Brian Lewis, former Petty Officer Third Class, U.S. Navy, pauses...

Brian Lewis, former Petty Officer Third Class, U.S. Navy, pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before a hearing on sexual assault in the military. (Mar. 13, 2013) Credit: AP

The first Senate hearing on sexual assault in the military in a decade, convened Wednesday by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, was an important effort to spotlight the odious problem and the need for reform.

The official policy of the U.S. military is zero tolerance for sexual assault, but the reality is far from that ideal. Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), the chairwoman of the Senate Armed Services personnel subcommittee, must be persistent and unwavering in pressing Congress to ensure that the military treats sexual assaults as the serious crimes they are, and changes the culture that tolerates and even protects abusers.

In 2011, there were 3,192 sexual assaults reported, according to the Department of Defense, which estimated 19,000 actually occurred. Three former service members testified Wednesday that they were raped while on active duty. They said reporting assaults was discouraged and that people who do are ridiculed and ostracized. Former U.S. Navy Petty Officer Brian Lewis, who was raped in 2000, said a superior officer actually ordered him not to report the crime.

Even when an assault is reported, and a defendant is tried, convicted and sentenced, it can all be undone by a commanding officer. Just last month, Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, commander of the 3rd Air Force in Europe, overruled a pilot's jury conviction for aggravated sexual assault, and ordered him released from prison and reinstated in the Air Force. Commanders are not required to explain their decisions, and Franklin didn't. That kind of jaw-dropping reversal has to be devastating for victims struggling over whether to risk their military careers by reporting an assault.

Congress should rein in the power of commanders to reverse the actions of military courts. In the interest of justice, morality and national security, the men and women who protect the nation must be protected from sexual violence.