NBC NIghtly News & The Daily Beast & Service Women’s Action Network – 2011-02-17 00:51:56
‘I felt completely isolated and alone and really scared. Here I was, in the middle of a foreign country in the middle of a war.’
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Lawsuit Claims Pentagon Turned
Blind Eye to Military Rape Victims
Michael Isikoff, National investigative correspondent / NBC News
WASHINGTON (February 15, 2011) — Fourteen current and former members of the US military charged in a lawsuit filed Tuesday that the Pentagon turned a blind eye when they reported being sexually harassed, assaulted and raped by fellow service members while on active duty.
Interviews by NBC News with some of the plaintiffs in the case reveal disturbing and previously unreported allegations of sexual abuse in the military, including some in the war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq. In addition, one of the plaintiffs, identified as a naval aviator, charges in the lawsuit that she was drugged and gang-raped by two of her colleagues while serving at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma just two months ago.
Mary Gallagher, a former sergeant in the Air National Guard, says that within weeks of being deployed to an air base outside of Baghdad in 2009 she was brutally assaulted by a fellow sergeant who burst into the ladies’ room, pushed her up against the wall, pulled her pants and underwear down and ground his genitals against her, talking the whole time how much he was enjoying it.
“I thought he was going to kill me that night,” Gallagher told NBC in an interview. “I felt completely isolated and alone and really scared. Here I was, in the middle of a foreign country in the middle of a war.”
When she reported the attack, she says her commanderâ€™s only response was to reassign her assailant and tell her “this stuff happens.”
Rebekah Havrilla, a former Army sergeant who served as the only female member of a bomb squad in eastern Afghanistan, said she was attacked by a colleague at Salermo Forward Operating Base near the Pakistani border on her last day in the country in 2007.
“He pushed me down on the bed and used his body weight to hold me down and proceeded to rape me,” she said in an interview. While holding her down with one arm, her fellow US Army sergeant took photographs of her, she said. She was later horrified to discover the photographs had been posted on a pornographic website, she said.
Sexual Abuse Reports Rising
The lawsuit, being filed by civil litigator Susan Burke, is an attempt to shine the spotlight on what Pentagon officials have acknowledged is a serious problem — a steady increase in reports of sexual abuse within the US military. Last year, the Pentagon reported there
had been 3,230 complaints of sexual abuse by members of the military services during fiscal year 2009, an 11 percent increase over the year before.
But Pentagon officials acknowledge that most cases go unreported — and of those that do, department figures indicate less than one in four ever get criminally prosecuted.
The lawsuit alleges that the Pentagon has failed to crack down on the sexist culture of the military services or implemented policies that would insure aggressive investigations of those accused and bar retaliation against service members who file complaints.
In addition to the 14 current and former members of the military services who are plaintiffs, there are two others who served in the Coast Guard, a part of Homeland Security, because the Defense Department has some responsibility for handling its sexual abuse complaints. The lawsuit does not identify the names of any of those who allegedly committed the attacks.
“This is a tough issue,” said Kaye Whitley, director of the Pentagonâ€™s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, a small unit set up in 2004 to promote training programs and greater sensitivity within the services to the problems of sexual abuse and harassment.
Whitley said she couldn’t comment on the specific cases outlined in the complaint, but insisted the Pentagon has been making progress. “We’re talking about changing the way people think and the way people feel â€¦ the research tells us it takes eight to ten years to change the culture.”
The lawsuit names Defense Secretary Robert Gates and his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, as defendants, charging that both have failed to take aggressive measures to deal with the problem or follow edicts from Congress.
Delays with Reporting Complaints?
It charges, for example, that Rumsfeld in 2004 delayed naming members to a commission mandated by Congress to investigate the military’s handling of sexual assault cases and resisted congressional oversight of the issue. It accuses Gates of violating the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights by permitting military commanders to use “nonjudicial punishments” for accused rapists — and failing to meet a congressionally mandated deadline for creating a database that would centralize all reports of rapes and sexual assaults.
“Sexual assault is a wider societal problem and Secretary Gates has been working with the service chiefs to make sure the U.S. military is doing all it can to prevent and respond to it,” Geoff Morrell, Pentagon press secretary, wrote in an e-mail to NBC.
“That means providing more money, personnel, training and expertise, including reaching out to other large institutions such as universities to learn best practices. This is now a command priority, but we clearly still have more work to do in order to ensure all of our service members are safe from abuse,” he added.
‘I Just Kind of Panicked’
One of the more disturbing stories in the complaint is that of Sarah Albertson, a former Marine corporal at Camp Pendleton who says that after a night of partying, a superior officer climbed into the bed where she was sleeping and forced himself on her.
“I just kind of panicked, froze. I didn’t say anything,” she said. She admits she was drinking heavily that night, but after reporting the incident, she was still forced to work in the same office as her assailant.
“I was told I needed to suck it up until the end of the investigation and I was told to respect the rank he deserves,” she said. Suffering from depression as a result of the experience, she gained 30 pounds and was eventually assigned to a weight-loss training program. The officer in charge was the man she says had raped her. “He was in charge of judging my body,” she said.
Albertson — like Havrilla and Gallagher — says the men they accused denied the charges of non-consensual sex, essentially making their cases ones of “he said-she said.”
None of the alleged attackers named in the lawsuit was reported to have been convicted.
In most cases, the charges were either never pursued or dropped.
In one case, an Army officer who denied one of the alleged sexual assaults was charged with “lying on a sworn statement.” In another, an Air Force serviceman who was alleged to have broken into the room of a female coworker at 3 a.m. at Nellis Air Force Base was charged in a court-martial, but on the eve of his trial got off when a a new commander came in and ordered the charges dropped. The alleged rapist was later given an “Airman of the Quarter” award and his accuser transferred to another base.
Albertson, Havrilla and Gallagher all believed their military commanders never took their complaints as seriously as they should have. As much as they say they don’t want to sweep this [problem] under the rug, “thatâ€™s what they want to do,” said Gallagher.
“It’s sad in a way that you have to file a lawsuit to get their attention.”
Gates, Rumsfeld Sued Over US Military’s Rape Epidemic
Jesse Ellison / The Daily Beast
“The military is so focused on operational readiness that all these other issues can be labeled ‘minor.’ But the fact of the matter is, itâ€™s destroying the military internally.”
WASHINGTON (February 15, 2011) — A landmark lawsuit filed Tuesday against Defense Secretary Robert Gates and his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, alleges that the military’s repeated failures to take action in rape cases created a culture where violence against women was tolerated, violating the plaintiffs’ Constitutional rights.
“There are three types of women in the Army,” says Rebecca Havrilla, a former sergeant and explosive-ordnance-disposal technician. “Bitch, dyke, and whore.” During the four years that Havrilla was on active duty, she was called all three — by fellow soldiers, team leaders, even unit commanders.
Once, during a sexual-assault prevention training, the 28-year-old South Carolina native claims, she watched a fellow soldier — male — strip naked and dance on top of a table as the rest of the team laughed. While deployed in Afghanistan, Havrilla spent four months working under a man she alleges bit her neck, pulled her into his bed, and grabbed her butt and waist — on a daily basis. When, on the last day of her deployment, she alleges she was raped by a soldier she considered a friend, it was, she says, “the icing on the cake.”
But Havrilla calls herself lucky: the end of her military commitment was in sight. In other cases, soldiers have had to keep fighting alongside, or even under, the person who assaulted them; been ostracized by their units for reporting an attack; or, as another woman says, simply “shoved to the side.”
Havrilla and 16 others are now plaintiffs in a class action suit filed Tuesday against Defense Secretary Robert Gates and his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, alleging that their failure to act amounted to a violation of the plaintiffsâ€™ Constitutional rights.
The suit, brought by Washington, D.C. attorney Susan Burke, and filed in the Eastern Virginia federal court, charges that despite ample evidence of the problem, both Gates and Rumsfeld “ran institutions in which perpetrators were promoted; â€¦ in which Plaintiffs and other victims were openly subject to retaliationâ€¦ and ordered to keep quiet.” The plaintiffs, in turn, have been “directly and seriously injured by Defendants’ actions and omissions.”
“It’s shocking,” the case’s lead investigator, Keith Rohman, tells The Daily Beast. “And it’s just hard to understand why they’ve held off. Families all over America send their young men and women to serve and they do that at tremendous personal risk and danger. But this is not a risk that those families want to assume.”
The problem is not new. It’s been nearly two decades since the notorious Tailhook scandal, in which Navy and Marine Corps officers publicly fondled 87 women at a conference in Las Vegas. But it wasnâ€™t until 2005 that Congress mandated that the Department of Defense form a task force on military sexual assault.
The program was charged with developing prevention strategies and tracking data, but in 2008 the Government Accountability Office determined that the task force had spent $15 million, but hadn’t accomplished anything of substance. A handful of other efforts have been made as well, with varying degrees of success.
Meanwhile, the numbers continue to rise. In 2009 reported sexual assaults went up 11 percent, according to Department of Defense statistics, with one in three women reporting having been sexually violated while serving in the military.
The Pentagon itself admits that reported incidents probably represent just 20 percent of those that actually occur. Female recruits are now far more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed in combat. But women arenâ€™t the only victims; statistics from the US Department of Veterans Affairs indicate that more than half of those who screen positive for Military Sexual Trauma are men.
Even when rape cases are reported, the ACLU finds that only 8 percent of them are prosecuted — the civilian system prosecutes 40 percent of alleged perpetrators — and the military trials are often stunningly mishandled.
Prosecutors in a case brought by Christine Smith — a civilian who was says that in 2006 she was raped by a man serving in the airborne division — said that they’d lost her underwear, so didn’t introduce it as evidence. But after the soldier was acquitted, Smith received a phone call saying she could come retrieve the underwear from the military investigative office.
In such cases, the plaintiff has little recourse. “For lots of reasonable historical bases, the military has a level of civil immunity in our society which is quite high,” investigator Rohman says. “There’s a downside to that: their lack of external accountability means that they have not had to adjust in the way the rest of society has.” In particular, a 1950 Supreme Court ruling, known as the Feres Doctrine, places the military beyond the reach of workplace laws regarding sexual discrimination and sexual harassment.
To make matters worse, charges are usually investigated within the immediate chain of command. “Thereâ€™s no investigatory training. They don’t tell you to look for evidence,” says Greg Jacob, who spent 10 years in the Marines and rose to the rank of captain. Instead, they hand over a manual for courts martial, which explains, among other things, that the investigating officer should consider, first and foremost, “the character and military service of the accused.” Jacob says that essentially means weighing each soldierâ€™s past and future value to the unit. “It’s an HR approach to criminal conduct,” he says. “Military justice imbued me with the ability to be judge and jury. Honestly, I had no idea what to do.”
It was watching the military bungle one such investigation that eventually caused Jacob to leave the service. When a course critique revealed that a senior enlisted marine in his company was systematically assaulting “dozens and dozens” of female trainees, Jacob investigated, got more than 80 corroborations of the behavior, and sent the report up along the chain of command. Less than a week later, the offender was sent to Camp Lejune and subsequently deployed for Iraq.
When Jacob asked why he hadn’t been prosecuted, Jacob says he was told, “He’s a good soldier. He just can’t handle an integrated training environment.” In Iraq, the marine was killed, leaving a widow and five children. “If theyâ€™d prosecuted him, he would have stayed here and lost some stripes, but not been killed,” Jacob says. “That’s when I decided to get out. I’d been in for ten years. I was a decorated combat Marine. They were going to send me to take a unit to Iraq. But they lost out on all my experience, all the money they’d spent on me. The reach of this problem stretches a long way.” (A spokesperson for the Marine’s Manpower and Reserves Public Affairs office said that she couldnâ€™t comment on individual cases.)
Jacob left the military. Ultimately, Havrilla left as well. Three months after returning to the States she was discharged, having been diagnosed with both combat PTSD and sexual assault PTSD. She’s now living in Missouri and is currently unemployed. She hopes that the lawsuit, and the attention it will receive, will compel the military to start outsourcing sexual assault training.
“You’re not going to change hearts and minds overnight,” she says. “Someone who is a misogynistic asshole isn’t going to change their minds because of some PowerPoint presentation. But at that point, at least you canâ€™t claim ignorance. Thereâ€™s no wishy-washy ‘Oh, it’s just boys being boys.’ If you have a leadership that doesn’t give a shit, nothing’s going to change. It has to start from the top down.” And while the suit seeks significant monetary damages, a payout is neither expected nor entirely the point.
With the country still entangled in two seemingly endless wars, Burke and her team are anticipating criticism. But they and others argue that it’s precisely because we’re at war that the issue is so critical. “The military is so focused on operational readiness that all these other issues can be labeled ‘minor personnel issues,'” says Anu Bhagwati, executive director of the Service Womenâ€™s Action Network. “But the fact of the matter is, itâ€™s destroying the military internally.”
Rohman adds that the military itself admits that sexual trauma undermines unit cohesion, a critical element of operational success. “If anything, fixing the problem now is more important than ever,” he says. The real question, he adds, is, “If not now, then when?”
Jesse Ellison is a writer and editor for Newsweek, covering society, culture, business, and health. She also co-authors the Equality Myth and can be found on Tumblr.
Rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment are a plague on the Armed Forces of the United States of America. This crisis threatens our national security by undermining operational readiness, draining morale, harming retention, and destroying lives.
The government has studied this issue for decades, and yet, assaults on our troops continue year after year with no end in sight. Sexual predators regularly walk away with slaps on the wrist instead of hard time. Service members who are preyed upon have little to no protection against unsympathetic commanders and vengeful perpetrators. A hostile workplace environment of harassment and intimidation prevails.
We believe that Americans should not sacrifice their right to bodily integrity when they step forward to serve our nation. Turning a blind eye to crimes committed by sexual predators goes against the core values that are the hallmark of military leadership.
Honor is found in the integrity, courage and commitment of troops and leaders to do the right thing and confront this crisis, protect and care for their own, and punish those who dare to harm a sister or brother in arms.
We, the undersigned, call on the United States Congress to hold the U.S. Armed Forces accountable for this crisis and to immediately develop and implement a comprehensive plan to eliminate rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment from our nation’s military forever.
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