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17 Victims Sue Pentagon Over 'Plague' of Sexual Violence

Feb 15, 2011 – 3:25 PM
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Andrea Stone

Andrea Stone Senior Washington Correspondent

WASHINGTON -- It may become a landmark case to force the military to take rape and sexual assault seriously. Or it could be yet another failed attempt in a decades-long battle by women to be accepted in the armed forces.

Seventeen veterans and active-duty service members today took the first step to determining that, suing the Pentagon on charges of violating their constitutional rights to serve their country.

They accused two secretaries of defense of condoning, ignoring and implicitly encouraging sexual abuse in the ranks in a 42-page complaint filed in federal district court in Alexandria, Va., which contains phrases like "f---ing whore," "bitch" and "troublemaker."

The plaintiffs, who include two men, come from every military branch. They charge they were victimized twice -- once by their assailants and again by the institution they served.

"The system is driven by rape myths," said Myla Haider, a former Army criminal investigator who was raped by a co-worker. The co-worker was later court-martialed in another case as a "serial sex offender."

"There is a pervasive attitude within DOD that any man might commit these types of offenses and therefore when these things do come up it is seen as something that is commited by a peer or just another soldier" and not taken seriously, said Haider, a plaintiff in the suit.

Such attitudes aren't new. Ever since the infamous Tailhook scandal broke out in 1991 after the first Gulf War, an unending series of investigations, congressional hearings, reports, training regimens and special offices have sought to end the problem that the acronym-obsessed service now has given its very own name: MST -- military sexual trauma.

Eleanor Smeal of the Feminist Majority Foundation, who has watched for decades as women warriors fought to be accepted in the macho ranks of the military, said the challenge in civil court "is necessary because so much else has failed."

As a Marine captain, Anuradha Bhagwati witnessed her own senior officers violate sexual harassment policies.

Anuradha Bhagwati, 35, of New York, executive director of the Service Women's Action Network, talks about rape in the U.S. military during an interview at an attorney's office, where veterans who say they were raped while serving in the military, gathered Sunday, Feb. 13, 2011, in Washington.
Cliff Owen, AP
Anuradha Bhagwati, 35, of New York, is executive director of the Service Women's Action Network. She says sexual violence in the military "threatens our national security."
Bhagwati is now the head of the advocacy group Service Women's Action Network. She says she has seen those violators "shirk their responsibilities to their own troops ... transfer sexual predators out of the units instead of prosecuting them, promote sexual predators during ongoing investigations and accuse highly decorated enlisted service members of lying."

She called sexual violence "a plague upon the United States military" that "threatens our national security by undermining operational readiness, draining morale, harming retention and destroying lives."

The stories told by Haider and other plaintiffs at a news conference this morning were harrowing. Among them:
  • Kori Cioca, the lead plaintiff, said she was constantly harassed by her Coast Guard supervisor. After she made a mistake during a knot-tying quiz, he called her a "stupid f---ing female, who didn't belong in the military" and then spit in her face. After complaining to her superior, the abuse escalated to stalking, sexual harassment and ultimately rape in December 2005. Despite an admission from her rapist, commanders told Cioca if she pressed charges she would be court-martialed for lying and later faced retaliation.
  • Sarah Albertson was raped by a fellow Marine who outranked her in 2006. Because they had been drinking alcohol, both she and the man were charged with "inappropriate barracks conduct," and she was ordered to "respect" her assailant. Commanders forced the corporal to interact with her rapist for two more years, suspending her security clearance and downgrading her work assignments because she took prescription medicine to cope with the trauma of being forced to live and work with her rapist.
  • Rebekah Havrilla was an Army sergeant serving in Afghanistan in 2006 when she was sexually harassed by a supervisor and later raped by another soldier. She reported it under the military's restricted reporting policy. When she later saw her rapist at a base in Missouri, she went into shock and sought the help of a military chaplain. She said he told her "it must have been God's will for her to be raped" and recommended she attend church more often.
Most of the plaintiffs have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder or other mental stress problems. They charged the Pentagon with a "systemic failure to stop rape and sexual assault."
Veterans Kori Cioca, 25, of Wilmington, Ohio, left, and Panayiota Bertzikis, 29, of Somerville, Mass., both assaulted and raped while serving in the U.S. Coast Guard, meet at their attorney's office in Washington, Sunday, Feb. 13, 2011
Cliff Owen, AP
Veterans Kori Cioca, 25, of Wilmington, Ohio, left, and Panayiota Bertzikis, 29, of Somerville, Mass., were both assaulted and raped while serving in the U.S. Coast Guard. They are among the plaintiffs suing the Pentagon over its approach to rape and sexual assault cases.

The suit names former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his successor, Robert Gates, for failing to "eradicate a well-entrenched misogynistic military culture that permits Command to scoff at rape allegations, threaten victims with courts martial and exercise unfettered discretion to decide to use 'non-judicial punishment' to penalize rape and sexual assault."

The lawsuit specifically cites Rumsfeld, desperate for volunteers to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq, for granting "moral waivers" to recruits arrested or convicted of domestic and sexual violence. Despite a federal law making it a felony for such offenders to possess a firearm, he provided an exception to members of the military.

Sex crimes, it noted, soared 24 percent in the year before Rumsfeld's resignation in 2006.

Gates is charged with "failing to take reasonable steps" to protect the plaintiffs from repeated abuse. It notes that he directed the head of the Pentagon's Sexual Assault and Prevention and Response Office to ignore a congressional subpoena to testify and failed to create a centralized database of sex crimes as mandated by lawmakers.

The current defense secretary's "failures to act ... led to a steady and dramatic increase" in the number of rapes and sexual assaults, rising by 25 percent in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2007 and continuing to increase at double digits annually since then.

"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," Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said in a statement.

"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."

The lawsuit cited the Pentagon's own statistics that reported 3,230 rapes and other sexual assaults in 2009. Because the military acknowledges that 80 percent of victims don't report the crime, the real number may be more than 16,000.

Moreover, the complaint charges that the Department of Defense "fails to report conviction rates from courts marital, which is critical data needed by Congress to assess whether reforms are being implemented."

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Still, the plaintiffs face a high hurdle.

Eugene Fidell, president of the National Institute of Military Justice, said the facts as presented in the complaint are "certainly disturbing" and merit attention from Pentagon leaders. However, he said he is "skeptical that this case, as a case, will gain any traction" in court.

From a legal point of view, he said, it is a steep climb for 17 plaintiffs to argue for systemic abuses in a military of some 2 million people.

"I don't know that a culture of sexism and misogyny has ever been recognized as a basis" for suing for violations of equal protection, he added. "Not every sexual assault is a violation of equal protection."
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