17 Veterans Sue Pentagon Over Rape Cases


But then the man she said had attacked her was promoted to head of the Body Composition Program, charged with supervising all members of the program on a daily basis, including Albertson.

"I had to report to him every day about my body, my weight loss and my running programs and my nutrition, and I had to go to him to tell him about all that kind of stuff, and he was given the authority to ask me those kinds of questions and check in on my body," she said.

The Navy Criminal Investigative Service investigated the assault charges, but Albertson's command did not allow prosecution and instead promoted the man she had accused of rape.

"In case after case, the perpetrator is not only not punished, they frequently are promoted," said Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation. "They're frequently still made to command the person that has been their victim. This is an outrage, the process must change."

Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said sexual assault stems from a broader problem permeating society and that Gates is working to ensure the military does its best to prevent cases of sexual assault from occurring.

"That means providing more money, personnel, training and expertise, including reaching out to other large institutions such as universities to learn best practices," Morrell said. "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."

In 2005, the Department of Defense implemented a sexual assault prevention and response policy aiming to provide victims with a comprehensive support program and offering prevention programs and encouraging bystander intervention.

Before the suit, the Pentagon already planned to launch a victim-support hotline this spring that will allow victims to "click, call or text" from anywhere in the world at any time to obtain anonymous and confidential support, according to a fact sheet provided by the Defense Department.

The Pentagon plans to launch the Defense Sexual Assault Incident Database to improve the collection and management of case data in the next year.

The plaintiffs and advocates are urging the military to change the way sexual assaults are handled in the military, asking officials to develop a system of reporting that allows the victim to go outside of the chain of command as well as breaking a culture some say promotes sexual violence.

"Rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment are a plague upon the United States military," said Anuradha Bhagwati, executive director of Service Women's Action Network. "A pervasive climate of sexual violence and intimidation threatens our national security by undermining operational readiness, draining morale, harming retention and destroying lives."

Panayiota Bertzikis said she was serving in the Coast Guard when she was raped by a shipmate while on a recreational hike in 2006. He never faced prosecution, and Bertzikis said she endured harassment and assault from other colleagues.

Bertzikis left the Coast Guard in 2007 and founded the Military Rape Crisis Center, which has served more than 5,000 service men and women and their families affected by sexual assault.

Albertson left the Marine Corps in 2008 and has since been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. She now lives with her husband in Montana, where she is in college studying family and consumer sciences and volunteering at a rape crisis center.

Albertson and Bertzikis said they hope their willingness to come forward with their stories will offer other victims the strength to report their sexual assaults amid the military's mishandling of sexual assault cases.

"Hopefully, it's kind of encouraging to think that there might be somebody else somewhere who might find this beneficial and encouraging for them and that they might be able to find strength in what we're doing," Albertson said.

Luis Martinez contributed to this report.

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