Female veterans tell Senate of sexual abuse

July 01, 1992|By Elaine Sciolino | Elaine Sciolino,New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- Female veterans of the armed forces told a Senate panel yesterday that they were sexually abused by fellow soldiers, adding that complaints to superiors were generally ignored or dismissed as untrue and that they found veterans hospitals as unresponsive as the military.

Specialist Jacqueline Ortiz, a 29-year-old Army reservist who served in Saudi Arabia during the war with Iraq, told the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee that she was "forcibly sodomized" by her sergeant in broad daylight on Jan. 19, 1991. When she told her male superiors about the incident, she added, they said they did not believe her.

"It's very difficult to deal with," said Ms. Ortiz, her voice wavering. "I was very proud to serve my country but not to be a sex slave to someone who had a problem with power."

Ms. Ortiz, who was an Army mechanic in a unit near the Iraqi border, said that she reported the attack to her superiors at once but that "unfortunately, my claim fell upon deaf ears."

When she sought psychological counseling from the Veterans Affairs Department, she said, the institution was also unresponsive.

She said she still vomits almost every day, has trouble sleeping because of nightmares about the assault and suffers bad headaches from grinding her teeth.

Sen. Alan Cranston, chairman of the committee, said: "You suffered more than you ever should have. Your nation gave you less comfort and less assistance than it should have."

The California Democrat said that in a 1988 Pentagon survey of sexual abuse among active-duty personnel, 5 percent of the respondents reported actual or attempted rape or sexual assault in the previous 12 months.

Using that figure as a basis, Mr. Cranston estimated that about 60,000 of the 1.2 million female veterans may have been raped or assaulted while serving in the military, an estimate he called "conservative."

One government-financed survey released this spring estimated that at least 12.1 million of 96 million women in the United States, or one in eight, have been the victims of rape at least once in their lifetime.

Other government studies prepared by the Justice Department have arrived at lower estimates than the one made public in April in the National Women's Study, financed in part by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

In September 1990, in the first major study of sexual harassment in the military, the Pentagon concluded that more than a third of the women surveyed experienced some form of harassment, including touching, pressure for sexual favors and rape.

The Pentagon report, which collected responses from more than 20,000 active-duty military personnel and took two years to complete, described a pervasive denigration of women in an atmosphere where policies aimed at preventing abuse are frequently not enforced.

Yesterday's hearing came just days after the resignation of Navy Secretary H. Lawrence Garrett III amid questions about his handling of a scandal involving the assault of 26 women, including 14 female officers, at a convention of naval aviators last year in Las Vegas, Nev.

And it follows disclosures that the two American women who became prisoners of war last year were victims of "indecent assault" by their Iraqi captors.

When asked for an official comment, Lt. Cmdr. Joe Gradisher, a Pentagon spokesman, replied, "Nobody here in public affairs is familiar with what these women said in the hearing today, so we have no way of commenting."

The Army initially ruled that Ms. Ortiz and the man she accused, Sgt. David Martinez, had consensual sex and reprimanded both of them. Ms. Ortiz went public last November, and the Army reopened its investigation at the urging of Rep. Bill Richardson, a New Mexico Democrat.

Sergeant Martinez at first denied the charges, then confessed to Army investigators and has since charged that his confession was coerced. Ms. Ortiz has sued him and her company commander for libel, slander and intentional infliction of emotional distress, and Mr. Martinez has countersued her for defamation.

In other testimony, Diana Danis, executive director of the National Women's Veterans Conference, told the panel that she was raped by a young sergeant who had offered to walk her back to her barracks one night years ago.

When she reported the incident, her company commander told her to "forget about the whole thing and he would make sure I got transferred so I'd feel safer." She added that her superiors convinced her she "would ruin the young sergeant's career" if she pressed charges.

"The military must work harder to insure the safety of all its personnel and must put the perpetrators behind bars and dishonorably discharge them," said Ms. Danis.

She added that "women and men should be able safely and comfortably to report these crimes," possibly through a special advocate in the inspector general's office, and that treatment must be "immediate and appropriate."

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