From Victim To Accused Army Deserter

The Army is still weighing action  --  including a court-martial  --  in the case of Spec. Suzanne Swift, 22, right, with her mother, Sara Rich.
The Army is still weighing action -- including a court-martial -- in the case of Spec. Suzanne Swift, 22, right, with her mother, Sara Rich. (By Chris Pietsch -- For The Washington Post)
By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 19, 2006

EUGENE, Ore. -- Suzanne Swift remembers standing in her mother's living room, hours away from her second deployment to Iraq. Her military gear had already been shipped -- along with her Game Boy, her DVDs and books, her favorite pink pillow, her stash of sunflower seeds. She had the car keys in her hand, ready to drive to the base. Suddenly, she turned to her mother.

"I can't do this," she remembers saying. "I can't go."

The Army specialist, now 22, recalls her churning stomach. Her mother's surprise. All at once, she said, she could not bear the idea of another year like her first. She was sexually harassed by one superior, she said, and coerced into a sexual affair with another.

"I didn't want it to happen to me again," she said in an interview.

Now Swift is bracing for a possible court-martial. Arrested in June for going AWOL, she detailed three alleged sexual offenses to Army officials, who began an investigation. One incident had already been verified and the perpetrator disciplined. But last Friday, the Army ruled that the two other incidents could not be substantiated. It will soon decide whether to take disciplinary action against Swift for her five-month absence, spokesman Joe Hitt said.

If she is convicted of desertion, Swift faces prison time and a dishonorable discharge.

Swift's case has galvanized antiwar activists and women's organizations, who have started a petition drive and demonstrated near her base at Fort Lewis, outside Tacoma, Wash. With more than 130,000 women deployed since 2001, her case raises uncomfortable questions about how matters between the sexes play out in the military.

It is complicated by the wartime setting and the fact that Swift did not file formal complaints about the first two incidents while she said they took place. (The Army investigation established that she had complained about them privately.) Many female veterans say her case may be an example of a raw fact of military life: that sexual offenses often go unreported, that young, lower-ranking women are especially vulnerable and that those harmed fear hostile treatment if they speak up.

"It's more common than, unfortunately, people realize," said Colleen Mussolino, a founder of Women Veterans of America. "There are literally thousands of women who have gone through similar circumstances."

The Pentagon says that more than 500 sexual assaults involving U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan have been reported. But officials acknowledge that the problem is larger than that and is made more complex by a war deployment.

"Sexual assault is the most underreported violent crime in America, and that's going to be true in the military as well," Pentagon spokesman Roger Kaplan said.

Lory Manning, director of the Women in the Military Project, of the Women's Research and Education Institute, pointed out that in the military, sexual liaisons within a chain of command are not viewed as consensual even if a subordinate goes along.

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