WASHINGTON — Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand admonished a Defense Department official Wednesday for characterizing the increase in reports of military sexual assault as an improvement. She called the volume of reports “a significant failure.”

“Please do not say we are successful,” said Gillibrand, chairwoman of the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel during a contentious hearing on the toll of military sexual assault. “If eight out of 10 victims stay mum because they don’t believe justice is possible or they fear retaliation, then we are failing, eight out of 10.”

Gillibrand, a Democrat who serves as New York’s junior senator, began probing the issue of military sexual assault when she took over as subcommittee chairwoman a year ago.

Significant reforms to the Pentagon’s sexual assault policies were enacted late last year as part of the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act, but Gillibrand did not get a flood vote on her controversial proposal to take the decision whether to prosecute criminal cases out of the hands of the chain of command and give it to military prosecutors.

Earlier this week, Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, became the 55th member of the Senate to back Gillibrand’s bill, which needs a 60-vote supermajority to pass.

The DOD does not have raw data on the number of sexual assaults that actually occurred in 2013. But the number of reported military sexual assaults rose almost 50 percent in 2013, to 3,553.

At Wednesday’s hearing, DOD Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office official Nathan Galbreath said based on historical data the recent increase in reporting appeared to be a positive sign, but acknowledged “we have a long way to go.”

Former Marine Lance Cpl. Jeremiah Arbogast, and former Army Pvt. Jessica Kenyon, testified about their personal experiences with sexual assaults and linked them to post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide attempts.

Arbogast uses a wheelchair due to injuries from a self-inflicted spinal injury from his attempted suicide after his attack. The Department of Veteran Affairs reported last year an estimated 22 veterans commit suicide every day.

“I was not afforded the same rights as rape victims in the civilian world,” Arbogast said. “This should send a clear statement of just how bad things can get.”

Senators drilled a panel of officials from the departments of Defense and Veteran Affairs about the support available for survivors of military sexual assaults — particularly in the treating of sexually transmitted infections, PTSD and depression.

“At least for these two, there seems to be a disconnect between what’s actually available and what they perceive as available,” said the subcommittee’s top Republican, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham. “Let’s try to fix that.”
Although Gillibrand began the hearing by saying that the effects of sexual violence should be above the political debate, much of the discussion Wednesday revolved around her legislation and an opposing proposal by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.

After Jessica Kenyon compared military sexual assault to incest, Gillibrand emphasized the multiple betrayals that occur when a survivor does not trust the chain of command when reporting an assault.

“I’ve just heard one victim say it’s like being raped by your brother and your father decides the case,” Gillibrand said. “So the reference to incest goes beyond who the rapist is. … It’s not just one betrayal.”

McCaskill asked the veterans if it would have been helpful for them to have a lawyer advocate “whose only job was to look out for you” after an assault is reported. She compared the lawyer to the type of special advocates children are given in juvenile court.

Kenyon said such an advocate would be helpful. Arbogast said reporting military sexual assault through the chain of command resulted in many people finding out about his assault.

No date has been set yet for a Senate floor vote, but it could come in late March.