Sexual assaults still plague US military after decades of reform

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Veterans Kori Cioca, of Wilmington, Ohio, left, and Panayiota Bertzikis of Somerville, Mass., both assaulted and raped while serving in the US Coast Guard, meet at their attorney's office in Washington, in February 2011. Photo: AP

Air Force Staff Sergeant Luis Walker called the woman identified in court as "Airman 9" into his office and asked her to close the door.

Walker, a military instructor at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, turned up the volume on a pornographic video, asked the 21-year-old recruit if she was turned on, and then demanded oral sex, according to testimony in a court-martial that ended last week in his conviction.

Walker, 26, was sentenced to 20 years in prison on July 21 for crimes including rape, adultery, obstruction of justice and aggravated sexual assault against 10 victims. He is one of 15 instructors at the Texas air base who've been under investigation for sexual misconduct involving at least 38 trainees.

"It's appalling that this would happen again," said Elizabeth Hillman, a law professor, Air Force veteran and president of the National Institute for Military Justice, a nonprofit group.

It's been nine years since allegations of sexual assaults rocked the Air Force Academy in Colorado, 16 years since a dozen Army instructors were charged with abusing recruits at the Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland and 21 years since the Tailhook scandal, in which scores of Navy and Marine officers were alleged to have sexually assaulted at least 83 women during a military convention at the Las Vegas Hilton hotel.

Order, discipline

Now, yet another sex scandal has engulfed the military, renewing questions about why the Pentagon's leaders and the services have failed for decades to curb sexual abuse despite the military's emphasis on "good order and discipline."

"Nothing's changed," said Paula Puopolo, who as a Navy lieutenant became the public face of the Tailhook scandal. She was the only victim to come forward publicly.

The military's macho culture, a strict hierarchy that can lead to abuses of power and a reluctance to roil units through prosecutions are to blame, say those who have studied the issue or endured its consequences, including Puopolo.

"It's not just a woman's issue that women are being raped by men they serve with," Puopolo, who was Paula Coughlin at the time of Tailhook before she married, said in an interview. "I just don't see how anyone's going to accomplish a mission or create an integrated force if they don't get rid of this cancer."

Women made up about 14 percent of the active-duty military force last year, according to Defense Department figures, and they are now eligible for all but direct combat roles. More than 280,000 women have served in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Victims units

The failure to curb assaults led Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta to propose "special victims units" to pursue complaints. It also has revived past proposals, from taking the prosecution of sexual assault charges out of the military chain of command to having segregated training for women with female instructors.

Lackland, one of the military's busiest training centers, provides basic training to all Air Force recruits. About 500 instructors train 35,000 cadets annually, General Edward Rice, the head of the Air Force Air Education and Training Command, said at a June 28 press briefing.

About 22 percent of the recruits are women, as are 11 percent of the trainers, he said.

Retired Navy Rear Admiral Marianne Drew, who helped overhaul the Navy's sexual harassment policies after the Tailhook scandal, said military instructors can become sexual predators because of the power they hold over young recruits taught to obey their every word.

"They have complete control over these kids, and it's important that they do," Drew said in an interview. "But it's possible to get somebody in there who takes that too far."

"˜Boy's-club attitude'

Morris Davis, a former military prosecutor who led an investigation of the 2003 Air Force Academy scandal, said some officers' clubs still had strippers when he joined the Air Force in 1983.

"Thirty years later, there's still some of that boy's-club attitude," Davis said. "I don't know that we've ever overcome that institutional culture."

As they've done many times before, military leaders responded to the Lackland charges by vowing to stamp out sexual abuse and institute reforms to help victims and strengthen the hands of prosecutors.

"We have no place in the military for sexual assault," Panetta said at a June 29 press conference.

"˜No difference'

For all the hearings, study commissions and promised reforms, nothing has solved the problem, as an Air Force general acknowledged last week.

"We've done a lot of work, and we've made no difference," said General Mark Welsh, commander of US Air Forces in Europe, whom President Barack Obama has nominated to be the next Air Force chief of staff.

"Everyone is trying to do the right thing and figure out some way of stopping this," he told the Senate Armed Services Committee at a July 19 hearing. "In fact, we haven't even reversed the trend."

The Pentagon said 3,192 sexual assaults were reported in the military last year, from unwanted sexual touching to rape, a 1 percent increase from the previous year.

Fail to report

Most victims fail even to report abuse, according to the Pentagon, which estimated the actual number of assaults is almost 19,000 a year, based on anonymous surveys of the active-duty force in 2010.

Such a survey of Air Force personnel in 2010 found 19 percent of all female airmen and 2 percent of male airmen reported being victims of sexual assault at some time in their military careers.

The surveys nonetheless show progress, according to Air Force Colonel Alan Metzler. The rate of unwanted sexual contact against women declined by 35 percent from 2006 to 2010, said Metzler, deputy director of the Pentagon's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, which was created in 2005 to provide services such as a 24-hour rape hotline.

Jennifer Norris, who joined the Maine Air National Guard in 1996 at the age of 24, said she can still recall the shame and fear she felt as the victim of sexual assault in two incidents, one involving her immediate superior.

"He pulled me into his room and tried to force me on his bed," Norris said in an interview, describing an incident at Brunswick Naval Air Station in Maine in 1997. "The door didn't shut tight. I was able to scream and one of my friends heard me. It was totally traumatizing."

"˜Survival mode'

Even so, she said, she was reluctant to report the assault.

"I was forced to work with my assaulter," Norris said. "I was so worried about the power he had over me, my promotion, my job assignment. I had to find a survival mode. I knew if I said anything my career would be over."

Norris filed a complaint about a year later against the noncommissioned officers. Air National Guard documents that she provided show that a master sergeant agreed to a voluntary reduction in rank, resignation from his position and reassignment to a different Guard unit. The case involving a former tech sergeant was settled with a letter of reprimand and his immediate resignation from the Guard.

""˜When they do prosecute, which is rarely, they end up getting a slap on the wrist and not ruining their careers,'' Norris said. She said she agreed to the settlement of her case because "˜"˜I just wanted it to go away so I could go back to work and move on.''

Captain Shanon Cotta, a spokesman for the Maine National Guard, said yesterday the Guard couldn't confirm the documents because records aren't kept for more than four years after cases are resolved.

Coach Paterno

Representative Jackie Speier, a California Democrat who serves on the House Armed Services Committee, is pushing legislation that would take the prosecution of sexual assault cases outside the military chain of command. She said commanders are loath to go after their own men, and victims fear retaliation if they report an assault.

Likening the prevalence of assaults in the military to the abuse scandals that have plagued Pennsylvania State University's football program and the Roman Catholic Church, Speier said, "˜"˜As long as Coach Paterno or the bishop is in charge, they're going to take steps to mitigate the problem and sweep it under the rug."

Commander in field

The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Representative Howard "Buck" McKeon, a California Republican, hasn't agreed to take up the bill to create an independent council to oversee prosecutions, and military officers are making their opposition clear.

"We don't think having a committee of folks sitting in Washington, D.C., should substitute their judgment for the commander in the field," Metzler of the Pentagon office on assault prevention said. "That can't happen from here. Commanders are the ones that are going to solve this problem."

A directive by Panetta in April requires cases such as rape to be handled by an officer with the rank of colonel or Navy captain at minimum.

"At the local unit level, sometimes these matters are put aside," Panetta said at the briefing. "At a higher command level, we will have action taken as a result of these complaints."

Closed-door hearing

McKeon is focusing on enacting provisions on sexual assault that were included in the annual defense authorization bill, spokesman Claude Chafin said in an e-mail. Those include creating the special victims units of investigators, prosecutors and counselors that Panetta proposed in April, as well as better reporting of assault allegations.

McKeon's House committee plans to hold a closed-door hearing with Air Force Secretary Michael Donley on the Lackland scandal next week, Chafin said.

Of the 15 instructors under investigation at Lackland, six have been charged with crimes, from sexual advances to rape. The others are being investigated for allegations of improper sexual contact, non-physical contact through social media and, in at least two cases, some form of sexual assault.

With no solution in sight, the Air Force is considering segregated training for women, Rice said.

The approach has worked for the Marine Corps, the only service branch that trains women separately, said Lieutenant Colonel Gabrielle Hermes, commanding officer of the 4th Recruit Training Battalion at Parris Island, South Carolina, where all female Marine recruits are trained.

Female mentors

"It allows them strong female mentors for this transformation to become a Marine," Hermes said in an interview. "This strong female role model is important."

Davis, the former military prosecutor, said segregated training is sure to face opposition.

"There's a philosophy that you've got to train like we fight, and that's not how we fight," Davis said of gender segregation. "When we deploy, it's men and women. It would seem in 2012 that we shouldn't have to segregate like that."

Fifteen years ago, a commission headed by former senator Nancy Kassebaum-Baker, a Kansas Republican, found that the Marines' separate basic training was producing good results and recommended that the Army, Navy, and Air Force train and house new male and female recruits separately. Defense Secretary William Cohen immediately rejected that recommendation, although he adopted some lesser measures.

Puopolo, the victim of the Navy Tailhook scandal who now runs a yoga center in Florida, hesitated when asked whether she encourages women to join the military.

"All I can say is, "˜Be careful,'" Puopolo said. "Don't lose touch with who you are, what's acceptable, and what's not."

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