue charges.

According to the Department of Defense’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response office (SAPRO), an estimated 19,000 service members experience sexual assault a year and 80% of military sexual assaults go unreported. As for prosecuted cases, only 8% of them ever go to trial, and many of the accused offenders were cleared and even returned to the military. According to the department’s own figures, women make up 14% of the military, and one in three will be sexually assaulted during her service.

“Not only does sexual assault cause unconscionable harm to the victim—sexual violence is reported to be the leading cause of post-traumatic stress disorder among women veterans—but it destabilizes our military, threatens unit cohesion and national security,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., chair of the subcommittee. ”Beyond the enormous human costs both psychologically and physically, this crisis is costing us significant assets—making us weaker both morally and militarily.”

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