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Pentagon Faces Class-Action Lawsuit for Failure to Protect Service Members From Rape

On February 15, 2011, the Pentagon was slammed with a class action lawsuit filed by 15 women and two men who are victims and survivors of rape in the military.

On February 15, 2011, the Pentagon was slammed with a class action lawsuit filed by 15 women and two men who are victims and survivors of rape in the military. Filed in the Eastern District of Northern Virginia by attorney Susan Burke, the lawsuit contends that Donald Rumsfeld and Robert Gates, as secretaries of the Department of Defense (DOD), “failed to investigate rapes and sexual assaults, failed to prosecute perpetrators, failed to provide an adequate judicial system as required by the Uniform Military Justice Act and failed to abide by Congressional deadlines to implement Congressionally-ordered institutional reforms to stop rapes and other sexual assaults.”

The lawsuit also states that the DOD “ran institutions in which perpetrators were promoted and where military personnel openly mocked and flouted the modest Congressionally-mandated institutional reforms … victims were openly subjected to retaliation, encouraged to refrain from reporting rapes and sexual assaults in a manner that would have permitted prosecution and ordered to keep quiet and not tell anyone about the criminal acts of their work colleagues.”

Because of the hostile environment in the military itself for reporting rapes or sexual assaults, the DOD, in its 2009 Annual Report on Sexual Assaults in the Military, estimated that “only 20 percent of service members who experience ‘unwanted sexual contact’ report the matter to a military authority.” The lawsuit contends that considering DOD’s admission, the more accurate numbers of rape and sexual assaults in 2006 would increase from the reported 2,947 to 14,735, from 2,668 to 13,440 in 2007, from 2,908 to 14,540 in 2008 and from 3,230 to 16,150 in 2009.

The 2009 report also acknowledged that retaliation against those who report rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment is widespread and that military personnel do not report rape and sexual assault because doing so is perceived as having “lasting career and security clearance repercussions.”

The lawsuit also contends that the DOD allowed unit commanders to use nonjudicial punishment for allegations involving rapes, sexual assaults and sexual harassment. Additionally, when cases went to military court-martial, only eight percent of those alleged to have engaged in rape or sexual assault were prosecuted. The civilian court system prosecutes 40 percent of alleged perpetrators.

Secretary of Defense and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Respond

During the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee hearing on the military budget on February 16, 2011, Congressman Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas) asked Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen about the lawsuit.

Gates responded that he has “zero tolerance” for rape and sexual assault and said the military has spent $2 million to better train military prosecutors to handle rape cases. He added that the military has expanded the number of sexual assault prevention and response volunteers from 300 to 3,000 and now has one person designated for each unit, battalion or higher. Gates said that the prosecution rate of alleged perpetrators has increased from 30 percent to 52 percent. Mullen commented that, “It is unacceptable that we are not where we need to be on this issue. Anecdotal evidence concerns me. We must focus on leadership. We have significant work to do.”

No Consolation for Father of Marine Carri Goodwin

Comments of “zero tolerance” and “we have significant work to do” from the highest ranking civilian and military leaders in the DOD are little consolation for Gary Noling from Alliance, Ohio. Noling attended the February 15 press conference at the National Press Club in Washington where the details of the lawsuit were made public.

Noling’s daughter Carri Goodwin enlisted in the Marine Corps in August, 2007 at the age of 18. While at Camp Pendleton Marine Base in California, Goodwin was raped by a marine in her unit. She was bullied by her command for reporting the rape, and the Marines forced her out with a personality disorder diagnosis.

Goodwin did not tell her family she had been raped or that she was taking the pharmaceutical drug Zoloft for anxiety. Five days after she returned home to Alliance, Ohio, after two years in the Marine Corps, Goodwin went drinking with her older sister. The drug reportedly interacted with the alcohol. Goodwin, then 20 years old, died that night, her body poisoned with a blood alcohol content of .46, six times the legal limit.

When Goodwin’s family went through her possessions following her death, they found the journals that described the rape and her treatment by the Marine Corps after she reported it.

According to Noling, Goodwin’s rapist was also accused of an earlier rape, in 2006, at Camp Pendleton. The rapist received nonjudicial punishment for his crime against Goodwin. He is still in the Marine Corps.

“We Must Focus on Leadership”

In at least one sense, Mullen’s statement, “We must focus on leadership,” rings true to Anu Bhagwati, a former Marine Corps captain who is now executive director of the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN).

During the February 15 press conference, Bhagwati said that she “witnessed my own senior officers violate sexual harassment and sexual assault policies, shirk their responsibilities to their own troops and lie to families by ignoring reports of abuse, transfer sexual predators out of their units instead of prosecuting them, promote sexual predators during ongoing investigations and accuse highly decorated enlisted service members of lying about their abuse, simply because they were women. Any attempt to hold these officers accountable was met with threats and retaliation. I saw some of the nation’s finest service members left the military after their abuse and betrayal, while their perpetrators and the officers who willingly protected them to this day remain in uniform.”

Bhagwati also said that “the vast majority of victims are junior enlisted. In an institution where rank and chain of command determine your every move, sexual predators often exert power and violence over those with the least amount of rank. There are well-founded reasons that so few women and men report the crimes committed against them. Reporting sexual assault and sexual harassment in the military is brutally intimidating at best and a death sentence at worst. Perpetrators often guarantee a victim’s silence by threat of retaliation. Unsympathetic commanders who fail to protect survivors are all too common. Oftentimes, it is commanders who are complicit in cover-ups of these cases.”

Need for Registry of Sexual Offenders in the Military

Bhagwati challenges Gate’s statistics on the number of prosecutions of alleged rapists and calls for a registry of sexual predators in the military. “As for punishment, fewer than one in five sexual predators ever see the inside of a courtroom,” she said. “Most walk away with slaps on the wrist instead of jail time. We know that sexual predators are often serial offenders, and yet, the military not only fails to prosecute and convict most of them. It also fails to provide a sexual offender registry to civilian authorities, allowing military perpetrators to continue preying upon victims in civilian communities across the country.”

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