Ex-soldier fights sexual harassment Woman returns from Persian Gulf with nightmares of a private war

March 21, 1993|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,Staff Writer

SAPELLO, N.M. -- When Army reservist Jacqueline Ortiz returned from the Persian Gulf, her private war began.

Safe at home, surrounded by family, she confronted the demons of sleep: not Saddam Hussein's feared Republican Guards, nor clouds of poison gas wafting over Kuwait, but the Army sergeant she says sodomized her during the United States' war with Iraq. She wanted justice -- criminal charges brought against the noncommissioned officer -- and she took on the Army to get it.

"How could somebody in my chain of command violate everything that I have ever lived for?" says Ms. Ortiz, 29, seated at the kitchen table of her parents' modest home in this tiny ranching community. "How could every right that I was fighting for in Saudi Arabia be taken away from me? When I became a victim, I didn't have any rights at all."

In the coming weeks, this soldier's personal nightmare will be played out in a military courtroom in Texas, thousands of miles from the remote desert camp where it began.

The trial of 1st Sgt. David J. Martinez, who pleaded not guilty to charges of sodomy, indecent assault, and filing false statements, will make very public what has been a very private military problem: sexual abuse.

No matter what the outcome of the trial, Ms. Ortiz's case -- which required a tortuous effort even to be heard -- symbolizes an all-too-frequent occurrence within the military, veterans and women's advocacy groups say.

Of at least 31 reports of sexual assault or rape during Desert Storm, Jackie Ortiz's case is among just a handful that have reached a court-martial.

There is evidence to suggest that her charges are not unusual among the growing ranks of women in the military. One 1989 study found that 11 percent of Army men and women said they had been sexually assaulted or raped by a fellow service member in that year alone.

And sexual harassment of women poses even greater problems for the armed forces: A 1990 Department of Defense study of more than 20,000 military personnel found that nearly two out of three women were sexually harassed in the preceding year.

When Ms. Ortiz told her Desert Storm superiors that she had been sexually assaulted, she took a step many military women are afraid to take: She reported the alleged attack. Despite her girlish looks -- 5 feet tall with waist-length chestnut hair -- Ms. Ortiz didn't frighten easily.

Raised on a 200-acre ranch in the shadow of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, she was driving a tractor before she entered the first grade. A single mother, Ms. Ortiz joined the Army reserves for the chance to go to college.

The only woman in her unit and a mechanic with skills sharp enough to put her in charge of the company's trucks and jeeps, Ms. Ortiz was a soldier who would make a commanding officer proud. Bright, hard-working, toughing it out in the field like all the rest, she was "a nonproblem," in the words of one supervisor.

When the call came for Operation Desert Shield, says Ms. Ortiz: "I wanted to go. Because I believe in the Constitution of the United States. I believe in every word it says."

If she misjudged anyone, it was a fellow reservist, the company first sergeant, who she says routinely bypassed the chain of command to speak to her and allegedly told a tearful Ms. Ortiz, as the unit was leaving for Saudi Arabia, "I just want you to know I'm here for you, physically or mentally or however you need to be taken care of."

If she was naive about anything, it was probably about the consequences of accusing a superior officer of sexual assault in the middle of war.

"Women join the military for many reasons -- to serve their country, to learn a skill, and to prepare for a productive future," former Sen. Alan Cranston observed during Senate hearings last year on sexual harassment in the military. "It is tragic that, instead, so many have experiences during their service that unfairly leave them hurt, distressed, psychologically impaired and in need of assistance," said the Democrat from California.

Ms. Ortiz was sitting in the Capitol Hill audience that day, waiting to testify, to give vivid reality to the senator's words.

Asked to sergeant's tent

The alleged assault occurred Jan. 19, 1991, within days of the start of the air war.

Court records show that Ms. Ortiz and Sergeant Martinez agree that he called her to his tent on the morning in question to #F discuss sleeping arrangements for women in the unit.

Leaving her work in the motor pool, Ms. Ortiz gathered on her gear -- helmet, flak jacket, M-16 rifle, gas mask -- and crossed the camp to Sergeant Martinez's tent. What happened then is in dispute. She says as she was leaving the tent, Sergeant Martinez pushed her to the floor, held her head and sodomized her.

Sergeant Martinez's lawyer would not permit him to be interviewed, but the sergeant's account of what happened has varied, according to court documents.

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