Fifteen female and two male veterans accused the military of ignoring reports of sexual abuse and rape by fellow service members in a federal class-action lawsuit filed today, hoping they will pressure the military to change the way sexual assault cases are handled.
"This is a story that only begins with rape and sexual trauma. It's a story about the failure of one of the most trusted institutions in American life -- our military," said Keith Rohman, president of Public Interest Investigations in Los Angeles, the lead investigators on the litigation.
The lawsuit, which names Defense Secretary Robert Gates and his predecessor Donald Rumsfeld as defendants, details 16 alleged sexual assault cases that occurred in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard and Reserves that the plaintiffs say military commanders mishandled.
In many of the cases, the alleged victims were forced to continue to live among and work alongside the people they said assaulted them.
Each of the allegations of sexual abuse occurred while the service members were on active duty, including some in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In the most recent assault case described in the lawsuit, one plaintiff, an aviator in the Navy serving at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma, was drugged and gang raped by two of her colleagues just this past December, ending her career in the military.
Last year, the military received 3,292 reports of sexual assault involving service members according to military data. Victims have the option of filing a "restricted" report that remains confidential and allows them to receive medical attention without triggering an investigation.
An unrestricted report prompts an investigation to pursue the assailant but does not guarantee confidentiality.
In 2006, Sarah Albertson, then a 22-year-old corporal in the Marine Corps, said she was raped by a fellow Marine, who held a higher rank.
Hesitant to file the report, she waited two days following the assault to report it to her command at the urging of a friend in whom she confided.
"I was having a lot of breakdowns at work and I wasn't able to function because of what had just happened, and I had confided to a friend at work what had happened and she actually made the call," Albertson said.
After she reported the alleged assault to her command, they ordered her to not discuss it with anyone else and to "respect" her alleged assailant and follow his orders since he outranked her. Even her peers urged her to remain silent.
"I had friends, even people who were supposed to have my back telling me, 'It sucks, and it's wrong what they're doing to you, but at the same time you need to suck it up and not tell anybody because it'll make the Marine Corps look bad and it'll hurt recruitment efforts,'" Albertson said. "I talked to lawyers back then, but they all told me they couldn't touch the case because I was military, that if I had been civilian, it would have been no problem."
For two years, Albertson was forced to work alongside and live one floor below the man she said attacked her, even though a military counselor assigned to the case advised command to separate the two of them.
Albertson said the stress she endured as a result of the case caused her to become depressed and gain weight, causing command to enroll her in a Body Composition Program, where her weight, diet and exercise regimen would be monitored.