WASHINGTON – U.S. military veterans who had been sexually assaulted by their comrades told their harrowing stories to a Senate subcommittee Wednesday, portraying a culture of crudity and violence in the armed services and prompting calls for a better path to justice for such victims.

“We have a duty to you, and the thousands of victims you represent, to examine whether the military justice system is the most effective and fairest system it can be,” said Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, a New York Democrat who heads the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel.

Gillibrand arranged the hearing on sexual assaults in the military, and it produced shocking stories not often heard in the halls of Congress.

Rebekah Havrilla, a retired Army sergeant, told of being raped while on duty in Afghanistan and later discovering that pictures of her being raped had been posted online.

BriGette McCoy, an Army veteran of the Persian Gulf War, told of being raped shortly after joining the Army but being too afraid to report it – only to be sexually harassed by her superior three years later.

And Brian Lewis, a former Navy petty officer, told of being raped by a superior in 2000 and ordered by his commanding officer not to report the crime.

The victims at the hearing expressed dismay at the state of the military criminal justice system, which, they said, gives unit commanders too much sway when service members complain about being harassed or assaulted.

“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 Havrilla, now the outreach and education coordinator for the Service Women’s Action Network.

“We also need an additional system that allows military victims to access civil courts if the military system fails them,” she added.

Gillibrand said that statistics prove the need for a new legal approach on sexual assaults in the military.

The Defense Department estimates that 19,000 sexual assaults took place in the U.S. military in 2011 alone, but only 2,439 assaults were officially reported, and a mere 240 cases went to trial.

“A system where less than one out of 10 reported perpetrators are held accountable for their alleged crimes is not a system that is working,” Gillibrand said.

Nevertheless, Pentagon officials insisted they take sexual assault seriously.

“The Air Force has zero tolerance for this offense,” said Lt. Gen. Richard Harding, the judge advocate general of the Air Force.

But senators noted that an Air Force general recently reversed a guilty verdict in a sexual assault case at Aviano Air Force Base in Italy. Commanders have the power to do that under military law, which is why witnesses at the hearing said victims of sexual assault in the military should have access to the civilian courts.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who also serves as a lawyer in the Air Force Reserve, indicated he was reluctant to open up the insular culture of the military to the civil courts, but he acknowledged that sexual assault in the military appears to be a serious problem.

Referring to the large number of cases that remain unreported, Graham said: “When anyone fears reprisals for reporting this, something is obviously wrong.”