Air Force Sergeant called a sexual predator

July 17, 2012 

On top of the  spate of F-22 Raptor accidents and hypoxia incidents, the Air Force is also contending with a high profile sex predator trial.   The Honolulu Star Advertiser reports “Air Force Sergeant in base sex-assault scandal is a predator, prosecutor says” (July 17, 2012):

A sergeant charged with sexually assaulting female recruits at the Texas Air Force base where U.S. airmen go through basic training is a “consummate predator,” a military prosecutor told jurors today at the outset of the officer’s court-martial.

Staff Sgt. Luis Walker, who faces the most serious charges in a burgeoning sex scandal involving Lackland Air Force Base instructors, raped one female recruit and sexually assaulted or inappropriately had sex with nine others whom he was training, the prosecutor, Major Patricia Gruen, said in her opening statement today.

“He is a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” Gruen told the seven-person jury comprised of military personnel.

But characterizing individual perpetrators as the exceptional deviant deflects attention from the aspects of military culture and institutional practices that foster predatory sexual attitudes and behaviors.

Soldier suicides hit record high in 2011

January 20, 2012 

The social and human costs of U.S. wars and military policies are coming due.  The New York Times reported that “Active-Duty Soldiers Take Their Own Lives at Record Rate”:

Suicides among active-duty soldiers hit another record high in 2011, Army officials said on Thursday, although there was a slight decrease if nonmobilized Reserve and National Guard troops were included in the calculation.

A Disturbing Trend

The Army also reported a sharp increase, nearly 30 percent, in violent sex crimes last year by active-duty troops. More than half of the victims were active-duty female soldiers ages 18 to 21.

Accidents, Rapes, Murders, Suicides, Guns and Explosives

January 7, 2012 

Here is a sampling of recent news stories related to crimes and accidents involving military personnel.

The city Medical Examiner’s Office today identified the 27-year-old Schofield Barracks soldier who died in a motorcycle accident Thursday as Aaron Bennett.

Bennett, from Parma Heights Ohio, died at the crash scene on Fort Weaver Road near the recently closed Hawaii Medical Center-West. Witnesses told police that he was speeding and weaving in and out of traffic before losing control and crashing at about 5:30 a.m.

Bennett was an Army sergeant who joined the service in January 2007, and served as an infantrymen assigned to 1st Battalion, 14th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, according to the Army.

In June, he finished a year-long deployment to Iraq with the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, where he was awarded the Combat Infantryman Badge, an Army Commendation Medal and the Iraqi Campaign Medal with two campaign stars for his service.


The 2009 Yamaha motorcycle he was driving apparently sideswiped a 2001 Nissan sedan near the Farrington Highway junction, causing the motorcyclist to lose control, police said.

Bennett, a 25th Infantry Division soldier, was thrown from the vehicle and slid about 30 feet into a guardrail, severing his arm.

And KITV reported that “Man Commits Apparent Suicide In Police Custody: 27-year-old Schofield Resident Arrested For Drunk Driving Saturday Morning” (1/07/2012):

A 27-year-old Schofield man was found dead in a Wahiawa Police Substation holding cell from an apparent suicide Saturday morning.The man was arrested around 4:10 Saturday morning for drunk driving, reckless driving and speeding near Kamehameha Highway and Whitemore Avenue.He was then booked and processed at the Wahiawa Substation. His body was found alone and unconscious in the holding cell around 7 a.m. with his t-shirt next to him. It is believed that he hung himself with the shirt.

Police say the man is a husband of a Schofield based soldier.

In San Diego, four people were killed in an apparent murder-suicide involving two Navy pilots and the sister of one of the pilots. The AP reported “2 Navy Pilots Among Dead in Murder, Suicide” (1/03/2012):

Two Navy pilots and the sister of one of them were among four people killed in an apparent New Years Day murder-suicide on the wealthy island of Coronado off the coast of San Diego, officials say.

The two F/A-18 pilots were in training at the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, the base said. The San Diego County Medical Examiner’s Office initially posted on its website that the pilots were both 25-year-old males and that a third male among the dead was a 31-year-old resident of nearby Chula Vista.

The AP also reported that “Jealousy Eyed for Possible Role in Murder-Suicide” (1/06/2012):

Authorities were looking at all aspects of what could have led up to the gunfire at a Coronado condominium, including whether there was a relationship or romantic feelings between the Navy pilot who committed suicide and the sister of the other pilot who died, sheriff’s Capt. Duncan Fraser said.

John Robert Reeves shot himself in the head, and the three other people with him, including the sister, were murdered. They included Navy pilot David Reis, Karen Reis and Matthew Saturley.


Retired Naval pilot Steve Diamond said the case is shocking because it involves such high achievers.

“The first thing that most people think of even within the Navy community is how could such an enormously tragic thing happen involving people … who are the cream of the crop, highly trained, highly educated, national assets basically,” he said.

It takes years of training to get one’s wings as a Navy pilot, and fighter-jet pilots are considered to be among the top in that group.

They undergo a battery of rigorous physical, psychological and background tests before finishing the highly competitive program. Their top-notch skills and mental toughness were featured in the movie “Top Gun” — parts of which were filmed at Miramar.

Despite the recent dismissal of Cioca v. Rumsfeld, a class action lawsuit to hold Secretaries of Defense Rumsfeld and Gates accountable for the epidemic of sex assault in the military, another Navy commander was convicted for raping two female sailors. The AP reported “Navy Cmdr Gets Prison in Rape of Female Sailors” (10/29/2011):
A Navy ship commander pleaded guilty Friday to sexual assault and rape of two female sailors, and a military judge ordered his dismissal and sentenced him to more than three years in prison.

Cmdr. Jay Wylie was given a 10-year term but will serve 42 months as part of a plea agreement, said Sheila Murray, Navy spokeswoman.


Twenty officers have been relieved of command by the Navy this year.

It seems that the epidemic of sexual violence begins in officer training school.  The Colorado Springs Gazette reported that “3 Air Force Academy Cadets Charged in Sex-Assault Cases” (1/06/2012):

Commanders on Thursday charged three Air Force Academy cadets with sexual assault in separate cases that occurred over the past 15 months.

Charging documents obtained by The Gazette show the three cases involve acts allegedly committed on the campus, including acts against fellow cadets.

Meanwhile, the military is losing control of its weapons and explosives.  The AP reported that “US Rep.: Soldier Had 5 Pounds of C4 in Carry-On” (1/06/2012):
A congressman says two 2.5-pound blocks of a powerful, military-grade explosive were found in a Soldier’s luggage at a West Texas airport. Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Conaway of Midland said Thursday that federal officials gave him details of the Saturday find in Trey Scott Atwater’s luggage at Midland International Airport.

And the Daily Press in Victorville, California reported in December “Military Weapons in Gangsters’ Hands” (12/05/2011):

Gangs are acquiring highpowered, military-grade weapons more frequently, according to the latest National Gang Intelligence Center Report. And FBI and law enforcement officials suggest gang members — both enlisted and those working at military bases as contract civilians — may be funneling the firearms to their street-level counterparts.

In late July, 27 AK-47s were stolen from a Fort Irwin warehouse, officials said.

Weapons getting loose could be really bad.  In San Diego, the AP reported “Police: Navy SEAL Accidentally Shoots Self in Head” (1/06/2012):

San Diego police say a Navy SEAL is on life support after accidentally shooting himself in the head.

Officer Frank Cali tells U-T San Diego that officers were called to a home in Pacific Beach early Thursday morning on a report that a man had been playing with a gun and accidentally shot himself.

Cali says the man was showing guns to a woman he’d met earlier at a bar and put a pistol he believed was unloaded to his head. Cali says he then pulled the trigger.

Pearl Harbor-Hickam man held in alleged sex assault at Ala Moana

November 6, 2011 

Honolulu Star Advertiser reports that a 24-year old man, “who lives at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, was arrested pending charges of first-degree sexual assault, unauthorized entry into a vehicle, fourth-degree theft and criminal property damage.”  The victim alleges that “the man entered her vehicle without her permission and sexually assauilted her about 3 a.m. The man also stole money from her and damaged her vehicle, police said.”  The incident occurred at Ala Moana Center.

Meanwhile, the paper also reports “Federal agent from mainland arrested for killing man in Waikiki”:

A U.S. State Department law enforcement agent from the mainland was arrested for fatally shooting a man in his 20s early this morning on Kuhio Avenue in Waikiki, sources said.

Honolulu police identified the alleged shooter as Christopher W. Deedy, 27, and sources who asked to remain anonymous confirmed that he is a federal agent who was off-duty at the time of the shooting. The victim was identified by family and friends as Kaneohe resident Kollin K. Elderts, 23, a Kalaheo High School graduate.


[A State Department spokeswoman] would not confirm whether he was here for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference which begins Tuesday.

But Deedy’s LinkedIn web page identifies him as a special agent working for the Bureau of Diplomatic Security at the State Department and from the Washington D.C. area.

According to the State Department’s website the bureau is responsible for providing a safe and secure environment for the conduct of U.S. foreign policy. President Barack Obama and 20 other world leaders are expected to attend the APEC Leaders’ Meeting next weekend.

Is this the kind of flotsam that will wash up on our shores with APEC?

Man with Marine Base address arrested for alleged sex assault of woman in Waikiki

July 2, 2011 

The Honolulu Star Advertiser reports “Officers arrested a 23-year-old man of an address at Marine Corps Base Hawaii in Kaneohe  at 2:11 a.m. Friday” for allegedly sexually assaulting a 20-year old woman in Waikiki on June 23.   The man arrested and booked on suspicion of first-degree sexual assault and kidnapping was one of two men who allegedly sexually assaulted the woman.


1 in 5 Air Force Women and 1 in 20 Men Victims of Sexual Assault

March 18, 2011 

From Service Womenʻs Action Network:

Service Women’s Action Network Statement on Air Force Survey

Christian Science Monitor Previews Survey’s Release:  1 in 5 Air Force Women and 1 in 20 Men Victims of Sexual Assault

NEW YORK – According to an exclusive piece published today online in the Christian Science Monitor, the Air Force is set to release a comprehensive survey later this week that finds almost 1 in 5 women and 1 in 20 men in the Air Force say they have been sexually assaulted or raped since joining the service.  According to the story, among the women surveyed, 58% revealed they had been raped and 20% had been sodomized.  Additionally, almost half of the victims didn’t report the crime because they “did not want to cause trouble in their unit.”  To read the entire exclusive Christian Science Monitor story online, click here.

In reaction to the findings outlined in the story earlier today, Anu Bhagwati, executive director of Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN), released the following statement:

“It should be no surprise that rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment are an every day fact of life for women in the Air Force, and every any other branch of the military,” said Anu Bhagwati, former Marine Corps Captain and Executive Director of Service Women’s Action Network.

“Despite having more women than any other branch of service, it’s clear that the Air Force, like the rest of the military, is in over its head when it comes to reducing this threat to our servicemembers,” Bhagwati continued. “Survivors don’t feel safe enough to report their attacks, and frankly, there’s little reason for them to feel safe in today’s military climate. Senior military leadership has failed to protect survivors, punish perpetrators or hold commanders accountable for failing to enforce sexual assault policy. Immediate legislative action by our elected officials is the best tool we have to stop this crisis now.”

In addition to today’s leak of the Air Force survey scheduled for release later this week, the Department of Defense’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO) released its FY 2010 “Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military”.  The SAPRO FY 2010 “Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military” can be viewed here

The 622 page report was released moments ago, revealing 3158 reports of sexual assault military-wide in FY10, and is being further analyzed by SWAN’s experts. A forthcoming analysis of the report and fact sheet will be made available to the public as soon as it is completed.  Media outlets interested in interviewing or booking Anu Bhagwati, SWAN’s executive director, should contact:  Robb Friedlander, Luna Media Group, at 913.636.0099 or

SWAN is spearheading a national advocacy campaign to end military rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment. More information can be found at

SWAN is a national human rights organization founded and led by women veterans. SWAN’s vision is to transform military culture by securing equal opportunity and the freedom to serve in uniform without threat of harassment, discrimination, intimidation or assault. SWAN also seeks to reform veterans’ services on a national scale to guarantee equal access to quality health care, benefits and resources for women veterans and their families. You can follow Service Women’s Action Network on Twitter at, or on Facebook at

Ft. Bragg Soldier faces multiple charges including rape and attempted rape – a growing trend

March 24, 2010 

MS. Magazine Blog

Soldier As Rapist: All Too Common

March 19, 2010 by Natalie Wilson

Fort Bragg soldier Spc. Aaron Pernell, 22, an indirect fire infantryman who has served two tours in Iraq, was charged with sexual assault in February. Pernell appeared in court Tuesday on 13 charges including rape and attempted rape. What’s unique about these charges are that they were made at all: thousands of other military rapists have escaped punishment in the past fifteen years, according to the Denver Post in its excellent investigative series [PDF].

As the Ms. Blog recently reported, a new Pentagon study confirms that militarized sexual violence (MSV) is on the rise. Yet, while crimes such as those Pernell is charged with are all too common, perpetrators regularly escape punishment and often re-enter the civilian world with no criminal record.

Since one-third of women who join the military are raped or sexually assaulted by fellow soldiers, we must recognize that the soldier as rapist is all too common. Given that rape and sexual assault rates rise in the civilian world during wartime, we must also recognize that militarized sexual violence is trickling down into our communities. As more soldiers return home, we can expect more crimes like those Pernell is charged with.

In fact, areas surrounding military bases have already seen increasing numbers of sexual assault. Stacy Bannerman, author of When the War Came Home, calls this “collateral damage,” writing:

In the past five years, hundreds, if not thousands, of women have been beaten, assaulted, or terrorized when their husbands, fiancés, or boyfriends got back from Iraq. Dozens of military wives have been strangled, shot, decapitated, dismembered, or otherwise murdered when their husbands brought the war on terror home.

The practice of granting moral waivers–which allow people to enlist who have records of domestic violence, sex crimes, and manslaughter–may also exacerbate rates of MSV. Further, as Professor Carol Burke documents, many soldiers enlist as teenagers to escape troubled or violent homes. Since such abuse (if not addressed) tends to be cyclical, filling our military ranks with abuse survivors without addressing childhood trauma, offering psychological counseling, or implementing anti-abuse training, is a recipe for continued violence. These factors, in conjunction with the prevalence of PTSD (post-traumatic-stress-disorder) in returning soldiers, which has been linked to enacting violence, likely means that rates of MSV will not be going down anytime soon.

Though Pernell’s case is a horrific one, sadly it is far from unique. To read more on this subject, watch for my feature article in the upcoming Spring issue of Ms. magazine.

ABOVE: Mug shot of Aaron Pernell.


Fayetteville, NC Observer

Published: 06:30 AM, Wed Mar 17, 2010

Rape suspect appears in District Court

By Nancy McCleary <>
Staff writer

Spc. Aaron Pernell, wearing his full dress Army uniform, stared straight ahead and showed no emotion Tuesday when he appeared in District Court on charges including rape and attempted rape.

The 22-year-old spoke only when asked by Judge David Hasty if he had filled out an affidavit for a court-appointed lawyer.

“No, I did not fill it out, your honor,” Pernell said in a loud, clear voice.

It was the first appearance in Cumberland County for Pernell, who faces 13 charges including two counts of first-degree rape and three counts each of attempted rape and burglary.

Pernell has been charged by Fayetteville police with three attacks on women from October to December 2008 in single-family homes in the area of Cliffdale Road and the Water’s Edge neighborhood.

One of the women was raped, police said.

Some of the victims and their family members attended the hearing at the Cumberland County Detention Center. They sat in the front row of the small gallery and declined to speak to reporters.

A blonde-haired woman sitting on the front row took deep breaths moments before Pernell’s case was called. She stared down at her hands during part of the brief court appearance.
Three county deputies flanked the two benches where the victims and the families sat and escorted them out of the building.

Robert Cooper, a Fayetteville lawyer, was appointed to represent Pernell.

Hasty reviewed the charges with Pernell and asked if he understood that if he is found guilty, he could be sentenced to nearly 200 years in prison.

Pernell said yes.

His bail was set at $6 million.

Pernell was to be returned to the custody of military police from Fort Bragg, where he is being held.

Earlier Tuesday, Pernell appeared in District Court in Hoke County, where he is accused of breaking into three homes in the Raeford area between April and August 2009 and sexually assaulting three women.

His bail in Hoke County was set at $5 million.

Pernell also is charged with breaking into two homes and raping a woman on Fort Bragg in December.

Pernell, an indirect fire infantryman assigned to the 1st Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division, is in the custody of the military.

Military officials contend the Uniform Code of Military Justice should apply in civilian court, according to Debbie Tanna, a spokeswoman for the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office.

The code doesn’t allow pictures from courtroom proceedings, and Army officials sought to have that applied during Tuesday’s proceedings, Tanna said.

Before the hearing, Chief District Court Judge Beth Keever issued an order banning cameras from the proceedings, Tanna said.

Keever was not available to discuss her decision.

After Pernell was charged Feb. 2 by the military, Fayetteville police said he was a “person of interest” in seven attacks reported in the city between June and January.

However, members of a regional task force created to investigate the attacks – which include an attempted rape in Hope Mills – announced Friday they are looking for someone else in those cases.

Staff writer Nancy McCleary can be reached at or 486-3568.

Time: The War Within for women in uniform

February 28, 2010,9171,1968110,00.html

The War Within

By NANCY GIBBS Monday, Mar. 08, 2010

What does it tell us that female soldiers deployed overseas stop drinking water after 7 p.m. to reduce the odds of being raped if they have to use the bathroom at night? Or that a soldier who was assaulted when she went out for a cigarette was afraid to report it for fear she would be demoted — for having gone out without her weapon? Or that, as Representative Jane Harman puts it, “a female soldier in Iraq is more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire.”

The fight over “Don’t ask, don’t tell” made headlines this winter as an issue of justice and history and the social evolution of our military institutions. We’ve heard much less about another set of hearings in the House Armed Services Committee. Maybe that’s because too many commanders still don’t ask, and too many victims still won’t tell, about the levels of violence endured by women in uniform.

The Pentagon’s latest figures show that nearly 3,000 women were sexually assaulted in fiscal year 2008, up 9% from the year before; among women serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, the number rose 25%. When you look at the entire universe of female veterans, close to a third say they were victims of rape or assault while they were serving — twice the rate in the civilian population.

The problem is even worse than that. The Pentagon estimates that 80% to 90% of sexual assaults go unreported, and it’s no wonder. Anonymity is all but impossible; a Government Accountability Office report concluded that most victims stay silent because of “the belief that nothing would be done; fear of ostracism, harassment, or ridicule; and concern that peers would gossip.” More than half feared they would be labeled troublemakers. A civilian who is raped can get confidential, or “privileged,” advice from her doctors, lawyers, victim advocates; the only privilege in the military applies to chaplains. A civilian who knows her assailant has a much better chance of avoiding him than does a soldier at a remote base, where filing charges can be a career killer — not for the assailant but the victim. Women worry that they will be removed from their units for their own “protection” and talk about not wanting to undermine their missions or the cohesion of their units. And then some just do the math: only 8% of cases that are investigated end in prosecution, compared with 40% for civilians arrested for sex crimes. Astonishingly, about 80% of those convicted are honorably discharged nonetheless.

The sense of betrayal runs deep in victims who joined the military to be part of a loyal team pursuing a larger cause; experts liken the trauma to incest and the particular damage done when assault is inflicted by a member of the military “family.” Women are often denied claims for posttraumatic stress caused by the assault if they did not bring charges at the time. There are not nearly enough mental-health professionals in the system to help them. Female vets are four times more likely to be homeless than male vets are, according to the Service Women’s Action Network, and of those, 40% report being victims of sexual assault. (See pictures of an army town coping with PTSD.)

Experts offer many theories for the causes: that military culture is intrinsically violent and hypermasculine, that the military is slow to identify potential risks among raw young recruits, that too many commanders would rather look the other way than acknowledge a breakdown in their units, that it has simply not been made a high enough priority. “A lot of my male colleagues believe that the only thing a general needs to worry about is whether he can win a war,” says Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez of the Armed Services Committee. “People are not taking this seriously. Commanding officers in the field are not understanding how important this is.”

But there are some signs that both Congress and the Pentagon are getting serious about this problem. It is now possible for victims to seek medical treatment without having to report the crime to police or their chain of command. More field hospitals have trained nurse practitioners to treat the victims; more bases have rape kits. “More than ever,” Sanchez says, “I believe that our leadership at the very top is beginning to realize that they need to be proactive.”

According to a report by the Defense Task Force on Sexual Assault in the Military Services, the progress made so far remains “evident, but uneven.” The failure to provide a basic guarantee of safety to women, who now represent 15% of the armed forces, is not just a moral issue, or a morale issue. What does it say if the military can’t or won’t protect the people we ask to protect us?

Read more:,9171,1968110,00.html#ixzz0gtly1EcZ

Navy employee gets 10 years for sexual abuse of minor in Okinawa

February 17, 2010

Sex Offender Sentenced to Ten Years in Prison for Sexual Abuse of a Minor: First Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act Case on Guam

HAGATNA, Guam, Feb. 16 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ — Leonardo M. Rapadas, United States Attorney for the Districts of Guam and the Northern Marina Islands (NMI), announced that defendant Bruce Carey Wood, age 56, was sentenced today in the District Court of Guam by Chief Judge Frances Tydingco-Gatewood. Wood was remanded to the U.S. Marshal Service to await designation of a correctional facility. Wood received a sentence of 10 years in prison and three years supervised release, for sexual abuse of a minor, in violation of Title 18, United States Code Section 2243(a) & 3261(a). Wood was indicted on July 29, 2009 and entered a guilty plea on Oct. 5, 2009.

This case is the first Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act (MEJA) case prosecuted on Guam. Defendant Wood was employed as a civilian employee at Camp Shield Naval Base, Okinawa, Japan, when he knowingly engaged in a sexual act with a person who at that time was at least 12 but not yet 16, and at least four years younger than the defendant, between November 2000, and March 2008. The MEJA gives long arm jurisdiction to prosecute U.S. citizens outside the United States who commit criminal acts.

The case was prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Rosetta San Nicolas and investigated by Special Agents Brandon McKinnon and Kay Ean of the U.S. Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) in Okinawa, Japan. Credit is also given to special agents of NCIS, Guam, and the Navy legal service offices in Guam and Okinawa, for their invaluable assistance. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children who conducted computer forensics is also credited.

U.S. Attorney Rapadas said, “This is proof that no one is beyond the law. MEJA allows us to reach out and prosecute U.S. citizens who commit crimes outside the United States.”

SOURCE U.S. Department of Justice



Man sentenced for abusing teen

By Laura Matthews • Pacific Daily News • February 17, 2010

A civilian employee at a U.S. military base in Okinawa was sentenced on Guam yesterday to 10 years in federal prison for sexually abusing — for years — a boy known to him.

Bruce Carey Wood, 57, was turned over to the U.S. Marshals Service after District Court of Guam Chief Judge Frances Tydingco-Gatewood accepted his guilty plea to sexual abuse of a minor.

Wood will be under three years of supervised release after he gets out of prison and is required to register as a sex offender thereafter.

“You have committed a crime against a young child and the court cannot ignore that,” Tydingco-Gatewood said.

The maximum sentence for such a crime is 15 years, court documents state.

Wood was arrested last July after the victim reported the abuse to Naval Criminal Investigation Services officers the same month.

According to court documents, the boy told the officers that Wood sexually abused him when he was almost 13 years old. The documents further state that between March 27, 2005 through and including March 26, 2008, Wood “knowingly” engaged in a sexual act with the boy.

Okinawa employee

Between those years, Wood was employed by the Armed Forces as a civilian employee for approximately 22 years at the Crow’s Nest Club aboard Camp Shield Naval Base in Okinawa, Japan, according to court documents.

Before he was sentenced, Wood apologized to his family who joined the proceeding via teleconference.

“I pray for the day that we can start over and become a family. I hope that you can forgive me … please remember I love you very much.”

A Peril in War Zones: Sexual Abuse by Fellow G.I.’s

January 22, 2010

Women at Arms

A Peril in War Zones: Sexual Abuse by Fellow G.I.’s


Published: December 27, 2009

BAGHDAD — Capt. Margaret H. White began a relationship with a warrant officer while both were training to be deployed to Iraq. By the time they arrived this year at Camp Taji, north of here, she felt what she called “creepy vibes” and tried to break it off.

Moises Saman for The New York Times

Specialist Erica A. Beck, a mechanic and gunner who served in in Iraq, recalled a sexual proposition she called “inappropriate.” She did not report it, she said, because she feared that her commanders would have reacted harshly — toward her.

Women at Arms

A Trust BetrayedArticles in this series explore how the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have profoundly redefined the role of women in the military.

Previous Articles in the Series »

Johan Spanner for The New York Times

Capt. Margaret H. White said she was sexually assaulted and harassed by a fellow soldier while serving in Iraq.

In the claustrophobic confines of a combat post, it was not easy to do. He left notes on the door to her quarters, alternately pleading and menacing. He forced her to have sex, she said. He asked her to marry him, though he was already married. He waited for her outside the women’s latrines or her quarters, once for three hours.

“It got to the point that I felt safer outside the wire,” Captain White said, referring to operations that take soldiers off their heavily fortified bases, “than I did taking a shower.”

Her ordeal ended with the military equivalent of a restraining order and charges of stalking against the officer. It is one case that highlights the new and often messy reality the military has had to face as men and women serve side by side in combat zones more than ever before.

Sexual harassment and sexual assault, which the military now defines broadly to include not only rape but also crimes like groping and stalking, continue to afflict the ranks, and by some measures are rising. While tens of thousands of women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, often in combat, often with distinction, the integration of men and women in places like Camp Taji has forced to the surface issues that commanders rarely, if ever confronted before.

The military — belatedly, critics say — has radically changed the way it handles sexual abuse in particular, expanding access to treatment and toughening rules for prosecution. In the hardships of war, though, the effects of the changes remain unclear.

The strains of combat, close quarters in remote locations, tension and even boredom can create the conditions for abuse, even as they hinder medical care for victims and legal proceedings against those who attack them.

Captain White said she had feared coming forward, despite having become increasingly despondent and suffered panic attacks, because she was wary of she-said-he-said recriminations that would reverberate through the tightknit military world and disrupt the mission. Despite the military’s stated “zero tolerance” for abuse or harassment, she had no confidence her case would be taken seriously and so tried to cope on her own, Captain White said.

A Pentagon-appointed task force, in a report released this month, pointedly criticized the military’s efforts to prevent sexual abuse, citing the “unique stresses” of deployments in places like Camp Taji. “Some military personnel indicated that predators may believe they will not be held accountable for their misconduct during deployment because commanders’ focus on the mission overshadows other concerns,” the report said.

That, among other reasons, is why sexual assault and harassment go unreported far more often than not. “You’re in the middle of a war zone,” Captain White said, reflecting a fear many military women describe of being seen, somehow, as harming the mission.

“So it’s kind of like that one little thing is nothing compared with ‘There is an I.E.D. that went off in this convoy today and three people were injured,’ ” she said, referring to an improvised explosive device.

Common Fears

By the Pentagon’s own estimate, as few as 10 percent of sexual assaults are reported, far lower than the percentage reported in the civilian world. Specialist Erica A. Beck, a mechanic and gunner who served in Diyala Province in Iraq this summer, recalled a sexual proposition she called “inappropriate” during her first tour in the country in 2006-7. “Not necessarily being vulgar, but he, you know, was asking for favors,” she said.

She did not report it, she said, because she feared that her commanders would have reacted harshly — toward her.

“It was harassment,” she said. “And because it was a warrant officer, I didn’t say anything. I was just a private.”

Her fears were common, according to soldiers and advocates who remain skeptical of the military’s efforts to address abuse. A report last year by the Government Accountability Office concluded that victims were reluctant to report attacks “for a variety of reasons, including the belief that nothing would be done or that reporting an incident would negatively impact their careers.”

When Sgt. Tracey R. Phillips told a superior about an unwanted sexual advance from a private the night their unit arrived in Iraq in May, the accusations unleashed a flurry of charges and countercharges, an initial investigation of her on charges of adultery, a crime in the military justice system, and, according to her account, violations by her commanders of the new procedures meant to ease reporting of abuse.

In the end, she was kicked out of Iraq and the Army itself, while the private remained on duty here.

The military disputed her account but declined to state the reasons for sending her out of Iraq. Her paperwork showed that she received an honorable discharge, though with “serious misconduct” cited as the reason. The so-called misconduct, she said, stemmed from the Army’s allegation that she had had an inappropriate relationship with the private she accused. She denied that.

“If I would have never, ever, ever said anything, I wouldn’t be sitting here,” she said in an interview at her parents’ home near San Antonio. “I’d still be in Iraq.”

At bases around Iraq, many said that acceptance and respect for women in uniform were now more common than the opposite. In part, they said, that reflects a sweeping change in military culture that has accompanied the rise of women through the ranks and into more positions once reserved for men.

“It’s not tolerated — it’s just not,” said Lt. Brenda L. Beegle, a married military police officer, referring to sexual harassment and abuse.

In an interview at Liberty Base, near Baghdad’s airport, she said: “Everyone has heard stories about bad things that have happened. I’ve never had an issue.”

Although exact comparisons to the civilian world are difficult because of different methods of defining and reporting abuse, Pentagon officials and some experts say that the incidence of abuse in the military appears to be no higher than in society generally, and might be lower. It appears to be even lower in combat operations than at bases in the United States, because of stricter discipline and scrutiny during deployments, as well as restrictions on alcohol, which is often a factor in assaults, for example, on college campuses.

Complaints Increase

The number of complaints, though, is rising. Across the military, there were 2,908 reported cases of sexual abuse involving service members as victims or assailants, in the fiscal year that ended in September 2008, the last year for which the Pentagon made numbers available. That was an 8 percent increase from the previous year, when there were 2,688.

In the turbulent regions from Egypt to Afghanistan where most American combat troops are now deployed, the increase in reported cases was even sharper: 251 cases, compared with 174 the year before, a 44 percent increase. The number in Iraq rose to 143, from 112 the year before. Everyone agrees that those represent only a fraction of the instances of assault, let alone harassment.

“A woman in the military is more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire in Iraq,” Representative Jane Harman, a Democrat from California, said at a Congressional hearing this year, repeating an assertion she has made a refrain in a campaign of hers to force the military to do more to address abuses.

At least 10 percent of the victims in the last year were men, a reality that the Pentagon’s task force said the armed services had done practically nothing to address in terms of counseling, treatment and prosecution. Men are considered even less likely to report attacks, officials said, because of the stigma, and fears that their own sexual orientation would be questioned. In the majority of the reported cases, the attacker was male.

Senior Pentagon officials argued that the increase in reports did not necessarily signify a higher number of attacks. Rather, they said, there is now a greater awareness as well as an improved command climate, encouraging more victims to come forward.

“We believe the increase in the number of reported cases means the department is capturing a greater proportion of the cases that occurred during the year, which is good news,” said the Pentagon’s senior official overseeing abuse policies, Kaye Whitley.

The military can no more eradicate sexual abuse than can society in general, but soldiers, officers and experts acknowledge that it is particularly harmful when soldiers are in combat zones, affecting not only the victims but also, as the military relies more than ever on women when the nation goes to war, the mission.

“For the military the potential costs are even higher as it can also negatively impact mission readiness,” the Pentagon’s annual report on sexual abuse said, referring to sexual violence. “Service members risk their lives for one another and bear the responsibility of keeping fellow service members out of harm’s way. Sexual assault in the military breaks this bond.”

Even investigations into accusations, which are often difficult to prove, can disrupt operations. In Sergeant Phillips’s case, she was relieved of her duties leading a squad of soldiers refueling emergency rescue helicopters and other aircraft at Camp Kalsu, south of Baghdad.

Cases like hers suggest that the vagaries of sex and sexual abuse, especially in combat zones, continue to vex commanders on the ground, despite the transformation of the military’s policies.

The majority of sexual abuse allegations end with no prosecution at all. Of 2,171 suspects of investigations that were completed during the fiscal year that ended in September 2008, only 317 faced a court-martial. Another 515 faced administrative punishments or discharges. Nearly half of the completed investigations lacked evidence or were “unsubstantiated or unfounded.”

The Pentagon, facing criticism, maintains that it has transformed the way it handles sexual abuse. In the wake of the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as highly publicized cases and revelations of rampant abuse at the Air Force Academy in 2003, the Pentagon created a single agency to oversee the issue and rewrote the rules of reporting, treatment and prosecution. Beginning in October 2007, the Uniform Code of Military Justice expanded the provision that once covered rape — Article 120 — to include other offenses, like indecent exposure and stalking.

The Army, which has provided the bulk of the forces in Iraq, has increased the number of investigators and lawyers trained to investigate accusations. Most bases now have kits to collect forensic evidence in rape cases, which was not the case immediately after the invasion in 2003.

Larger field hospitals in Balad and Mosul now have the same type of sexual assault nurse examiners widely used in the civilian world, as well as a dozen other examiners who are not nurses but are trained to conduct forensic examinations.

The military has set up a system of confidential advisers women can turn to who are outside the usual chain of command — an avenue Sergeant Phillips said she had been denied.

If they want to, the women can now seek medical treatment and counseling without setting off a criminal investigation. And all the services have started educational programs to address aspects of a hierarchical warrior culture that some say contributes to hostility toward women. Posters for the campaign blanket bulletin boards in offices, chow halls and recreational buildings on bases across Iraq.

The military’s efforts, however well intentioned, are often undermined by commanders who are skeptical or even conflicted, suspicious of accusations and fearful that reports of abuse reflect badly on their commands. The Pentagon task force also reported that victims of assault did not come forward because they might “have engaged in misconduct for which they could be disciplined, such as under-age drinking, fraternization or adultery.”

Marti Ribeiro, then an Air Force sergeant, said she was raped by another soldier after she stepped away from a guard post in Afghanistan in 2006 to smoke a cigarette, a story first recounted in “The Lonely Soldier,” a book by Helen Benedictabout women who served in Iraq and elsewhere. When she went to the abuse coordinator, she was threatened with prosecution for having left her weapon and her post.

“I didn’t get any help at all, let alone compassion,” said Ms. Ribeiro, who has since retired and joined the Service Women’s Action Network, a new advocacy organization devoted to shaping the Pentagon’s policy.

The hardships of combat operations often compound the anguish of victims and complicate investigations, as well as counseling and treatment. The Government Accountability Office suggested that the “unique living and social circumstances” of combat posts heightened the risk for assault. Both the G.A.O. and the Pentagon’s task force found that, despite the Pentagon’s policy, remote bases did not have adequate medical and mental health services for victims. The task force also found that abuse coordinators and victim advocates were often ill trained or absent.

As a result, victims often suffer the consequences alone, working in the heat and dust, living in trailers surrounded by gravel and concrete blast walls, with nowhere private to retreat to. In Captain White’s case, she had to work and live beside the man who assaulted and stalked her until their deployment ended in August and they both went home.

“You’re in such a fishbowl,” she said. “You can’t really get away from someone. You see him in the chow hall. You see him in the gym.”

The Danger Nearby

Captain White’s case is typical of many here, according to military lawyers and experts, in that she knew the man she said assaulted her, circumstances that complicated the investigation and prosecution.

She had dated the warrant officer when they arrived in Fort Dix, N.J., for predeployment training with the 56th Stryker Combat Team. The newly revised article of the Uniform Code of Military Justice says that “a current or previous dating relationship by itself” does not constitute consent.

Once at Camp Taji, a sprawling base just north of Baghdad, she grew troubled by his behavior. He cajoled her with presents and sent her e-mail messages. She said that for fear of running into him, she stopped drinking water after 7 p.m. so she would not have to go to the latrine at night alone.

She never came forward herself. Her case came to light only when military prosecutors questioned her about another investigation involving the warrant officer. He was ultimately charged with 19 offenses, said Lt. Col. Philip J. Smith, a spokesman for the division that oversaw operations in central Iraq. The charges included seven counts of fraternization and two of adultery, interfering with an investigation and, in Captain White’s case, stalking.

After their deployment ended in September, the officer pleaded guilty and resigned from the Army in lieu of prosecution, Colonel Smith said.

Captain White said that she was satisfied with the legal outcome of her case, though her account of it highlighted the emotional strains that sexual abuse causes.

“I’m not saying that I handled it the best way,” she said in an interview after her own retirement from the Army, “but I handled it at the time and in the situation what I thought was the best way, which was just to keep my head down, keep going — which was kind of an Army thing to say: Drive on.”

Kassie Bracken contributed reporting from San Antonio and Houston.

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