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Sexual Assault In The US Military: Commanding Responsibility

Patricia Murphy

The Department of Defense (DoD) says it will soon require sexual assault response coordinators and victims advocates get trained and credentialed. The move is intended to improve victim care for soldiers who report sexual assaults at Washington's Joint Base Lewis–McChord and other military installations.

But a recent military investigation found that many victims of sexual assault say they don't report the crime. Of those that do, more than a third decline to pursue charges against their alleged attackers. Another new DoD policy gives victims legal assistance to help them navigate the military justice system. But legal hurdles are only a small part of why some victims back away.

KUOW's Patricia Murphy has the second part of our series on sexual assault in the military.

Warning: this story contains graphic language about sexual assault.


In 1993, Peter was a 19–year–old army infantryman from the Pacific Northwest. He was stationed at Camp Hovey in Korea. Peter was settling into Army life.

After a night out drinking with friends, he was raped by a private from another unit. After Peter reported the assault, a second victim came forward. His attacker pleaded guilty and was sent to prison. But Peter struggled with post trauma. He says mental health counselors told him to get over it.

After the court–martial, Peter received a severely worded reprimand from his first sergeant. His ruck sack was not packed to standard. The warning read in part: "If you continue to disregard instructions, I will recommend actions be taken against you under the Uniform Military Code of Justice."

Lori: "'I highly recommend you start soldiering now,' is what their recommendations to him were. It's right there at the bottom, you can read right there."

That's Lori, Peter's wife. They now live in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho.

Lori: "The date on this is March 15, 1994, the same day, March 15, 1994, he was put on the buddy watch system for suicide."

Peter believes with proper mental health treatment he would have been able to recover from the attack. Instead, he says he was ordered by his sergeant to never speak of the rape again. Commanders did little to stop ridicule from other soldiers.

Peter: "You only got promoted because you got raped. You got f–––– in the a–– so they feel sorry for you. I'm not going to listen to you, your rank doesn't matter because you only have it because you were raped."

Peter joined the Army to escape a troubled home life. He says his drill sergeant, the man who broke him down and rebuilt him, was more proud of him than his father ever was. The military became his family, the place where he had redeemed himself. Now he felt shunned and isolated.

Less than a year after the rape, Peter was brought before his commander. Discipline reports described him as "lackadaisical" and "unwilling to follow orders."

It was a dramatic turnaround for Peter who prior to the rape seemed dedicated to the service. His commander requested that there be no further attempts to rehabilitate Peter.

Lori: "Rehabilitation would not be in the best interest of the US Army, as it would not produce a quality soldier."

Peter was discharged.

Peter: "I lost my manhood when I was assaulted, and they didn't even give me a chance to earn it back. They just swept it away."

Congressional pressure has forced the Department of Defense to develop a comprehensive policy to address sexual assault and treatment of victims in the ranks. But according to a recent Government Accountability report, some commanders have been slow to implement DoD standards.

Last month (March), eight former Marines and sailors who were sexually assaulted filed a federal lawsuit. One of them says she was gang raped while in Iraq. They allege they were retaliated against, that little was done to help them get justice after their assaults.

Seattle Defense Attorney Stephan Carpenter is a former judge advocate general. He says sometimes the structure of the military works against a victim.

Carpenter: "An accusation is made and a lot of commanders don't want to deal with it, so they assume that if they're able to get it to go away without it being raised higher — that is to a general or to an admiral or somebody like that — they might be able to avoid being held accountable for something that perhaps they failed on, specifically, training."

The DoD says sexual assault prevention training is imperative. But in its June report on sexual assault in the military, the Government Accountably Office found inconsistency in commanders' compliance with training directives.

In addition, Carpenter says commanders have their own careers to worry about. And this can be a double–edged sword.

Carpenter: "Having advised commanders before, the first thing they're thinking is, whatever I do, how's it going to affect me."

Commanders are responsible for the good order and discipline of their unit, and problems with sexual assault reflect badly on them. But a commander who's soft on sex crimes can also be seen as a liability.

Deborah joined the Marines in 2008 and was stationed on Parris Island in South Carolina. She now lives in South Puget Sound.

For a while during her service Deborah says she was involved in a physically abusive relationship with another Marine. Deborah says when her boyfriend strangled her in a bar on St. Patrick's Day, instead of filing charges, she says her sergeant major made a phone call to his sergeant major.

Deborah: "For them, dealing with it off the record was the best thing for my career, for everybody involved. Like, let's not open a legal trial and get your dirty laundry out there."

Deborah says the Marines are more tribal than the other branches of the military. She believes her sergeant major was sincere with his intent.

So when Deborah says was raped by another Marine in her bedroom in 2009, instead of filing an official report she confided in her closest corporal and mentor.

If she had filed a report, even anonymously, she would have had access to victims' advocates and counselors. But Deborah had little faith in that support network.

Deborah: "What people have said is, 'Well, you didn't speak up.' And what they don't realize is in the Marine Corps, you're being groomed to take it. You're being groomed to take it and shut up. That's the thing — if you don't like it, shut up. Shut up and sit down."

Eventually the assaults took an emotional toll. She had become an alcoholic.

Deborah: "I was starting to scream at my coworkers. I would go to the bathroom and beat the bathroom stall in, you know, destroying property. I was starting to self harm. I just couldn't hold it together."

With help from the Society of Friends, a Quaker group, Deborah walked away from the Marines.

Eventually she got caught and was returned to face discipline.

Deborah: "In the end, I was 'other than honorably' discharged. Ironically on the same day as the guy who raped me. We were both non–judicially punished on the same day, and then discharged with 'other than honorable' on the same day."

The Marine who Deborah says raped her was discharged for using drugs.

The Department of Defense budget for its Sexual Assault Prevention and Response has swelled since 2005 from $5 million to more and $20 million.

A series of reports from the Government Accountability Office reveals that while the DoD has been making progress based on their recommendations, there's still a long way to go.

Tomorrow, a look at post trauma and how sexual harassment can play a role in sexual assault.

I'm Patricia Murphy, KUOW News.

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