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.