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.
"The presumption is the subordinate might take it as an order and might fear retribution if they say no," said Manning, a retired Navy captain. "The more junior they are, the more unlikely it is that they can say no without fearing the consequences."19 and Just Out of Boot Camp
Suzanne Swift was 19 years old, one of the least-experienced members of her unit, when she was deployed to Kuwait in February 2004. She had completed boot camp and military-police training six weeks earlier and now was part of the 66th Military Police Company. She gave her version of her military experience during interviews over two days at her mother's home in Eugene.
She said she had signed up with the military police because she thought it would keep her out of Iraq. But when her unit received orders for a year-long deployment, she went.
In Kuwait, she said, a platoon sergeant who had been friendly toward her -- and who had assured her mother, "Don't worry, ma'am, we'll take care of your daughter" -- stopped her as she was headed to the shower and asked her bluntly: "Swift, why do you look like you want to" have sex with me?
Stunned, she said she replied: "You have lost your mind."
A day later, on a convoy, he persisted, she said.
"Dude, no," she told him several times, she said.
Swift said she was unprepared for the come-ons, which had never happened during training at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. "I was like, this actually happens? This goes on and it's okay?"
She said she reported the incidents to a soldier designated to handle equal-opportunity complaints. He seemed receptive, saying he would tell a captain, she said. But nothing happened.
Her unit soon moved on to Iraq, where her 30-member platoon, with three other women, was based at Camp Lima in Karbala, southwest of Baghdad. Their mission was to support Iraqi police.
Earlier, she said, she had noticed unusual behavior by her squad leader, who warned her away from fellow soldiers with such advice as: "Watch out for that guy. He's going to hit on you." At times, she said, he pulled aside other soldiers and asked them: "What's going on with you and Swift?"
She said other soldiers seemed leery of her friendship.
Privately, she said, the sergeant had asked hours of questions about her life and previous relationships. Swift had grown up in a single-parent family, attended an alternative high school and been married briefly.
One night, as they stood near a Humvee at Camp Lima, he grabbed her and kissed her. "I didn't want to have sex with him," she said. "I didn't like him." But she said she feared retaliation if she refused. "I had a choice," she acknowledges, "but it wasn't much of a choice." She said that some nights, he would pound on her door, drunk and pressing her for sex.
When she ended the relationship after several months, she said, the sergeant was vindictive. She contends that he ordered her to do 4 a.m. workouts and to wear a wall clock around her neck and report every hour in full gear. In all, she said, she was written up at least a dozen times by the sergeant and by others whom she felt he encouraged.
One of her closest confidants was former Sgt. Zach Thompson, her team leader, who had heard about the clock punishment from other soldiers. He described Swift in an interview yesterday as positive and reliable.
"I couldn't have asked for a better soldier," he said. Unlike some new privates, Swift did not founder, he said. She was "really intelligent and would catch on really easily."
"She never told me she was being harassed or abused in any way while we were in Iraq," he said. Had he known, Thompson said, "I would have told her to make a formal complaint." He added: "She's never lied to me, so if she said something, I would have to believe it was true."
Another woman who was in Swift's unit, who did not want to be identified for fear of retribution, said that the same sergeant also propositioned her during her tour in Iraq. She said she had no doubt it had happened to Swift.
Although Swift did not file a complaint, she confided in her mother during phone calls. Her mother, Sara Rich, said she grew so concerned that she finally phoned her congressman, Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D).
A spokesman for DeFazio said the office's records reflect that Rich phoned in November 2004 to report sexual harassment of her daughter in Iraq and to request help. The office told Rich that it could not help unless Swift signed a privacy waiver.
Swift declined to sign, reminding her mother that she was still under the sergeant's command in Iraq.Handling Situations Privately
Although Army officials said Swift's allegations "could not be substantiated" after a probe that included interviews with 23 soldiers, they said the investigation found that she had reported incidents about two individuals to a noncommissioned officer who said he would support her if she went forward.
When she declined to make formal charges, he "advised her on how to deal with the situation personally," which, the Army said, "ended what she believed to be inappropriate behavior by two individuals."
The accused sergeant she had sex with is now out of the Army.
Swift's allegations also concern an incident after she returned home from Iraq.
While at Fort Lewis, Swift said, another sergeant in her chain of command made a number of lewd comments to her. One day, when she asked him where to report for duty, he told her: "In my bed, naked."
She said that later, in front of her fellow soldiers, he asked her for sex and she told him to shut up, using an expletive. He ordered her to do push-ups. She reported him to the equal opportunity officer.
The sergeant was given a letter of admonishment and reassigned to another unit. In the Army's news release about her case, officials noted how well the complaint process worked in the incident at Fort Lewis.
The way Swift described it, sexual remarks are part of military life--and she heard many of them. But she said there is a distinct difference when it comes from a superior. "The other soldiers don't have power over you," she said.
Since 2005, the Pentagon has stepped up efforts to aid in reporting such incidents -- posting victims' advocates in many units, for example -- but even so, said Kaplan, the Pentagon spokesman, "when you're in Iraq, you're quite spread out," and soldiers in small units may have difficulties.
Swift had been home from Iraq for eight months when word came about a second deployment in January. After she made her decision to not go, her mother took her to a therapist, who diagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder related to the alleged sexual offenses. (Swift said that the Army later told her that based on its evaluation, she showed stress disorder symptoms but did not have the full-blown disorder.)
Her mother also hired a lawyer, who contacted Fort Lewis to try to arrange a discharge. But the Army said it would not negotiate with deserters, according to Swift's mother. In June, Eugene's police department came knocking at her mother's door.
Swift was arrested in the living room of her mother's home.