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Pentagon Faces Class Action Suit Exposing Military Sexual Abuse Crisis

by Tanya Domi on February 15, 2011

in Analysis,Civil Rights,Discrimination,Legal Issues,Media,News,Personal,Tanya Domi

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Advocacy Organization Joins In Support Of Class Action Lawsuit Against Pentagon Leaders Gates, Rumsfeld To Combat Military Rape, Sexual Assault

Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN), a national advocacy organization devoted to eliminating sexual violence in the U.S. military, led by executive director and former Marine Corps Captain Anu Bhagwati, are joining in support of a lawsuit filed against Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, for failure to make measurable progress and marked improvement to the Pentagon’s abysmal record that appears to tolerate sexual abuse and rape.

The lawsuit, brought on behalf of seventeen plaintiffs, including two men, was filed in the Federal District Court for the Eastern District in Virginia by Susan L. Burke, and announced at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. No stranger to controversy, Burke is also litigating another major lawsuit against Blackwater, LLC, in a whistleblower case on behalf of the U.S. government. Burke was joined today by Bhagwati, Ellie Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Fund, and some of the plaintiffs participating in the lawsuit, including twenty-five year-old Kori Cioca (video) who said she was hit in her face by a superior in 2005 and later raped by the same man while serving in the Coast Guard.

Also a plaintiff in the suit, Panayiota Bertzikis, twenty-nine, a former Coast Guard member who was raped by a shipmate while on a social hike off-duty in 2006. Bertzikis, now the executive director of the Military Rape Crisis Center in Somerville, Mass., spoke about the broader problem of not just the occurrence of rape, which is vastly under reported — even according to the Department of Defense — but about the larger issue, which is the manner in which the military as a whole deals with rape, after it is reported.

“The problem of rape in the military is not only service members getting raped, but it’s the entire way that the military as a whole is dealing with it,” said Bertzikis, who added, “From survivors having to be involuntarily discharged from service, the constant verbal abuse, once a survivor does come forward your entire unit is known to turn their back on you. The entire culture needs to be changed.”

Read: “Breaking: Pentagon Sued In Rape, Sexual Abuse Class-Action

The AP reported this morning, “Bertzikis complained to her commanding officer, but she said authorities did not take substantial steps to investigate the matter. Instead, she said, they forced her to live on the same floor as the man she had accused and tolerated others calling her a “liar” and “whore.”

“Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said in a statement that sexual assault is a wider societal problem and that Gates has been working to ensure the military is doing all it can to prevent and respond to it.

“That means providing more money, personnel, training and expertise, including reaching out to other large institutions such as universities to learn best practices,” Morrell said. “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.”

Retaliation by hostile commanders is not an uncommon occurance according to a number of these plaintiffs. Retaliation can include constant verbal abuse, blackballing of a unit member if she reports she was raped and command instigation that led to compromised privacy of a survivor’s allegations of rape or sexual assault.

“I stand in solidarity with the courageous men and women who have served in our nation’s armed services,” Bhagwati said. “The inspirational plaintiffs you see before you are a small handful of the tens of thousands of troops and veterans who have been sexually brutalized and physically and psycholoigically tortured by their fellow servicemembers while defending our nation.”

According to Bhagwati, in FY 2009, 3,230 servicemembers reported rape or sexual assault through the military. The DoD itself acknowledges that 80 percent of sexual assault survivors do not report the crime. According to this mathematical formula, 16,150 servicemembers were sexually assaulted. Currently, the DoD’s small “Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office” (SAPRO), which distributes posters, collects data, but has no enforcement or investigative authority to stem the time of sexual violence.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’d like to add that I recently joined SWAN’s Board of Directors and jumped at the opportunity to support this ground breaking work, because SWAN is the first military veterans organization in the country to focus on the elimination of military rape and sexual abuse.

Along with its advocacy and policy work that includes working on the repeal of DADT, SWAN continues addressing homelessness among the veterans’ population which is substantially higher among women vets, who are also less likely to access the Veteran’s Administration for health care they maybe entitled to. Why go to a VA hospital or medical facility that caters to male diseases as these facilities are woefully inadequate or not properly staffed to treat women’s diseases? To add insult to injury, many women who are suffering PTSD from combat or military sexual violence related reasons, are many times sexually harassed in the hallways and sitting rooms of many VA facilities.

As a 15-year veteran of the U.S. Army, in which I began as a private and left as a captain, I can attest to the viciousness of many male colleagues. I know that many women soldiers, straight or lesbian, are vulnerable to a spectrum of harassment that begins with name-calling, escalates to a hostile work environment, and culminates in sexual assault.

GAO reports have documented the abysmal conditions that women cadets have endured at the military academies because of military sexual violence. In the most egregious cases, females have been raped in their own beds. The Pentagon leadership annually comes before Congress to tell our elected representatives, who possess oversight authority, that they will do better on the issue of reducing military rape. Many promises are made, nearly none fulfilled. Congress has done a miserable job carrying out its oversight function under both Democratic and Republican leadership.

Additionally, there has been little, if not neglible Presidential leadership on the issue of military rape and sexual assault during the history of our country, yet women have officially served in the ranks since World War II and are now serving in combat capacities in Afghanistan and Iraq, although not formally recognized.

If you are outraged by the epidemic of military rape and sexual assault that continues with impunity, show your concern by going to SWAN’s website to sign a  petition directed to Secretary Gates and the leaders of the Pentagon to stop these crimes against some of the most dedicated American citizens.

Tanya L. Domi is an Adjunct Assistant Professor of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, who teaches about human rights in Eurasia and is a Harriman Institute affiliated faculty member. Prior to teaching at Columbia, Domi worked internationally for more than a decade on issues related to democratic transitional development, including political and media development, human rights, gender issues, sex trafficking, and media freedom.

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X NAVY February 15, 2011 at 7:42 pm

The Coast Guard is not part of the Military . Prior to the creation of the Dept of Homeland Services they were a part of the Dept of Transportation. They are governed by DoD only in times of War and at this time we are not in a formal war, so all the Coast Guard cases have no standing in the Pentagon.

There are Sexual Assualt Intervention Officers and Petty Offices at every command and Base in the Navy. That Officer is almost alwasy female and it is never a problem filling the billet because of the command visibility and ability to help victims. it helps the members and because o the responsibility it gets people promoted.

Sounds like a Coast Guard problem. Out of 20 years i ca personnaly attest to one unsolved rape in the service because the victim was drunk. Almost all others are discharged as a policy matter and that can be done at NJP, but it should be done through Court Martial.

David Badash February 15, 2011 at 11:51 pm

Your personal experience flies in the face of what even the DOD admits is a huge and important problem. Denying it is unacceptable and goes against what I believe is every soldiers' duty to protect fellow soldiers.These stories are horrific. Denying they exist is unacceptable.Calling it a “Coast Guard problem” is childish and ludicrous.

Neva February 16, 2011 at 11:52 am

The Coast Guard deploys its personnel, equipment, and vessels on a constant rotation in support of DoD missions worldwide. These Coast Guard personnel formally fall under DoD. The information you have posted above is erroneous. To say that the Coast Guard is not part of the military discredits their hard work, sacrifice, service, and invaluable contributions to our nation. They serve alongside us everyday.

As for the Navy, I have personally witnessed a large Navy Command try to cover up a rape. They did so by taking the rape victim to NJP, accusing the victim of adultery because the rapist is married, reducing the victim in rank, and reassigning the victim to another command in the same geographic area. The rapist was protected by this Navy Command and rewarded with a glowing fitrep and a recommendation of Must Promote to Senior Chief (E-8). However, Congress Representatives have been notified and hopefully these egregious wrongs will be righted. It is sickening that such horrible people are placed in positions of such authority which enables them to literally ruin people's lives with zero oversight.

EXLNFemale February 23, 2011 at 10:21 pm

Having worked in the legal field within the Navy for 10 years, I saw more sexual assault cases than not get dismissed at court-martial or Article 32 hearings. Part of the new Article 120 of the UCMJ that came about in October 2007 helped to combat those cases that would have been thrown out prior to October 2007 by not allowing the assailant to use the defense that "he/she didn't know the victim was intoxicated," which is at least 95% the case in most military sexual assaults. I can personally attest to at least the Navy's lack of concern for sexual assaults, especially in remote areas. I was assaulted by a junior Naval Officer, reported it and my command at the time told me that no one believed me and that I was better off just keeping quiet. I ended up not going forward with the case because my command promised to have him transferred if I shut up. Seven months later he was still there, I was still there and I had to salute to him everyday. There were no known SAPR (SAVI) advocates and there were no counseling services. I also transferred from that command with a promotable eval and no end of tour award although I worked my butt off for the command.

EXLNFemale February 23, 2011 at 10:22 pm

Continued…..So these women have every right to do what they are doing and I applaud them. It has been a hard road to even bring sexual assaults in the military somewhat into the light. The leaders aren't getting it, assaults are happening and no one does anything, like it is the price we pay to serve in a man's Navy or military or if a male is the victim it is because they are "gay" and deserved it. NOT TRUE!!! Someone needs to wake up and smell the coffee because these little programs the DOD has come up with are not working because the CO's aren't getting it. That is what needs to be fixed, the senior leaders, not the programs! BTW, just of note, you can't separate someone at NJP, it's not authorized by military law and regulation. Also, not all SAPR advocates are only officers and Petty Officers or just female. They range across the ranks and are both male and female and they don't do it to get promoted or to make the command look good. They do it to help sailors. I suggest you do your research more before stating something that makes you look stupid!

Jeb Bush February 16, 2011 at 10:03 am

FYI – Our gay troops are saying "Do Ask, Do Tell" now at – the New Social Network for Gay Service Members.

Mrs. Harris February 24, 2011 at 8:30 pm

Ending the silence and reporting any abuse in the military should be a top priority on the leadership part in the command once they become aware of the situation. It is so typical for military commanders/OIC's to cover up problems and abuse in their command. Usually the person that report the abuse is then looked upon as a trouble maker or not a team player. The programs that are in place are not working they only look good on paper but the services are not delivered properly. President Obama should contract his own IG team and have the DOD and in particular the Navy investigated for abuse that is being tolerated and military members that are the perpetrators continue to advance in rank and nothing happens to them. I am fed up and tired of watching females rights and body violated and it's not taken serious. How is it that the Navy IG will ever find the Navy in violation of anything. Usually when you file with DOD IG they give it the military service that you file the complaint against to conduct it's own investigation. How fair is this???? I pray that God intervene and give these victims the peace they need to survive.

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