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.”
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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