The Reality of Rape in the Military
By Rick Outzen
Nan wanted to be a missionary in the military. At her church in Tennessee, a man in The Navigators, an international, interdenominational Christian ministry, visited her high school youth group.
She said, “He talked about how wonderful it was being a missionary in the military—what it was like to serve the Lord and have your bills paid.”
Nan enlisted in the Navy. When asked where she wanted to be stationed, she said, “Wherever God wants me to be.”
She was sent to Naval Air Station Pensacola and worked as an avionics electronic tech, rising to E-3 rank. Within three years, Nan was raped three times, once by her commanding officer.
Nan was one of the 19,000 military personnel that are assaulted every year. The Pentagon estimates that one in five females and one in 100 males have been raped while serving their country and less than 15 percent are reported.
Nan, who asked that her real name not be used, didn’t report her rape when it happened over 20 years ago but waited until years after she was out of the service.
“I didn’t get help until several years down the line,” she told the IN. “That will probably be the most common thing you’ll hear from victims. We just accepted it, it’s part of the culture.”
The last rape was by a male nurse at the Navy hospital while she was sedated.
Nan said. “I was physically hurt and I was actually sent to the Lakeview Center, spent about three days there, and that was it.”
Her attacker was never investigated, charged or reprimanded. When she called for a private, closed captain’s mast, which would have let her talk directly with the commanding officer of the base in private, she was denied.
“As far as I know, under the UCMJ (Uniform Code of Military Justice, a sailor is entitled to a private captain’s mast, but I was denied,” Nan said. “They just said it wasn’t necessary, that didn’t need to happen. Just go see the counselors at Family Services.”
She did and while they helped her deal with the trauma, her counselor discouraged her from pressing any charges. Even though she stayed silent, Nan was ousted from command. Eventually she asked for her discharge.
Rape victims have few choices. According to Nan, if you report the assault, your career is ruined. The only real option that she saw was to be quiet and move on.
Nan said, “The women in military know that rape happens on a regular basis. They are aware of it and try to protect each other. At NAS Pensacola, it was allowed to go on because the commander was one of the ones doing it.”
Culture Not Changing
Nan’s story is not unique. The military provides fertile ground for sexual predators and the Department of Defense has been unwilling to do much about it, even after the Tailhook and Air Force Academy scandals.
In September 1991, the 35th Annual Tailhook Association Symposium in Las Vegas featured a two-day debrief on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps aviation in Operation Desert Storm. It was the largest such meeting yet held, with some 4,000 attendees: active, reserve, and retired personnel.
According to a DOD report, 83 women and seven men stated that they had been victims of sexual assault and harassment during the meeting. Several participants later stated that a number of flag officers attending the meetings were aware of the sexual assaults, but did nothing to stop them.
Little had changed since then. The Navy has seen a 45 percent increase in reported sexual assaults of females and males over the past five years.
In 2004, Air Force’s Inspector General issued a report that revealed that 12 percent of the women who graduated from the Air Force Academy in 2003 reported that they were victims of rape or attempted rape while at the Academy. Of 659 women enrolled at the Academy at the time, 70 percent of them alleged they had been the victims of sexual harassment, of which 22 percent said they experienced “pressure for sexual favors.”
Lieutenant General John R. Dallager, the Superintendent of the United States Air Force Academy, was demoted to Major General due to the scandal. Though the Air Force touted that it had created a new culture at its academy, 20 sexual assaults were reported at the Air Force Academy in 2009-10 and 33 the following year.
Nan works with Military Sexual Trauma (MST) victims that have recently left the military. She says the culture hasn’t changed. The victim is pressured to not speak out.
“The attitude is it happens to everybody, it’s just one of those things,” Nan said. “If I want to be a part of the team, that’s just my responsibility.”
The Invisible War
The culture of silence may be changing. Filmmaker Kirby Dick released last year a documentary on the problem of sexual assault in the United States military. The film, “The Invisible War,” was awarded the Audience award at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival and was named Best Documentary by the Independent Spirit Awards.
Dick has produced several documentaries on the abuse of power in the failure or absence of accountability that have garnered acclaim. His “Twist of Faith” (2004) focused on a young man seeking justice after being sexually abused, as a child, by a priest. “This Film Is Not Yet Rated” (2006) centered on the secretive workings of the Motion Picture Association of America’s ratings board. “Outrage” (2009) tackled the sexual hypocrisy of the political class.
“The Invisible War” tells the story of military rape through the voices of the male and female victims—many whom felt that they were victimized twice, once by their attackers and then by the military system.
Their stories are difficult to hear. These veterans speak frankly about their humiliation and suffering. Kori Cioca tells of her jaw being broken when she was raped by a Coast Guard commanding officer. Elle Helmer, assigned to a prestigious Marine Barracks in Washington D.C. only a mile from the White House, speaks of being raped after enduring months of harassment by her fellow Marines. Michael Matthews talks about being gang raped in the Air Force and how he has battled whether to commit suicide or not.
The story of Matthews rang true for Bill, a Marine combat engineer, who was raped in Okinawa, Japan nearly 40 years ago and now lives in Pensacola.
Bill, who also asked to remain anonymous, enlisted in the Marine Corps when he was 18.
“A lot of people said I wouldn’t make it through boot camp,” he said in soft-spoken voice. “I proved them wrong because that’s the way I am. You tell me I can’t do something, I’m going to do it.”
Bill loved being a Marine, especially camaraderie of his unit. “I fell in love with the uniform and the ideal of the Marines,” he said.
“I became friends with a guy and we’re off duty, off the base one day. He said that he needed to show me something,” Bill said. “We went off into the jungle. Next thing I know, he had knocked me out, hitting me from behind. When I awoke, he was on top of me.”
He was ashamed and uncertain what to do or to whom to report what happened.
“I didn’t say anything. I was 18 years old, halfway around the world, totally in shock about what had happened,” Bill told the IN. “I trusted the guy, I’d bought into the Marine Corp. philosophy. I was ‘Gung Ho, Marine Joe.’”
He began to drink heavily, started to have blackouts and quit going to work.
“All I wanted to do was lay down in bed,” he said. “The depression hit me so bad.”
Bill had tried to get help for his alcoholism and was told to “suck it up and be a Marine.”
Finally his drinking and his pent-up anger got the best of him. Bill assaulted a second lieutenant. “I don’t remember what he said, but they told me it took six MPs to arrest me—none of which I remember to this day.”
He was sentenced to 30 days to the correctional custody platoon. Once he served that, Bill asked for a discharge and got it.
He continued drinking heavily, became a drug user. He got married, but it only lasted a couple years.
“I really couldn’t figure it out, “ Bill said. “I didn’t want to admit it was the rape that was doing it to me. I couldn’t love anybody because I couldn’t love myself.”
Eventually he sought help with the Veterans Administration and was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). When he told them about the rape, Bill was sent to a facility for Military Sexual Trauma in Biloxi. With the help of prescription drugs, he has been able to keep his PTSD and MST under control.
“I’ve been on medication and sober for awhile,” he said laughing nervously. “But I’m afraid not to take the medication, afraid my nightmares will come back, afraid I will start getting depressed over what I missed out on life.”
Out of the Shadows
On March 13, the Senate Armed Services Military Personnel Subcommittee held hearings on rape in the military. The panel, chaired by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), heard testimony from two panels—one of victims and activists, the other military personnel from each branch of the armed forces.
Gillibrand had watched the film “The Invisible War” with 10 top staffers.
“The issue of sexual violence in the military is not new and it has been allowed to go on in the shadows for far too long,” Gillibrand said in her opening statement. “The scourge of sexual violence in the military should be intolerable and infuriating to all of us.”
She pointed out how few of the cases are prosecuted. Of 2,439 unrestricted reports filed in 2011 for sexual violence cases only 240 proceeded to trial.
“A system where less than one out of 10 reported perpetrators are taken to trial for their alleged trials is not a system that is working,” said Gillibrand, “and that is just the reported crimes.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who served 30 years as a military lawyer, echoed the chair’s sentiments. “I can’t think of a more disrespectful measure than taking advantage of someone or physically violating them,” Graham said. “That is just absolutely not only a crime, it is a ultimate detrimental demise of the unit to have such conduct break out.”
Anu Bhagwati, the executive director of Service Women’s Action Network, or SWAN, and a former Marine Corps captain, testified before the committee. Bhagwati appears on camera in “The Invisible War.”
SWAN’s seeks to transform military culture by securing equal opportunity and freedom to serve without discrimination, harassment or assault and to reform veterans’ services to ensure high-quality health care and benefits for women veterans and their families.
She told that senators that during her five years as a Marine officer she experienced daily discrimination and sexual harassment. While stationed at the School of Infantry at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, from 2002 to 2004, Capt. Bhagwati witnessed reports of rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment swept under the rug by field grade officers.
Bhagwati testified, “Perpetrators were promoted, were transferred to other units without punishment, while victims were accused of lying or exaggerating their claims in order to ruin men’s reputations.”
As a company commander at the School of Infantry, she filed an equal opportunity investigation against an offending officer.
“I was given a gag order by my commanding officer, got a military protection order against the officer in question, lived in fear of retaliation and violence from both the offender and my own chain of command, and then watched in horror as the offender was not only promoted, but also given command of my company.”
BriGette McCoy, former specialist in the U.S. Army, joined the military during the first Gulf War. While stationed in Germany and two weeks before her 19th birthday, a non-commanding officer raped her. That same year another soldier raped her again in her unit.
McCoy said, “By 1990, between 1990 and 1991, another NCO in my unit began to harass me through inappropriate touching, words and behavior. This NCO then requested from my command that I be moved to work directly for him in a work environment where there was no access, closed and windowless key-entry coded vault.”
A senior female NCO in her unit helped her file a formal complaint—a complaint that her command answered by no official hearing, no written response.
“It was only answered later with a verbal response from my first sergeant that asked me, ‘What did I want?’—and that I misunderstood this NCO’s intentions toward me.”
She said, “At no time did anyone ever move forward with my formal complaint, nor was anyone willing to discuss the process with me. They did, however, remove me from his team and his formal apology consisted of him driving by me on base, rolling down his window, and saying to me, ‘Sorry.’”
McCoy said that she was harassed, put on extra duty and socially isolated after she filed her complaint. Fearing retribution, she took the only option offered to her.
“Within a week, I had orders out of Germany and I was escorted by two NCOs to my plane, and that was it,” she said. “My career was over.”
Returning to civilian life was difficult. McCoy became suicidal, suffered from severe depression and other medical illnesses and was unable to carry on the rigors of work. She became homeless.
“But not even the V.A. would recognize this and help me until some two decades later,” McCoy said. The V.A. eventually awarded her veterans service compensation and service-connection for military sexual trauma.
Former Army Sgt. Rebekah Havrilla was the only female member of a bomb squad in eastern Afghanistan. A colleague at Salerno Forward Operating Base near the Pakistani border raped her in 2007 during her last week. After another service member raped her, she hesitated reporting the incident.
Havrilla told the Senate panel, “I chose not to do a report of any kind because I had no faith in my chain of command, as my first sergeant previously had sexual harassment accusations against him, and the unit climate was extremely sexist and hostile in nature toward women.”
After talking with close friends, she did file a restricted report against her rapist and team leader before she left active duty. A restricted report is a request for help, but asks that an incidence remain private and not be investigated.
Havrilla got a job as a contractor and entered the reserves at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.
“Approximately a year after separating from active duty, I was on orders for job training and during that time, I ran into my rapist in a post store. He recognized me and told me that he was stationed on the same installation,” she said. “I was so re-traumatized from the unexpectedness of seeing him that I removed myself from training.”
Havrilla sought assistance from an Army chaplain who told her that the rape was God’s will and that God was trying to get my attention so that I would go back to church.
“Six months later, a friend called me and told me they had found pictures of me online that my perpetrator had taken during my rape. At that point, I felt that my rape was always going to haunt me unless I did something about it,” Havrilla said. “So I went to Army Criminal Investigation Division, CID, and a full investigation was completed.”
She said the investigation was humiliating, as she had to repeatedly tell male investigators the details of the rape. She lived in fear of running into her rapist again or that he might retaliate against her in some way. After six months of waiting, Havrilla was told that her attacker had admitted to having consensual sex, while married, his chain of command refused to pursue any charges of adultery, and the case was closed.
Ask Her When She’s Sober
The Defense Department has made some effort to stem the tide of sexual assaults in the military, but hasn’t been effective.
In February 2004, then Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld directed his Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, to review the DoD process for treatment and care of victims of sexual assault in the military. By October that year the Joint Task Force for Sexual Assault Prevention and Response was established to develop a new DoD-wide sexual assault policy that incorporated recommendations set forth in the Task Force Report on Care for Victims of Sexual Assault.
The Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO) now serves as the Department’s single point of authority for sexual assault policy and provides oversight to ensure that each of the Service’s programs complies with DoD policy.
In “The Invisible War,” former Director of SAPRO, Dr. Kaye Whitley, is shown announcing a social media campaign directed at rape prevention. Its slogan, “Ask her when she’s sober.”
Bhagwati was offended by the campaign because it excuses the assault as being nothing more than a lapse of professional judgment on the part of a young man.
“The ‘ask her when she’s sober’ poster is a perfect example of an inappropriate mixing of messages, which is also just based on mythology. It’s not based on fact,” Bhagwati told the senators. “You know, rapists tend to be serial. They use tools like alcohol to undermine their victim’s credibility. It’s not a matter of young people partying and the wrong thing happening. Rapists lay out tactics to do what they want to do. There’s really just a lack of understanding about what rape is, what sexual harassment is.”
“You know, I would love to see the Department of Defense come out with a poster that says, ‘Don’t rape.’ ‘Don’t rape.’ Period, end of story,” she said.
Havrilla told the panel that her unit didn’t take the sexual assault and harassment training seriously.
She said, “One of our sergeants got up on the table and stripped completely naked and danced, and laughed at it. I mean, that’s the kind of culture that I lived in and on a daily basis.”
Major General Gary Patton, the latest SAPRO director, said that his department had authorized the Air Force to implement a pilot program that assigns special victims counsel to victims who report a sexual assault.
“Special victims counsel are experienced attorneys and they advocate on behalf of the victim to commanders, convening authorities, staff, judge advocates, trial counsel, and to the extent authorized by the Manual for Courts-Martial, military judges,” Patton said. “Although the pilot has been operational for just six weeks, I understand that numerous victims have already requested assistance.”
While the other military leaders talked about the programs in place to prevent and prosecute rapes and to encourage more victims to report, none of the branches wanted to give up control of the investigations and punishment of the suspected rapists.
“For so long as we hold our commanders accountable for everything that a command does or fails to do then they must have these types of authorities,” said Marine Corps Maj. General Vaughn A. Ary.
Can A Command Investigate Itself?
While stationed at the School of Infantry, Bhagwati saw more problems with fellow officers than the enlisted.
“The infantrymen on the enlisted side that were just as outraged as the victims of sexual harassment and assault were,” she said. “However, on the officers’ side, there was definitely a sense of an old boys’ club, colonels protecting lieutenants, colonels protecting staff sergeants.”
She told the senators that military leadership couldn’t solve this problem on its own. Congress must grant convening authority over criminal cases to trained, professional, disinterested prosecutors.
“Commanding officers cannot make truly impartial decisions because of their professional affiliation with the accused, and oftentimes with the victim as well,” she said. She also pointed out that several countries have already done this because doing otherwise has deemed a violation of a right to a fair and impartial trial.
Bhagwati also asked that Congress open the civil courts to military victims. Civil courts have been traditionally designated to serve victims, according to Bhagwati. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that servicemembers are barred from bringing claims of negligence or intentional discrimination against the military.
“In the face of this judicial doctrine, Congress must ensure that men and women in uniform can access the remedies available to all other aggrieved individuals under the Federal Tort Claims Act and the Civil Rights Act,” she said. “Given the prevalence of retaliation against servicemembers who report incidents of sexual assault and harassment, the absence of these remedies for military personnel is especially shameful.”
Bhagwati appeared to have the support of at least two Senators on the panel, Gillibrand and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA).
“It is time for us to take swift, decisive steps to ensure that decisions in the military justice system don’t rest solely in the hands of one individual,” Boxer said at the hearing. “It is not enough that our military says zero tolerance for sexual assault.”
Nan wants to see the culture change and thinks getting the investigation and punishment out of the hands of the commanding officers would be a good move.
“You can’t get help through the system,” she said, “especially when the commander is the perpetrator or is drinking buddies with the accused. In the end, you’re left with the feeling of what did I do to deserve this.”
‘THE INVISIBLE WAR’
Hosted by Monument to Women Veterans
WHEN: 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 10
WHERE: Pensacola Little Theatre, 400 S Jefferson St.
COST: $10, women veterans free
DETAILS: Doors open for meet and greet; 6 p.m. showing. Tickets purchase at PLT box office pensacolalittletheatre.com or 432.2042. For more details, monumenttowomenveterans.org.
THE WHITE RIBBON FILM SERIES
WHEN: 7 p.m. Thursday, April 11
WHERE: University of West Florida, Bldg. 36, Room 191
DETAILS: UWF Wellness Services, 473-7113