By Nan Levinson
When Panayiota Bertzikis tried to tell her commanding officers that she had been raped in May 2006 by a shipmate four months into her tour at the Burlington, Vt., Coast Guard Station, they discouraged her from talking to an Equal Opportunity officer, barred her from seeing a civilian therapist, ignored a written confession from her attacker and browbeat her into silence.
But thanks to victims-turned-activists like Bertzikis who are pulling military sexual trauma (MST) out from the shadows, it’s become harder for the U.S. military to ignore the problem. In February, Bertzikis, along with 14 other women and two men, filed a lawsuit (Cioca et al. v. Rumsfeld and Gates) charging Defense Secretary Robert Gates and his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, with mishandling their sexual assault cases.
MST is an epidemic. Nearly a quarter of women serving in combat areas say they have been sexually assaulted by fellow soldiers. But everyone agrees that reliable statistics don’t exist. The Pentagon, which recorded 3,158 cases of sexual assault in 2010, estimates that only about 14 percent of all incidents are reported.
Back in 2006, when Bertzikis went online after her rape to look for help, she found almost no information. But when she blogged about her experience, stories similar to hers poured in. In response, Bertzikis—who left the Coast Guard in 2007 and is now 29—set up the Military Rape Crisis Center in Cambridge, Mass. She estimates the organization has provided 6,200 people with counseling, legal advocacy and case management—along with the assurance that they are not alone.
Susan Burke, the attorney in Washington, D.C., who initiated the lawsuit, says, “The military is woefully mishandling these cases all the time.” Intending to file what she calls “a reform lawsuit,” she sought plaintiffs through advocacy groups, including the Crisis Center.
Their allegations are not easy reading. The plaintiffs report being spat on, grabbed at, masturbated over, stripped, drugged, stalked, beaten and raped. One rapist took photos; another videotaped the event. (That tape was later used as evidence against the victim because, she was told, it showed that she “did not struggle enough.”) When victims’ reported the abuse, their commanders ignored them, insisted the sex was consensual or a result of drinking, and ordered them not to pursue action because it would ruin their attacker’s career. In a world where rank is everything, those raped were generally low-level, while their rapists were often their superiors. The plaintiffs report being forced to continue working under their attackers’ supervision or to live nearby.
By the Pentagon’s reckoning, fewer than 21 percent of reported cases make it to court martial and only a little over half of those result in convictions. In the ultimate insult, as a result of their trauma, many MST victims are deemed unfit to serve and were kicked out of the military. “Every case I get,” says Bertzikis, “they blame the victim, the perpetrator never gets punished and the survivor is the one who ends up losing her career.”
Because the military investigates itself, there is little incentive to deal with a problem that makes everyone look bad. In civilian life, of course, most rapes also go unreported and most assailants don’t spend time in prison. But because enlistees cannot just walk away, the aftermath of an unpunished assault in the military can often be more traumatic for victims. Commanders have control over an enlistee’s career, living situation, safety, medical care and community standing. When a rape survivor is forced to confront her attacker daily, Bertzikis says, “The only options out are going AWOL or suicide.”
It may not be possible for civilians to change military culture, but they can create oversight and accountability. In April, a pair of legislators re-introduced a bill to do just that. The Defense STRONG Act, co-sponsored by Reps. Niki Tsongas (D-Mass.) and Mike Turner (R-Ohio), would guarantee access to a military lawyer, allow victims to transfer from where the assault happened, ensure confidentiality of communication with advocates and counselors, give teeth to the Pentagon’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office and institute effective rape prevention training, which now seems to focus on telling service women how to avoid getting raped. The Holley Lynn James Act, written by Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa) with the help of SWAN, would go further by creating a system of independent oversight; MST cases would go to military court automatically.
The bills’ prospects remain uncertain, but the lawsuit, along with some horrific high-profile cases, has focused attention on pervasive sexual trauma in the U.S. military. “There’s a groundswell,” says Anu Bhagwati, executive director of the advocacy group Service Women’s Action Network and a former Marine captain. “The epidemic is widely known, so Congress can’t afford to ignore it any longer.”