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Military Sexual Assault Epidemic Continues To Claim Victims As Defense Department Fails Females

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U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta became outspoken on the military's record on sexual assault. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta became outspoken on the military's record on sexual assault. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

NEW YORK -- On an isolated hilltop outpost overlooking a town in Eastern Afghanistan in spring 2007, a cell phone rang.

If the phone -- a detonation device -- had been properly wired, Rebekah Havrilla and her team leader would have been blown up along with a hill packed full of five landmines and an improvised explosive device.

"It just turned into one big, long 'holy crap, we almost died,'" said Havrilla, one of the few women in the U.S. Army's Explosive Ordnance Disposal units.

(Editor's Note: This article contains graphic language that some readers may find offensive.)

But the routine perils of her job were not the reason Sgt. Havrilla "got the fuck out" of the military. She blames the unexpected risks, brought on by the same team leader who was with her on the hilltop, a sergeant 1st class who Havrilla says once, when they were on base, attacked her from behind, violently biting her neck. She said he would tell her, "I want to fuck you so badly right now." That she was later raped, by another colleague, was just the culmination of abuse, she said.

"Suicide bombers in pieces, [people] pulling dead American soldiers out of Humvees -- I have seen a lot of stuff people should never see," she said. "It was part of my job; death was something I had to deal with. I never, ever thought I was gonna have to deal with my supporters being the ones that did the most damage."

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Rebekah Havrilla, 30, an Army Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) specialist, on a humanitarian mission in Afghanistan.

Active-duty female personnel make up roughly 14.5 percent -- or 207,308 members -- of the more than 1.4 million Armed Forces, according to the Department of Defense.

One in three military women has been sexually assaulted, compared to one in six civilian women, according to Defense. According to calculations by The Huffington Post, a servicewoman was nearly 180 times more likely to have become a victim of military sexual assault (MSA) in the past year than to have died while deployed during the last 11 years of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.

According to the most recent report by the Pentagon's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, 3,192 sexual assaults were reported out of an estimated 19,000 -- roughly 52 a day -- between Oct. 1, 2010, to Sept. 31, 2011. The department estimates that only roughly 14 percent of the assaults were reported. The majority of sexual assaults each year are committed against service members by service members, SAPRO reports. While MSA does not affect only women, the office characterizes the "vast majority" of victims as female junior enlists under the age of 25, and the "vast majority" of perpetrators as male, older (under the age of 35) and generally higher-ranking.

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Last Tuesday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta ordered a sweeping review of all initial military training across the services: Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and Coast Guard. The move resulted in part from mounting pressure at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, where at least 43 women have recently come forward as victims of sexual assault. Every aspect of training, from the selection of instructors who directly supervise trainees to the number of female instructors, is under consideration. And a day after Panetta issued the directives, Defense officials revealed that Jeffrey A. Sinclair -- a brigadier general with five combat tours behind him -- is facing possible courts martial on charges ranging from inappropriate relationships with female subordinates to forcible sodomy.

On Friday, Panetta called the military's record on prosecuting MSA an "outrage."

But the way forward isn't clear. Despite over 20 years of such "zero tolerance" directives and policies, some 10 years of record keeping and seven years in operation for SAPRO, there has been no marked decrease in sexual assault or uptick in the rate of convictions.

Yet the line from Defense is that more reported cases means more reporting, not more assaults. Nevertheless, the escalation in numbers is troubling: 901 reports of MSA in 2002 more than tripled to 2,947 in 2006. That number rose further still by 2011, when some 3,200 reports flooded in.

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The Department also counts as a small victory the increased use of courts-martial charges over the past five years and less reliance on nonjudicial punishments. But this increase only represents the courts martial charges that were initiated. By the end of FY2011, only 240 of the original 3,192 reported crimes had made it to trial. Just under 6 percent of the total reports resulted in a conviction by courts martial. According to SAPRO's latest report, "most" of the people convicted in FY2011 were reduced in rank or placed into confinement, but fines were more common than discharges. But the punitive measures the military is handing down may not mitigate the risks: Repeat offenders, according to the report, commit 90 percent of all assaults.

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The now-benighted concept of "don't ask, don't tell" still holds true in the case of military sexual assault: Due to a climate of impunity and retaliation, many survivors suffer in silence.

Panetta's refrain for years has been heartening: "One sexual assault is too many."

To which Havrilla responds, "This whole concept of 'zero tolerance,' it's just words and no action."

"You can't leave. You can't quit. You can't walk away."

'THE LONELY GENERATION'

Several MSA scandals erupted in the 1990s. In 1991, at least 83 women were sexually assaulted or molested at the Las Vegas convention of the Tailhook Association, a group of active-duty and retired Navy and Marine Corps service members and civilians. In 1996, more women at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, the Army's oldest active training area, alleged that over a dozen male supervisors leveraged their authority to form a "rape ring."

Tia Christopher includes herself in what she calls the "lonely generation" of female veterans who followed. These women, who served post-Gulf War and pre-9/11, say their service seems less valued than that of women who served during the Gulf and current wars. Christopher joined the Navy in October of 2000, at age 18, to help pay for school. Her separation date was Sept. 7, 2001.

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Tia Christopher, 30 (pictured at 18), and her mother, Joleen, at Tia's boot camp graduation in December of 2000.

"I had short dyed-red hair and was wearing a floor-length, purple tie-dye dress, and the officer is looking at me like I had 10 heads," Christopher said of the day she enlisted.

But less than two months after she was placed in California to begin her training as an Arabic linguist, she said, "My military career took a different direction."

Christopher returned to her barracks after a drink with friends. A fellow recruit barged in and raped her, she says, slamming her head repeatedly against the concrete.

"The night it happened, I was really scared," Christopher remembered. "I really wanted to stay and do my program."

She methodically bleached her sheets, showered herself and got rid of the evidence. But when she learned her rapist was assaulting others, she decided to come forward.

One woman told Christopher she did not have enough evidence and to "get on with" 10 hours a day of language training, living and working with her attacker, and sleeping in the same bed where she was raped. He would follow her, sit in the chow hall and stare at her, Christopher says.

The chief petty officer for the Equal Opportunity Office asked her, "So, tell me again, what color were your panties when you were raped?'" she recounted.

"I couldn’t take it, and I slit my wrists," she said. "I didn't do a very good job."

The military processed Christopher out with an honorable discharge that reads, "personality disorder." "I ended up getting out and my perpetrator stayed in," she said.

Christopher now advocates for veterans, especially MSA victims, and testified before Congress in 2009 on VA health care for women.

"What I endured after is almost worse than the rape itself, and that's one reason I fight so hard," she said.

It wasn't until four years after Christopher's rape, in 2004, that former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld ordered a review of procedure for MSA, prompted by Congress and reports from Iraq and Kuwait. As directed by the 2005 National Defense Authorization Act, the Pentagon established SAPRO in October 2005 as its permanent, "single point of authority for sexual assault policy."

SAPRO policy, as presented in January 2005 to Congress, has not changed: "The DoD goal is a culture free of sexual assault, through an environment of prevention, education and training, response capability ... victim support, reporting procedures, and appropriate accountability that enhances the safety and well being of all persons."

The first full year of operation for SAPRO was 2006. Christopher says friends who served with her rapist told her that he was discharged that year, after allegedly assaulting more women.

ROBBED OF EVERYTHING

A major difference between MSA and civilian assault is the system by which one prosecutes a sexual crime, according to the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

Under the UCMJ, the accused's commander is responsible for reviewing the initial report and determining whether there is sufficient evidence to take action. According to the recently released documentary "The Invisible War," about one in four service-member victims don't report an assault because the person to whom they must report it is the perpetrator. One of the branches of the Military Criminal Investigation Organization can further investigate and also shut down a case, based on its findings. At the courts martial that hears the case, the judge; the panel, or jury; and the prosecution and defense of the victim's peers -- all are military.

A few weeks after she was stationed in San Diego in October 2004, former 1st Lt. Claire Russo attended the Marine Corps' "Birthday Ball," at a hotel off base. Russo was introduced to a Marine captain by his callsign, "Dirty." Russo says she later lost consciousness and was raped by the captain, Douglas Alan Dowson, an F-18 pilot.

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Claire Russo, 32, in a courtyard in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2006, when she served as the targeting officer for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. She deployed two weeks after testifying at Douglas Alan Dowson's discharge hearing -- he was already in prison.

"She had bruises to her buttocks and vaginal area, swelling to her mouth, a vertical laceration in the center of her lower lip, and several significant lacerations on her anus and rectum," The People Of The State of California v. Dowson states. "During the examination, her screams could be heard throughout the SART area."

Russo, currently a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, says she was not given a reason for why neither she nor Dowson could be transferred, except being told that it would be "airing the dirty laundry." According to Russo, the Marines never commented on the evidence, and the only information she did get was from an agent of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service who helped conduct the initial investigation but who was limited in what he could tell her.

"In the end I was told by my direct chain of command that sodomy was not a crime under the UCMJ -- forcible or otherwise -- so they could not press charges," Russo said in an email Tuesday. The decision not to prosecute was communicated to her by her chain of command, which she says makes "the ultimate decision."

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As Rachel Natelson, legal director for Service Women's Action Network, noted, "It's the unit commander who authorizes an investigation, decides whether the case should be prosecuted, and ultimately decides on a sentence." She specified that commanding officers are authorized to take into account factors unrelated to the case, such as the value of the accused to the unit.

But Russo's case didn't end there, going on to become one of the rare instances when a civilian authority took over. The NCIS agent helped bring the case to San Diego Deputy District Attorney Gretchen Means.

"I got calls from the command -- I don't know who it was -- calls from the military saying, 'We could take care of it, why don't you give it back to us?'" Means said.

Dowson was convicted and sent to prison, and his name can be found in the National Sex Offender registry. In February 2006 the Marines initiated a discharge hearing for Dowson while he was in prison, says Russo. The Marines gave Dowson "other than honorable" -- a nonpunitive discharge, according to Russo. She testified and shipped out to Iraq two weeks later.

"They bend over backwards with how they handle it now," Means said, though she emphasizes that she's "not against the military in any sense." The civilian and military legal systems "can learn so much from each other," she added.

Yet, she says, for civilian victims of sexual assault, "There seems to be always a place of relative solace." Whereas for military victims, "It hits, and it robs them of everything."

A STACKED SYSTEM

An attorney in the military justice system, who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation, told The Huffington Post in an interview this spring that the UCMJ is stacked against sexual assault victims.

Despite the high-profile nature of the crimes, the attorney said, the military still relies on administrative means rather than courts martial to handle these cases. Some service members charged with sexual assault of a colleague are being separated from the military with no record and full benefits.

Susan Burke, a civilian attorney and self-described "military brat," told The Huffington Post in late March that SAPRO manipulates data to cover a failing record.

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Susan Burke speaks to reporters in Abu Dhabi in August 2010 about a case in which she represented two former Blackwater employees who alleged the company's founder defrauded the government. (AFP/Getty Images)

"When you work the data all the way through ... the actual conviction rate is dismal," said Burke, who is representing MSA victims in a lawsuit against Panetta filed last Friday in federal court.

The military attorney argues that its justice system leaves young lawyers, typically low-ranking officers, overworked, under-resourced and effectively inept. While women's ranks are expanding in the military, the defense often strikes women from the juries, she says.

The military attorney believes that these verdicts and low rates of conviction on MSA are a barometer in many ways for how women are viewed in the military, and they serve as a message to servicewomen that by joining, they have assumed the risk.

Many MSAs occur on U.S. soil. But a decade of war has also resulted in the deployment of more than 280,000 women to what Defense refers to as "Combat Areas of Interest," primarily in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Arduous conditions in CAIs make sexual assault response and data collection very difficult," SAPRO stated in its FY2011 report.

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Former Air Force Sgt. Marti Ribeiro covered the Air Force, Army, Navy and Marine Corps as a combat correspondent. Ribeiro says her father, who retired from the military between her first and second tours in 2006, was strongly supportive when she inherited the "family business" in 1998, when she was 19.

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Marti Ribeiro, 33, served over eight years in the U.S. military as a combat correspondent. Seven months before her service was up, she was raped by a fellow service member but decided to not pursue charges in order to get home faster and because she was told that she instead would be charged.

On guard duty one night at Bagram Air Force Base in March 2006, Ribeiro put down her weapon and radio and walked some 20 feet to the smoke deck to have a cigarette, where a fellow service member attacked and raped her, she says.

Ribeiro went to the SARC to report the assault.

"The lady asked me why I didn't use my weapon," Ribeiro said. "And when I told her I didn't have it, she said I would probably be charged with dereliction of duty for not having my weapon on me in a combat zone, if I pressed charges. So to save my career and get home sooner, I decided not to."

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Ribeiro completed her required active service seven months later, in October 2006. Later, a tug of war with the VA to get benefits and treatment for PTSD led Ribeiro to go public with her story by sharing it with the media. Her voice thickens when asked how her father feels now.

"I think he was shocked that --" she said before beginning again. "He adapted to what it needed to be until he got out. I know he feels very differently about things now."

'HOPE YOU MAKE IT'

"I would have killed somebody to not dream," said Rebekah Havrilla, who suffered from severe depression and insomnia when she got back from Afghanistan in 2007. She now works as a legal and social service referrals case manager at SWAN, the Service Women's Action Network.

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Rebekah Havrilla says she suffered months of sexual harassment by her small team's leader while deployed in Afghanistan, and was raped by another colleague on the last day of her tour. She was released from active duty in 2008 and is now is a victim advocate for Service Women's Action Network.

Havrilla says the situation with her team leader worsened to a point where she stopped eating regularly and began falling asleep on missions. She self-referred to mental health.

"I'm gonna make some grievous error, or this dude's gonna push me over the edge and I'm gonna shoot him in the face," she recalled telling the psychiatrist. "They know there’s nothing that can be done, but 'Here’s your drugs, have a nice day, hope you make it,'" she said.

But Havrilla says that on the last day of her tour, she was raped by a service member who worked with her team handling a bomb-sniffing dog.

"'Rape' seems to be this key word for everyone. 'Oh, she said rape!'" Havrilla said, expressing a widespread frustration that a narrow, sometimes exploitive, focus on rape undermines attempts to address the systemic issues underlying MSA.

Havrilla filed a restricted report against her team leader and her alleged rapist at the urging of a friend. The Defense Department created the "Restricted Reporting" option to allow victims to report and receive treatment anonymously without "triggering an official investigation."

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"Basically it's a sheet of paper to fill out and they ask you pertinent dates, names and information, and they file it in a filing cabinet, and you just become a statistic," Havrilla said.

Later, photographs taken by her attacker during the assault showed up online, Havrilla says. She filed an unrestricted report. After a full investigation, Havrilla says she heard nothing for months, until she got a call saying the case had been reassigned.

Again nothing. Havrilla said she eventually got the message through CID agents and the prosecutors in June 2010 that the commander had decided not to prosecute -- two years after she had been released from active duty, in 2008.

"They did the same thing that every other case does," she said. "It went to his command, and command decided not do anything about it."

'THE ISSUE ISN’T GOING AWAY'

Former SAPRO Director Mary Kay Hertog, who retired Monday, lauded recent Defense initiatives in an interview with The Huffington Post at the end of March, in response to criticisms levied against her office that little progress has been made.

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Maj. Gen. Mary Kay Hertog, the previous director of the Pentagon's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office. Hertog, the first general to hold the position, retired Monday, Oct. 1.

"Now I'm up at that level where we're making the policies," Hertog said, "where the rubber meets the road."

On June 14, the Pentagon announced Hertog's replacement after she had spent less than a year in the job. Reports suggest that the timing of Hertog's replacement had less to do with her wish to retire after 34 years of service, and more to do with bad press the Pentagon had received over MSAs during her tenure and the "The Invisible War." Hertog was the first military general to hold the title, as required by the 2011 NDAA, after Kaye Whitley, a civilian appointed by the department, served as SAPRO's first director.

Though Hertog's replacement, Maj. Gen. Gary Patton, is the first male to serve as SAPRO director, Defense acknowledges that the lack of women in military leadership is one of the institutional obstacles to alleviating the MSA crisis.

On Sept. 28 Panetta stated, "Frankly, part of this is also moving women into command positions."

Among the recently proposed reforms touted by Hertog are the establishment of a "special victims' unit" within each branch and the requirement that all service members receive an MSA-policy primer within two weeks of active duty (pending Congressional approval). Hertog also announced the launch of the Defense Sexual Assault Incident Database, which was to have been fully implemented by the end of August. Congress had mandated the creation of the database by 2008.

Patton, a top commander in Iraq and Afghanistan, is also known for implementing the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" -- a former Defense policy that has often been compared to that on MSA -- as well as Pentagon reforms of combat restrictions for women. Patton said he is looking forward to "further advancing the initiatives [Hertog] set in motion," which she characterized as prioritizing a change in climate to encourage more reporting of cases.

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Former Principal Director for Military Personnel Policy Maj. Gen. Gary Patton (right) at a news conference Feb. 9, 2012, discusses the results of the Defense Department's Women in Service Review. Defense announced Patton as the new director of SAPRO in June. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

But as Hertog said, "It takes us too damn long to bring out our policies."

"I'm not a patient person. I take the criticism that other people have levied upon us seriously," she said. "We're making what we think are some great policies up here. But if nobody knows about them, how great can they be?"

In a rare Hill appearance in April, Panetta himself announced that local unit commanders will now be required to report MSA to a "special court-martial convening authority," typically a colonel or captain. The update drew applause from advocates and their congressional allies.

Anu Bhagwati, SWAN director and a former Marine commander, has more criticism for Panetta.

"It's obvious he cares about the issue, but the changes that he mentioned at that conference were mandated by law," Bhagwati told The Huffington Post later. "It wasn't as if the secretary rolled out of bed one day and said, 'I'm going to do something about sexual assault.'"

Yet Bhagwati describes some of the most recent reforms as "the biggest changes the DOD has made in confronting sexual assault thus far."

Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), who serves on the Oversight and Government Reform and Armed Services committees, says that Congress has been discussing MSA for almost a quarter-century. Panetta's support is key because "it's top-down," but, she adds, "This issue isn't going to go away."

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Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), who serves on the House Oversight and Government Reform and Armed Services committees, has introduced the STOP Act, which would mandate an independent, mostly civilian office to handle oversight of and response to MSA cases. Over a year ago, Speier began reading testimonies of MSA victims on the House floor.

In an empty room in the bowels of Congress several weeks before Panetta's April announcement, Speier hinted at the deeper issues plaguing reform as she described to HuffPost an all-male committee meeting on MSA.

"I saw this row of military brass sitting at a table talking about sexual assault and rape, and the conversation took me back to the '60s," she said.

Rep. Niki Tsongas (D-Mass.), who also sits on the Armed Services committee, has introduced several bills on MSA, such as the STRONG Act, which have been incorporated into the NDAA -- a signal to Defense (however nonbinding) that to secure funding, it needs to act.

While expressing optimism about the department's recent reforms, Tsongas emphasized, "Our oversight role is critically important. It allows us to hold the military's feet to the fire."

niki tsongasNiki Tsongas (D-Mass.) listens to testimony during a hearing on Capitol Hill on April 1, 2011, focusing on the ongoing implementation of the repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy. Tsongas has also been active on the issue of MSA. (Photo by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)

Still, perspectives are mixed on where the blame for MSA, and the responsibility to address it, should lie.

Burke, the civilian attorney, contends that Congress has allowed the issue of MSA to metastasize. "This is not an isolated case, this is a systemic failure," she said. "We've got three branches; the military does not get a trump card."

Rajiv Srinivasan, a lieutenant and former Army commander in Afghanistan, counters that he's never witnessed any incidents, calling it "a lot of bad press."

"They aren't Neanderthals," he said. "I think that most of our soldiers are indeed capable and want to live in that kind of mature culture where you are respected for treating women with respect."

But Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) sees "extraordinarily" high rates of assault in the military as symptomatic of a broader societal disorder.

"Add to it the negative attacks on basic women's rights, and the fury associated with these conversations," she said, "and there's a real feeling that if not now, then when? If not them, then who?"

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