Veterans and active-duty service members filed a federal lawsuit this week alleging that the Pentagon has turned a blind eye to a hostile military culture that has resulted in sexual harassment and rapes.
The lawsuit, filed by civil litigator Susan Burke in Virginia, notes that there’s been an increase in reports of sexual abuse in the military and that Pentagon leadership hasn’t done enough about it.
Several of the victims spoke with NBC News about the assaults on the record and say they suffered because military leadership ignored their complaints. A copy of the complaint obtained by TPM chronicles horrifying stories of sexual assaults and how military leadership allegedly dismissed or tried to cover up reports of them.
[Ed. note: While victims are named in the lawsuit and several have spoken on the record, TPM policy is not to identify victims of sexual assault by name unless they have explicitly chosen to come forward to the media. They are identified by pseudonyms below.]
One plaintiff, Ms. A., served in the Coast Guard from 2005 until 2007, has said that she was threatened and harassed by her superior. When she made a mistake in a knot-tying quiz, her superior said she was a “stupid fucking female, who didn’t belong in the military” in front of her colleagues.
As she changed, Ms. A. said the same superior tried to force the door open and said he needed to “perform a Personal Protective Equipment Inspection.” He would also roughly grab her rear end as she walked by, said the lawsuit.
Once she reported the harassment up the chain of command, Ms. A. says her superior’s behavior got worse — he’d drive by her home and left voicemails threatening her life. Then he started breaking into her room at night and standing over her bed as he masturbated. Ms. A. said she started sleeping with a knife under her bed.
The lawsuit charges that in November 2005 the superior broke into Ms. A.’s room when he was “drunk and had an erection” and told her to touch it. When she refused, he grabbed her hand and pushed it into his groin. She yelled and pushed him away, so he “struck her so hard against the left side of her face that she was thrown across the room and against the wall.”
A month later, when she was ordered to retrieve some keys from her superior, he allegedly grabbed her by the hair, pulled her into his stateroom, shut the door and raped her. When she tried to report the rape, she says she was instead forced to sign a statement in which she admitted to an “inappropriate relationship” with her rapist.
Ms. B., who served in the Navy, said she was held down and raped repeatedly by two shipmates while on port of call in Thailand. She reported the rape to the military police on duty, who took her to get a medical exam. She was bruised and injured so badly that the physician stopped the exam and began to cry, according to the lawsuit. After she reported the rape, she became the target of harassment, was refused food and imprisoned on the medical ward. Her rapists remained on active duty, albeit with docked pay.
Ms. C., who also served in the Navy, described sexual harassment among her peers as “pervasive” and said she purposely avoided social occasions with work colleagues. But in December of 2010, she attended a holiday party as directed by Command. After the party, she went to a bar with some of her fellow peers. There, she says she was drugged by two colleagues and brought to their apartment, where she was raped. Although she lacks any memory of the rapes as a result of the drugs, physical evidence established she was raped by at least one person that night.
She reported the rape to Command and, while the military’s criminal investigative service began an investigation, Command stepped in to close it, citing a lack of evidence. No one has been prosecuted to date.
Ms. D. was deployed to Iraq in 2005. After being in the country for two weeks, she was raped by two soldiers who were drunk. The soldiers, who were scheduled to leave Iraq, also videotaped the rapes. She report the incident to Command, who told her they didn’t believe she was raped because she “did not struggle enough.” She was advised not to seek an investigation because it would force the soldiers to stay in Kuwait until the investigation was complete.
The lawsuit names Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates as well as former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who the lawsuit says “ran institutions in which perpetrators were promoted and where military personnel openly mocked and flouted the modest Congressionally mandated institutional reforms.”
Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell told the New York Times in a statement that “sexual assault is a wider societal problem” and added that the military was “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 told the newspaper in a statement. “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.”
Watch video of a NBC news report on the lawsuit below:
Additional reporting by Melissa Jeltsen.