The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Sexual Assault Survivors Accuse Military of Systemic Uninterest

by Jessica Pupovac

*A correction was appended to this news article after initial publication.

Dec. 21, 2006 – Military sexual assault survivors and their advocates say the case of Suzanne Swift typifies the Pentagon’s failure to address the prevalence of sexual assault inside its ranks, as well as the unmet needs of survivors and the impunity enjoyed by assailants.

Email to a Friend
Print-friendly Version
Add to My Morning Paper

Swift went AWOL in January to avoid deployment with a battalion in which she underwent repeated incidents of sexual harassment and abuse. Now she is being thrown in the brig while only one of her three alleged transgressors has received so much as a letter of reprimand.

But "for the Army, this case shows how thorough and fair the military legal process is," according to Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Piek, the press officer at Fort Lewis, where Swift’s unit is based. Piek noted that the "thorough investigation" Swift’s allegations received demonstrate critics are wrong.

Swift’s former lawyer Lawrence Hildes offers a contrasting view. He told The NewStandard that when Swift was targeted for sexual harassment by her platoon sergeant in Kuwait in February 2005 and was then manipulated into having sex with another superior in Iraq later that year, she did not file a formal complaint out of fear. Her alleged assailant in Iraq "made it very clear to her that there would be real repercussions if she reported it, and she believed him," Hildes said.

A study headed by Anne Sadler, coordinator of the post-traumatic stress clinical team at the Veterans Administration hospital in Iowa City, found that Swift’s experience was not uncommon.

It was only after facing the possibility of returning to Iraq under the same leadership that on January 9, 2006, she decided to go AWOL.

That nationwide survey, which included women whose terms of service fell between 1961 and 2003, found that more than three-quarters of the respondents reported experiencing sexual harassment during their military service; a third suffered one or more completed or attempted rapes.

However, only 26 percent of the rape survivors reported it through official channels while in active duty. The most common reasons given were fear that the report would negatively impact the survivor’s career or make things worse. A belief that nothing would be done and fear that they would be blamed by their co-workers were also prominent concerns. A shocking 19 percent thought that "rape [is] an expected part of military service."

The VA study also found that among respondents who had experienced a rape or attempted rape, in most cases survivors did not report because the designated go-to man was either the rapist himself or a friend of the rapist.

When Swift returned to Ft. Lewis, Washington in January 2005, she claims, a third superior began harassing her. When he told her – reportedly in front of fellow soldiers – to report to duty one morning "in my bed, naked," she filed a formal complaint that led to his receiving a letter of admonishment, the Army confirmed to TNS.

It was only after facing the possibility of returning to Iraq under the same leadership that on January 9, 2006, she decided to go AWOL. Eugene, Oregon police officers arrested her on June 11 in her mother's home. Following her capture, she finally told investigators what had happened to her in Iraq.

For her decision to evade the Army instead of deploying to Iraq with a unit she considered unsafe, Swift was demoted from specialist to private and given 30 days’ confinement.

This initiated what press officer Piek calls "a very lengthy investigative process." In the end, Lt. Col. Piek told TNS, the investigation could not prove or disprove Swifts allegations. The case never made it to a court-martial, and the investigation is closed.

According to the Defense Department, of the 2,374 reported allegations of sexual assault last year, only 79 made it to a court-martial. Another 195 resulted in administrative punishments, such as pay deductions, letters of reprimand, demotions and transfers.

For her decision to evade the Army instead of deploying to Iraq with a unit she considered unsafe, Swift was demoted from specialist to private and given 30 days’ confinement.

In order to avoid a harsher sentence, she agreed to plead guilty and sign a Stipulation of Fact that states only that she was "harassed" and that she "engaged in a sexual relationship with her squad leader." It mentions nothing about her allegations that the relationship was coerced and took place under threat of punishment.

Swift's mother, Sara Rich, wishes the military had handled her daughter’s case differently and given her a medical discharge. "But instead," Rich told TNS, "they have decided to re-traumatize her." She said that she fears for her daughter’s safety once she returns to the combat environment, particularly given the attention her case has received in the news media.

Sexualized violence is reported at much higher rates in the military than in the general civilian population. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 17 percent of civilian women report having survived rape or attempted rape in contrast with 30 percent of women surveyed for the VA study.

While the reasons for elevated sexual violence inside the military are unclear, the VA study found that an overall climate where sexual harassment is condoned and "hostile work environments" were key factors. In addition, the study found, "officers allowing or initiating sexually demeaning comments or gestures towards female soldiers was associated with a three- to four-fold increase in likelihood of rape."

Congressional hearings held in 2004, in response to reports of escalating sexual assault and sexual harassment in the military, led to the creation of the DoD Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (SAPR) Office. SAPR's objectives, according to its website, are to enhance and improve training and awareness, treatment and support, and system accountability.

Nonetheless, many rape survivors report being at a loss. Former soldier Jessica Brinkman, who was discharged from the Army last August for medical reasons, claims she was raped on multiple occasions.

"They put a Sexual Assault Response Coordinator in the community events building on post, but there are so many flaws and so many people are uneducated that even your reporting gets screwed up just because no one knows what they are doing, or cares," Brinkman told TNS.

She said she attempted to report her first rape to the Sexual Assault Response Coordinator at Ft. Eustis, where she was stationed, but the SARC kept putting her off.

"Once you [report] once and your command doesn’t follow the rules, then you lose all faith in it," she said.

When she tried to get counseling for the trauma, Brinkman said, she was told to "try jogging."

"I didn't need to go jogging," she told TNS. "I needed somebody to tell me that the way I was feeling was normal."

Brinkman is currently creating a booklet to help women who find themselves in similar situations, so that they know what to expect, what their rights are and how to cope. She says there was nothing like that for her.

Swift’s mother, too, has dedicated herself to publicizing her daughter’s case in order to "prevent this from happening to other young women."

"The most important thing people need to know is that they should not be silent because of fear," Rich told TNS. "We have to do something about how our military is oppressing women. This is not an isolated incident."


Clarifying Note:

The last word of this article's original headline was disinterest. The better term is uninterest.

 | Change Posted January 2, 2007 at 12:09 PM EST

Send to Friends Respond to Editors or Reporter

The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Jessica Pupovac is a contributing journalist.

Recent contributions by Jessica Pupovac: