Mostly male military ill serves rape victims, female GIs say

September 30, 1992|By Orange County Register

Female soldiers raped on military bases by male soldiers say they face a police and criminal-justice system bent on diminishing or dismissing their allegations.

A dozen women veterans who say they were raped while serving in the Army, Navy, Air Force or Marines told strikingly similar stories of humiliation and frustration as they pursued their alleged attackers through a legal system dominated at every step by men unable or unwilling to help.

"The message is, 'You asked for it,' " said Rita, 20, a former Army private from Orange, Calif., who said her assailant was acquitted of rape. The woman said the attack took place in June 1991 at Wildflecken Army Base in Germany. Rita asked that her full name not be used.

More than 500 women are raped each year on U.S. military bases, according to documents obtained by the Orange County Register, including crime summaries obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

U.S. military officials say everything possible is done to ensure that rape allegations are thoroughly investigated and the guilty arrested, convicted and sent to jail.

"We think our system is good, our system is inherently fair," said Maj. Rick Thomas, an Army spokesman in Washington. "That doesn't mean we do the correct thing every time. But there are enough checks and balances to prove that it is good."

But the women who talked to the Register say the system is not balanced. Because women make up less than 15 percent of the U.S. armed forces, victims of rape say, those with the authority to decide if a woman has been raped and if her alleged attacker is innocent or guilty are nearly always men.

"After I reported I was raped, I was sent to see a male civilian in the family counseling center," Rita said. "The last thing I wanted to do was talk about the attack with a man. All the law-enforcement officers I talked to were men. My first sergeant, a male, ordered me to go to the room where I was raped and 'Think about it.' He told me it was my fault I was raped, that I shouldn't wear makeup and shouldn't wear T-shirts or cowboy boots when I was off-duty."

When Rita walked into the courtroom, she was faced with a male judge, male military attorneys and an all-male jury.

After all the evidence was entered, the judge's instructions to the jury included a statement that a woman cannot claim she was raped if she didn't fight back or fear being maimed or killed if she did. It's a standard not found in civilian criminal law.

"The guy was acquitted of all charges," she said.

Army officials said they could not comment on Rita's case because criminal files are not cross-referenced for victims.

Not all the women who say they were traumatized by the military-justice system were involved in cases that led to acquittals.

Fern, now 34, of Anaheim, Calif., said she was raped and beaten by three soldiers on the rifle range at Fort Jackson, S.C. Her attackers were arrested, court-martialed and sentenced to 35 years in prison.

But 11 years after the attack, Fern can barely hold back the rage and tears when she recalls the first day she returned to her unit.

"We were in formation and the sergeant called out my name," she said. "With everyone watching, he said, 'You all heard that Fern was raped. Let this be a lesson to all you women that you have to be more careful.' Everyone knew there was a rape. But they didn't know it was me. He had no right to do that."

Wracked by nightmares, crying fits and fear of all men, Fern said, her superiors told her to snap out of it.

"My captain said, 'You were raped, get over it.' They just pushed me aside. They just wanted to get rid of me."

Officials at Fort Bragg, N.C., where the court-martial took place said they no longer had records on the rape.

Military officials say every effort is made to provide counseling for victims and professionally investigate and prosecute suspected rapes.

Major Thomas, the Army spokesman, said that when possible, a female counselor works with women who report being raped. But given that less than 15 percent of the Army is female, he said, it is difficult to ensure that reported rape victims will be dealt with by women.

The Marines say they also work hard to ensure that rape victims are given counseling and help in prosecuting their attackers.

"Due to the difficulty victims might have in talking with a male regarding a rape, a female counselor would have most likely have been assigned to the case," said Capt. Steve Manuel, a Marine spokesman in Washington.

Despite the military's claims of progress in handling reported rape cases, critics remain doubtful of its ability to deal with sexual assault and harassment. The problems: inherent bias in the male-dominated services and an inability to aggressively enforce "zero-tolerance" edicts on sex abuse at the unit level.

"The prevailing attitude seems to be, 'We don't want women here,'" said Rep. Patricia Schroeder, D-Colo., a member of the House Armed Services Committee.

Some former military officers agree.

"Sexism in the military is real," said retired Navy Rear Adm. Eugene Carroll, a graduate of the Navy's legal program who is deputy director of the Center for Defense Information, a Washington think tank made up of former military officers.

"The underlying message is that the military is a man's world," Admiral Carroll said. "When you have an all-male court-martial panel, you have a group that on some level may share the impression that if a woman was raped, she was asking for it."

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