WASHINGTON — — After he was raped by a fellow Navy sailor, Brian Lewis wanted justice.
What he got, the Baltimore man told a Senate panel Wednesday, was an order to keep quiet.
When commanders learned of the attack, Lewis said, he was told not to report it to naval investigators. From his unit's lawyers, he said, there was "an eerie silence."
"At some point, it becomes about preservation of their own career, rather than helping me," the former Navy petty officer said. "There was no effective legal situation that I could access."
Lewis, 33, was one of four former service members to testify before a Senate Armed Services subcommittee on the challenges of reporting rape in the military.
While the Pentagon professes a zero-tolerance approach toward sexual assault, witnesses told senators, victims still face a military justice system that may deepen their trauma with indifferent investigations, unexplained delays, biased commanders and arbitrary decisions — all of which can leave accusers isolated among their peers and vulnerable to retaliation.
They called on Congress to move the process for reporting and prosecuting sexual assault from the victim's chain of command and into the hands of an independent prosecutor.
"What we need is a military with a fair and impartial criminal justice system," said former Army Sgt. Rebekah Havrilla. "One that is run by professional and legal experts, not unit commanders."
The hearing came after the controversial decision of an Air Force commander to reverse the sexual-assault conviction of a fellow fighter pilot.
Air Force Lt. Col. James Wilkerson was found guilty by a court-martial last year in the attack on a civilian employee at Aviano Air Base in Italy. He was sentenced to a year in prison and dismissal from the service. But Lt. Gen. Craig A. Franklin, commander of the 3rd Air Force at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, overturned the conviction last month and ordered Wilkerson reinstated.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered a review of that decision this week. But under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, Franklin cannot be overruled.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat who chaired the hearing Wednesday, called Franklin's decision "shocking."
"We need to take a close look at our military justice system, and we need to be asking the hard questions, with all options on the table, including moving this issue outside of the chain of command," Gillibrand said. "The case we have all read about at Aviano Air Base … should compel all of us to take the necessary action to ensure that justice is swift and certain, not rare and fleeting."
While the Pentagon has strengthened efforts against sexual assault, devoting more time, money and personnel both to preventing and to prosecuting incidents, the problem persists.
The Defense Department estimates that 19,000 sexual assaults occurred in the U.S. military in 2011. Of the more than 2,400 that were reported, Gillibrand said, only 240 proceeded to trial.
"A system where less than one out of 10 reported perpetrators are held accountable for their crimes is not a system that is working," she said. "The system needs to encourage victims that coming forward and participating in their perpetrator's prosecution is not detrimental to their safety or their future, and will result in justice being done."
Rape survivors said commanders need to address the root causes of military sexual assault.
Havrilla, who said she was raped while serving as an explosive ordnance disposal technician in Afghanistan, described a culture of constant sexual commentary, sexual harassment and men simulating sexual activity with each other.
At a training session on military sexual trauma, she told the panel, a sergeant jumped on a table, stripped off his clothes and danced.
After she was assaulted, Havrilla said, she chose not to file a report because "I had no faith in my chain of command." She cited a "unit climate" that "was extremely sexist and hostile in nature towards women."
It wasn't until after she left active duty, when she learned that her attacker had posted photographs of the assault online, that she sought an investigation.
Havrilla described the initial interview by the Army Criminal Investigative Division as "the most humiliating thing that I have ever experienced."
"I had to relive the entire event for over four hours with a male CID agent whom I had never met, and explain to him repeatedly what was happening in each one of the pictures," she said.
Months went by without any further word, Havrilla said. She said she "lived in constant fear that I might run into my rapist again or that he might retaliate against me in some way."
Ultimately, she said, her attacker said he had had consensual sex with her, and his chain of command declined to pursue adultery charges.