SAN DIEGO — Stacey Thompson had just been stationed at a Marine Corps base in Japan when she said her sergeant laced her drinks with drugs, raped her in his barracks and then dumped her onto a street outside a nightclub at 4 a.m.
The 19-year-old lance corporal was not afraid to speak up.
She reported it to her superiors but little happened. She said she discovered her perpetrator was allowed to leave the Marine Corps and she found herself, instead, at the center of a separate investigation for drug use stemming from that night. Six months later, she was kicked out with an other-than-honorable discharge – one step below honorable discharge – which means she lost her benefits.
Now, 14 years later, she has decided to speak out again, emboldened by the mounting pressure on the Pentagon to resolve its sexual assault epidemic.
She went public with her story Thursday in an exclusive interview with The Associated Press and spoke Friday at a news conference with Sen. Barbara Boxer ahead of next week's Senate hearing on the problem.
"To see that what happened to me 14 years ago is still continuing to happen now, for me that was a big reason why I felt the need to come forward," she said. "I can finally say I have the strength."
Retaliation is part of a military-wide pattern that has prevented countless cases from being reported and investigated, exacerbating the epidemic, according to victims' advocates. A Pentagon report released earlier this month found 62 percent of sexual assault victims in the military who reported being attacked say they faced some kind of retaliation afterward.
Boxer is pushing for a bipartisan bill that would put the cases in the hands of military trained prosecutors and not the chain of command.
"Too many survivors of military sexual assault are afraid to report these crimes because they fear retaliation, and they don't believe they will get justice," Boxer said. "They deserve a system that encourages victims to come forward knowing that the perpetrators will be brought to justice."
Marine Corps and Navy officials declined to comment, saying they do not discuss specific cases.
All branches have been scrambling to implement sexual assault prevention programs and improve their response to cases amid growing outrage over the Pentagon's failure to stem the problem as a string of arrests and incidents of sexual misconduct continue to surface.
As many as 26,000 military members may have been sexually assaulted last year and thousands of victims are unwilling to come forward despite new oversight and assistance programs, according to the Pentagon. That figure is an increase over the 19,000 estimated assaults in 2011.
Only 3,374 of these crimes were reported, resulting in 238 convictions.
"It's an ongoing problem that is not getting better, it's getting worse, as the latest statistics out of the Pentagon show," said Brian Purchia, spokesman for Protect Our Defenders, which has been helping Thompson.
"Unfortunately commanders are conflicted: When a sexual assault occurs on their watch, it reflects poorly on them and that's why it's shoved under the rug. The perpetrators frequently out rank the victims, which is also why there is this bias. They're going to trust people they've known – not an 18 or 19-year-old just new to the service."
Former Marine Capt. Anu Bhagwati said military culture will not change until the military justice system is reformed and service members are given access to civil courts to file suits in cases of retaliation and discrimination.
"There is no outside redress," said Bhagwati, who leads the Service Women's Action Network.
Thompson said she paid heavily for reporting the assault.
The investigator called her a liar, and military authorities checked her hands for needle pricks after accusing her of using drugs. She said she never used drugs. She was reassigned to another unit, removed from her job and told to report to an office with nothing to do.
Then she was kicked out. She continues to suffer from her other-than-honorable discharge, which stripped her of her benefits and she believes has led to her missing out on Defense Department jobs.
"I felt the Marine Corps re-victimized me again after getting raped," said the 32-year-old mother of three.
Thompson said then she shut down, refusing to talk about her rape. She was afraid of men, especially Marines. To this day, she keeps her dog nearby when she showers and sleeps with lights on in her house, even when her combat Marine husband is home.
"That fear is still with me 14 years later," she said.
But the fight is there too. Thompson requested her records in December. She said they showed the drug use allegations against her came from her perpetrator's friends.
She is now appealing her case to the Department of Veterans Affairs and is seeking compensation related to military sexual trauma. After that, she plans to also appeal her discharge status to get it upgraded to honorable.
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'Full Battle Rattle'
Rebekah Havrilla, out on patrol in Afghanistan. The former Army sergeant and Explosive Ordnance Disposal specialist enlisted in 2004, seeking out job training, education, "some patriotic element" after 9/11 and a way out of South Carolina. "I went in with the idea of making a career out of it," she says. "I thought, I can't be Special Forces, I can't do Rangers because I don't have a penis -- closest thing I can get to actually doing that type of job is EOD [Explosive Ordnance Disposal]."
Havrilla crouches in the remnants of a "demolition shot" she and her team did of a "bunch of captured enemy munitions" outside of Forward Operating Base Gardez, in Afghanistan. "It's a very male dominated, hypermasculine environment, so you've got to be the tomboy, kind of, 'let's play cowboys and indians. And soldiers,'" she says. But to some, this also meant persistent sexual harassment and even assault.
Havrilla says intense nightmares kept her from sleep, night after night, after she got back from Afghanistan -- until recently, when she moved to New York. Though Havrilla says that at first she suffered from the kind of hyper-vigilance described by fellow combat veterans in urban settings, she loves the city -- namely because it is so different than where she grew up, in a conservative Christian family in rural South Carolina. She is getting her Masters and working for the Service Women's Action Network (SWAN).
An early photo of Tia Christopher, who joined the Navy at age 18 in 2000 and was out just under a year later, honorably discharged with a "personality disorder."
Tia Christopher and her friend Aston Tedford at a women veterans retreat in Arizona several years ago. Christopher now works as an advocate for veterans, in particular victims of MSA, and has written guidance on the subject.
Tia Christopher in a favorite photo.
'I'm Beautiful Despite The Flames'
Tia Christopher sent this photo of her recently completed tattoo Friday, Sept. 28. Written in Arabic, she says "her motto" -- which covers scars from her assault -- more literally translates: "Despite the flames that devoured my flesh, I am still beautiful."
Claire Russo in a childhood photo.
Claire & Coconut
Claire Russo pictured at 10 years old, in 1989 with "Coconut." Russo grew up near Washington, D.C., and worked on the Hill. "I was sort of -- well no, a really privileged middle-class kid," she says. "I was just fascinated with the debate, and the decisions the government was making … And I remember a very strong desire to serve."
Claire Russo Salutes Her Cousin
Claire Russo in 2004 at Quantico, right after being commissioned, saluting her cousin Tom Winkle, a Navy lieutenant and pilot. Russo lived with Winkle in San Diego, and was with him the night of her assault, at the Marine Corps Ball. It was Winkle that reported Russo's assault; she did not want to report, being afraid for her career.
Claire Russo (right) with her roommate at The Basic School in Quantico, Va., after finishing a field exercise. Russo says that one of the 30 females in the class of 180 was raped in the barracks while she was at The Basic School.
Claire Russo 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 the discharge hearing of the serviceman who raped her, Douglas Alan Dowson -- he was already in prison.
'Citizen Of Courage'
Claire Russo (front) salutes the flag during the national anthem, before she was given the "Citizen of Courage" award from the San Diego District Attorney's office in 2006. Behind her is San Diego District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis and First Marine Expeditionary Force (IMEF) Commanding General John Sattler, who Russo says is the "only commander to ever apologize to me for what I experienced."
Russo And San Diego DAs
Deputy District Attorney Gretchen Means, Claire Russo and District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, after Russo received the "Citizens of Courage" award from the San Diego District Attorney's office at Camp Pendleton in 2006.
Down The Aisle
Claire Russo at her wedding to Josh Russo. Lt. Josh Russo was stationed at Camp Pendleton, some 40 miles north, at the time of Russo's assault in 2004. He remains in the military.
Claire And Josh Russo
Claire and Josh Russo on their wedding day, with friends from the Marines.
Russo And Her Motorcycle
"Me on my Russian Minsk 120 cc dirt bike, in Laos. This was one day on an 8 month trip/honeymoon Josh and I took. We rode motorcylces through SE Asia, Australia and went to Africa," Russo describes in a recent email.
Claire Russo in Afghanistan near the Pakistan border, on a mission with the 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry Army Paratroopers. "I spoke with the district governor that day about how we could help to get a woman working for the Ministry of Womens Affairs working in his district," Russo writes.
Claire, Josh And Genevieve Russo In Paris
Claire Russo and her husband, Josh Russo, and their baby Genevieve, here four weeks old, in Paris. Josh serves in the U.S. Army.
"My 4 week old daughter Genevieve and I in front of a painting of Saint Genevieve, the patron saint of Paris, who saved the city from the Huns," Russo writes.
Marti Ribeiro In Front Of Village
Marti Ribeiro served with the Air Force, Army, Navy and Marines over eight years as a combat correspondent.
As a combat correspondent, Marti Ribeiro accompanied medical convoys to remote areas without local doctors. Such clinics were set up in specific locations, so the locals needed significant advance warning of their arrival. When one such convoy came under attack, Ribeiro returned fire, earning her a <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/14/women-at-war-unseen_n_1498291.html#slide=964342">Combat Action Badge</a>, though as a female, she officially should not have been in a position to take fire.
'Afghan Girls On Rooftop'
A photograph of Afghan girls, taken by Marti Ribeiro during her deployment.
Ribeiro In 2006
Marti Ribeiro and an Afghan boy in 2006.
'Soaked To The Bone And Miserable'
Marti Ribeiro titles this photo -- taken in Afghanistan in 2006 -- as "soaked to the bone and miserable."
Marti Ribeiro And Her Daughter Bela
Marti Ribeiro and her daughter, Bela, in San Antonio, Texas.