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Above, Kori Cioca describes to the Associated Press her experience of serving in the Coast Guard and attempting get help from her chain of command after a sexual assault.

"You're supposed to feel safe on a military base, and by no means did I feel safe--ever. I never knew what was going to happen to me.

And in a sense I still don't. Because I still have nightmares of this man.

He dislocated my jaw. He broke my jaw. [...]

I went for help. By chain of command, I went for help, to higher up who were the head of the station. Several times with other petty officers who had witnessed this man grabbing me, touching me, screaming at me, and they told me that they weren't going to switch my section because 'I didn't like somebody.'

Well, long story short I was raped.

When I told my command they waited. They didn't do anything to help me. It's like they didn't care. It wasn't important. I wasn't important. The Coast Guard's a life-saving service, and yet they didn't save mine.

I was hoping mine would be some freak accident. But it's not. And that's what makes me sick."

Cioca was a plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit against former Secretaries of Defense Robert Gates and Donald Rumsfeld alleging negligence in dealing with military sexual assault. The case was dismissed on the grounds the military enjoyed immunity from such action in December 2011.

[Updated: an earlier version incorrectly identified Service Women's Action Network (SWAN) as a plaintiff in Ciora's case. The author regrets the error.]

(Continue reading below the fold)

Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA)
It was a year and 17 days ago I posted a very powerful video taken from the floor of the House of Representatives. One of the too-rare heroes on this issue, Rep. Jackie Speier of California, indicted Congress as an "accomplice" on this issue because of its functional apathy. Rep. Speier said:
"We have a military culture that condones and sometimes rewards this kind of abusive and violent behavior against female soldiers, who are now more likely to be raped by fellow soldiers than killed by enemy fire.

This is a national disgrace and the longer it goes on unaddressed, Congress becomes an accomplice in these crimes.

You know we in Congress do something really well, we hold hearings and then we do nothing.

Congress has held 18 hearings in the last 16 years on this issue and nothing has changed.

The Department of Defense estimates that over 19,000 servicemembers were raped or sexually assaulted in 2010. But due to fear of retribution and failure to prosecute these crimes only 13.5% are reported. These are Department of Defense figures. 19,000 soldiers raped in the military every year.

So beginning today I'm going to tell these women's stories on the House floor, and I'm going to keep telling them and keep telling them until something is done about it.

It's a shocking and totally unacceptable truth that a woman in the military faces a greater danger from her fellow servicemembers assaulting her than she does from enemy combatants, and yet it's true.

And despite all assurances year after year that this year it will be different, when the DOD released its report on sexual assaults in the military for the 2011 fiscal year (pdf), 2011 saw a 1 percent increase in sexual assault incidents reported. On April 13, Reuters reported:

The number of sexual assaults reported to U.S. military authorities edged up last year, with most involving one member of the armed forces attacking another, the Pentagon said in an annual report released on Friday.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta called the crime "an affront to the basic American values we defend" and said he would announce measures next week during consultations with Congress to try to curb sexual assaults.

"Since taking this office, I've made it one of my top priorities to do everything we can to reduce and prevent sexual assault, to make victims of sexual assault feel secure enough to report this crime without fear of retribution or harm to their career, and to hold the perpetrators appropriately accountable," Panetta said.

The 3,192 sexual assault cases reported to military authorities in 2011 amounted to a 1 percent increase over the 3,158 reported in 2010.

Of particular note was a sharper rise incidents in military academies.

To be fair, a simplistic look at statistics can be misleading in that an unsafe environment will dissuade victims from reporting. (Although these reports do attempt to account for unreported incidents as well.) If the military transitions to a safer environment, it may appear for a period that there is a rise, at least relative to reported incidents. But in general, the report provided little evidence that 2011 was the year the military had finally turned over a new leaf and the tide had finally changed.

Left to right: Rep. Niki Tsongas (D-MA), Rep. Michael Turner (R-OH), Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta,
Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-CA), Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-TX) and Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey,
chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo/DOD)  
The DOD responded to the news with an announcement of their own of new procedures being implemented to once again assure the horrified American public they are on the case. Changes include tasking more resources to victim support, ostensibly more accountability on tracking and reporting of incidents, better education and disbursing of existing available resources, such as helplines and most notably, involving a higher level of the chain of command in the investigation and prosecution of these cases.

Advocates were particularly pleased with the move to take investigation and prosecution outside the local commanding officer's purview, reported the New York Times:

“This announcement represents the biggest step that D.O.D. has taken thus far to combat military sexual assault,” Anu Bhagwati, a former Marine Corps captain who is executive director of the Service Women’s Action Network, or S.W.A.N., an advocacy group, said in a statement. She said that although the group has advocated having general officers oversee sexual assault cases, elevating the disposition of cases to the level of colonel or Navy captain was still “a huge step in the right direction.”

“We hope it will have the intended effect of ensuring sexual assault cases are handled by more experienced officers who are better equipped to properly determine the disposition of these difficult, complex criminal cases,” Ms. Bhagwati said.

In an op-ed, the New York Times commented on the announced changes saying:
"It is easy to be skeptical whenever the military talks about its “zero tolerance” toward sexual crimes. The decades are papered with pledges by Pentagon leaders to end such violence, but somehow it continues."
The Times recommends congressional action:
There is more to do. Congress should enact these reforms into law so they are not subject to erosion in future administrations. The Pentagon needs to make sure victims know their rights, are able to demand transfers away from predators, are assured of confidential communication with their lawyers and protected from retaliation. Accusers should be able to pursue claims in federal courts if military justice fails. The military is a long way from healing itself. But Mr. Panetta has taken steps in the right direction.
"Pursuing in federal court" is a reaction to the dismissal of aforementioned dismissal of Cioca v Rumsfeld. Ultimately, there exists few alternate avenues of accountability for these survivors, should the military fail them, which it has been demonstrated to have done over and over, unfortunately. Legislative remedies to make military institutions accountable to civilian courts are unsurprisingly, not particularly popular on Capitol Hill.

Despite Fox News contributor Liz Trotta's completely unacceptable and despicable suggestion that women should just expect to get raped ("Now, what did they expect? These people are in close contact.") the issue is not hopelessly lost to partisan gridlock.

Maria Lauterbach
Maria Lauterbach
Advocates have found a bipartisan ally in Republican Mike Turner (OH). Rep. Turner writes about his co-sponsorship of H.R.5197, the Defense Sexual Trauma Response Oversight and Good Governance Act (STRONG) act introduced by Rep. Niki Tsongas (D-MA) on his website:
Tragically it was the story of Lance Corporal Maria Lauterbach who brought this issue to my attention. She grew up in Dayton, OH and enlisted in the Marine Corps. Maria was honorably serving her country when she was sexually assaulted by a senior enlisted member in her unit. She then was forced to serve with her assailant for the following eight months before he attacked and killed her and her unborn child and buried them in his backyard. This tragedy did not have to occur, and sadly we have seen time and again that it is all too common. The terrible lesson of Maria’s story is what has helped to shape this legislation.
Like so many others touched by tragedy, Lauterbach's mother has turned grief into activism and become a force to be reckoned with working to better protect women in the military. And it is to Turner's credit he has responded to call of his constituent and has worked closely with Rep. Tsongas (MA) on this issue.

Mary Lauterbach's successful lobbying of Turner speaks to the tremendous power of intimate contact and personal testimony in recruiting allies to a cause. 

Captain Bhagwati goes to Washington: SWAN Executive Director Anu Bhagwati (SWAN/Greg Jacob)
Nine days from today, Service Women's Action Network will be holding a one-day conference in DC in what they are calling their "Truth and Justice Summit," on May 8. It will be the first-ever mass convening of survivors of military sexual assault on the nation's captial. The schedule inclues a panel of survivors sharing their stories with attendees and the press. There will be an awards luncheon, advocacy training and visits to congressional offices. The aim of the congressional outreach, from SWAN policy director Greg Jacob:
We are asking that Congress educate themselves more on issues of sexual assault and harassment in the military and that they become vocal leaders in holding the military accountable for stopping rape in the ranks.

This is an issue that affects men and women service-wide. The reforms and improvements made thus far have been spearheaded by a relatively small group of legislators, most of them being on the Armed Services committee. It is critical that Congress understand that the issue of military sexual violence affects everyone, including veterans and families in their districts that might not have a military presence.

Maria Lauterbach's mother, Mary, will also be speaking at the conference.

The timing of the conference is set to coincidence with the mark-up of the National Defense Authorization Act. The annual NDAA is the ideal vehicle for Congress to hold the military accountable; as they are doling out the treats to the DOD, Congress can also choose to tug the leash a little.

SWAN anticipates over 150 survivors—both men and women—to attend, but registration remains open, so that number may yet grow. Sponsorship opportunities are available for those who cannot afford to attend on their own and there is fund to help sponsor a Veteran's trip to DC.

Among those scheduled to attend, I touched base with Sherry. She told me:

I served from April 1984 to November 1985. I wanted to be a "Lifer," however I was drugged and raped by fellow soldiers. I pressed charges and was made to feel like I was the person who committed the crime. I found out I was pregnant from the assault and another solider took me to a doctor in an Army vehicle and the baby was aborted. I went through numerous issues as my case was being dragged on.

I saw two of the men everyday and was never offered a chance to even be sent somewhere else. I was told that if I dropped the charges I could go home. After months of waiting for this to go to court, I caved and agreed to drop charges and I was put out of the service on an unsatisfactory discharge.

Sherry is on disability and continues to struggle with the aftermath including cognitive difficulties and PTSD.
But this year I have finally reached a point where now I can talk about it and also fight for the women who are serving today. There were times when I was asked if I would consider telling my story to the press I always said no, I wasn't ready. I thought things had changed and maybe this didn't happen in the military anymore.

But then I heard the story of the woman who was sent home to be buried. The initial report said it was self-inflicted gunshot but then I read her family member saw bruises and then they looked at medical report and saw burns on her private areas. From what I can remember I think it's still listed as suicide even though it was determined it wasn't self-inflicted. So, the reason I am going to the Summit is because there is no more keeping this under the rug. It all needs to come out so we can help it change—for a better future.

You see, my daughter came to me and told me she might want to join the service. I looked at her and said, "No, you don't, and no, you won't." My first thought was history repeats itself and I wont let that happen.

That hurt. I would love for her to feel the pride I initially had felt when I first joined.

Defense Sec. Panetta's announcement was, as the Times calls it, a step in the right direction, but there are much more that can be addressed to improve the military's handling of these issues. As the Times notes, codifying these procedures into law would present a more enduring solution.

In addition, to Tsongas' STRONG act, there is also Jackie Speier's H.R. 3435, the Sexual Assault Training Oversight and Prevention Act, aka STOP Act, which is currently languishing in a House committee.

Also on the wish list: exempting the disclosure of the use of post-assault mental health services in security checks, so as to not stigmatize and impede career options of survivors; addressing the Veterans Administration's reticence to diagnosis PTSD in cases involving sexual assault; better retention of evidence acquired in the course of investigations.

The list is long, and the politics are treacherous and foreboding. Congressional deference to the Pentagon is a very strong force of resistance on the Hill.

But there is almost certainly one thing Washington, DC can definitely be called upon to do: more.

Originally posted to Daily Kos on Sun Apr 29, 2012 at 05:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by Rape and Domestic Violence, Depression and Suicide, House of LIGHTS, and Sluts.

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