Carla Butcher joined the Navy within days of 9/11, and soon shipped out for Malta. But during her first hours there, she was raped by a fellow sailor -- and spent the remainder of her four years in the service battling both post traumatic stress disorder and a military justice system that seemed set up to prove she was the guilty party.
Turns out, the man she turned in had already been accused by two other military women, one of whom had been flown home just two weeks before she arrived. And the other, she said, had committed suicide.
Yet under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Butcher couldn’t even refute the female defense attorney who got up at the accused sailor’s trial and described her as someone “in four-inch heels and tight jeans who wanted it.’’
“I just had to suck it up,’’ said Butcher, because “if I’d said I don’t even sleep with men -- I’m a lesbian -- I’m the one who would have been out with a dishonorable.’’ In the end, the argument that the sex had been consensual was believed, and the accused went free yet again, just as he’d predicted he would, while her military career was over before it started.
All wrong, right?
And worse, a hotel ballroom in Washington on Tuesday was packed with women like Butcher, who at 35 is back in college and married to a female minister. Women, that is, of every race, age, background and physical description but with two things in common: All 250 of those brought together by the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN) served our country in uniform.
All, too, had reported being violated in the process – not by the enemy, mind you, but by fellow sailors or soldiers, Americans with whom they were supposed to be fighting the bad guys.
The scale of the problem is a disgrace: the Pentagon itself estimates that there were 19,000 sexual assaults in our military last year – though only 3,192 of these were officially reported. In a typical year, fewer than 500 cases ever go to trial, and fewer than half of those result in convictions. What’s more, a third of those who are convicted, says SWAN’s policy director, Greg Jacob, are allowed to stay on in the service.
The first time 25-year-old Joanna Wood, of San Angelo, Texas, reported being raped – also during her first day on her ship, in Norfolk, five years ago – her female superior told her she should confide in a chaplain, because there was nothing she knew to do. Two years later, a coworker and former boyfriend of Wood’s, who’d been stalking her, recreated the original attack, which she’d told him about in detail. But that case, too, was dropped, she said, “and I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and kicked out’’ of the Navy in ’10, and briefly became homeless.
A few men sexually assaulted in the service were at the SWAN event, too, including David Mair, an Air Force vet from Redding, California, who was raped in Japan way back in 1962 – and never told anyone until 2 years ago.
Even then, it took him a while to get in for treatment at the Veterans Administration, he said, though “I literally had a gun to my head.’’ The first doctor to whom he was referred announced that he didn’t believe in PTSD, and it was six months before Mair finally saw a therapist.
Why did he fly across the country to discuss an attack that happened 40 years ago? Because he can now, he said – though his wife still hopes her family doesn’t ever find out, and some friends have tiptoed out of his life since he let them know.
Telling the truth about events a lifetime ago and a world away is a relief that those of us who haven’t lived through all that he has might not appreciate.
Just telling these horror stories was a big step forward for many in the room. But in recent months, both Congress and the Department of Defense have finally begun to address what the military itself now acknowledges is a serious problem.
Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who spoke at the summit, told the crowd that “the idea that an American in uniform who is out there on the front lines serving our country may also suffer the physical and emotional trauma of sexual assault is simply unacceptable, and they shouldn’t have to fight to receive care or pursue justice” on top of it.
Klobuchar got every one of the 17 female Senators to sign on to a bill to require every branch of the service to start keeping records of such cases for 50 years. Reports had previously been tossed after between one and 5 years, seriously compromising cases against repeat offenders and making it harder for victims to get medical treatment years later, for events there was often no record of.
That legislation was part of the defense reauthorization Obama signed into law in December.
“Given the increasing number of women coming in’’ to the military “they have to deal with it,’’ Klobuchar told me in the hallway after she spoke. And they have to start catching up to changes civilian courts made decades ago.
The Department of Defense does seem to be scrambling to do that. “We are taking this seriously,’’ said spokeswoman Cynthia Smith, establishing a special victims unit in every service branch, improving training for prosecutors and investigators, and making it easier for victims to get transferred away from the accused.
Just today, a letter went out to every service member emphasizing that the military is on the case now.
Yet they still have a painfully long way to go. Justice remains “nearly impossible” to come by, says SWAN executive director Anu Bhagwati, because of the likelihood of retaliation within the chain of command. “There’s still no deterrent to sexual assault in the military,’’ and no access to the kind of civil remedies that civilian victims can pursue, because service members can’t sue for damages.
Mair, who was attacked in Japan all those years ago, said what he wants to tell every single young recruit is “to be aware and to be cautious. I wouldn’t want them to be afraid to make friends,’’ he said. “But there are predators” among the good guys, “and you have to know how they operate.”
Melinda Henneberger is a Post political writer and anchors ‘She the People.’ Follow her on Twitter at @MelindaDC.