Alarms on sex assaults in military

Tsongas helps win law on handling of cases

By Bryan Bender
Globe Staff / January 3, 2011

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WASHINGTON — Soon after she arrived in Congress three years ago, Representative Niki Tsongas attended a luncheon in the Capitol honoring wounded soldiers. The Lowell Democrat, chatting with a military nurse who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan, heard something that shocked and motivated her.

“She made the astonishing statement to me that she was more fearful of our own soldiers than she was of the enemy,’’ Tsongas recalled in an interview.

Tsongas, a member of the Armed Services Committee, embarked on a mission to protect the rising number of troops who report being sexually assaulted by fellow soldiers — a campaign that paid off with recent passage of legislation aimed at improving the Pentagon’s handling of rape and sexual abuse cases.

The measures force the military to adopt a better system for reporting and documenting sexual assaults, mandate that a single official have responsibility for making sure complaints are handled properly, and require the Department of Defense to devise ways of offering legal counsel to all victims, whether or not they want to report an assault.

“The military services have worked hard to address the issue, but we hear of the failings, especially the way in which victims are treated,’’ Tsongas said. “The numbers are alarming.’’

The Pentagon says there were 3,230 reported sexual assaults involving military members in fiscal year 2009. That was an 11 percent increase from 2008, according to the statistics.

At the military service academies — West Point and the Air Force and Naval academies — there were 41 reports of sexual assault involving cadets and midshipmen during the 2009-2010 academic year.

At the same time, military officials estimate that as much as 90 percent of sexual assaults in the ranks go unreported. According to the Government Accountability Office, many victims remain silent because they fear ridicule or believe that no action will be taken.

As the military nurse whom Tsongas encountered three years ago asserted, many victims feel they have little recourse within the military hierarchy and fear they will be ostracized by fellow soldiers if they file complaints.

Those familiar with the issue contend the problem has grown more prevalent with the share of women in the ranks. Women now constitute 15 percent of the armed forces, including up to 20 percent of new recruits, according to Pentagon statistics.

Women in the military are twice as likely to be victims of sexual assault as their civilian counterparts, studies show, while sexual abuse is the leading cause of post-traumatic stress disorder among female soldiers.

The phenomenon has sparked a host of new advocacy groups, including the Cambridge-based Military Rape Crisis Center, which offers counseling to victims of military sexual assault.

“They were not taking my allegations seriously,’’ said Panayiota Bertzikis of Somerville, who founded the group in 2006 after she reported to her superiors in the Coast Guard that she had been beaten and raped by a man in her unit. “They kind of blamed the victim.’’

Bertzikis said she and the alleged perpetrator were interviewed, but then the case was dropped.

The new measures pushed by Tsongas, which were contained in a defense spending bill, came just days after the Pentagon was sued in federal court in Connecticut to release documents that rights activists hope will provide more details on the extent of sexual trauma in the ranks and how it is being handled.

The suit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut and the Service Women’s Action Network. It seeks data on sexual assault cases brought before courts-martial, along with how they were adjudicated, as well as more basic information such as where the Pentagon stores reports on sexual harassment and domestic violence complaints.

“We are trying to get a full picture — how incidents are reported, what kinds of investigations occur, the number of courts-martial, or the kind of nonjudicial proceedings taking place,’’ said Sandra Park, a staff attorney at the Women’s Rights Project of the ACLU.

Tsongas says that getting a full accounting of the problem is a key goal of the legislation she championed.

“There is a lack of consistency that has in itself led to great confusion,’’ Tsongas said. “They need to have a more consistent approach across all services. Without it, it is very hard to monitor and have good oversight.’’

The Pentagon says it is being vigilant and has taken significant steps to address the problem in recent years. Four years ago it created the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office to implement prevention programs across the ranks. In 2009 it established a special task force to study the issue and make recommendations on how to more systematically address the problem.

Last month Clifford L. Stanley, the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, said sexual harassment and assault are “incompatible with our core values, degrade mission readiness, and reflect poorly on military culture.’’

“The department is committed to establishing a culture free of sexual harassment and assault at the academies, and for the force in general,’’ Stanley added.

But Tsongas maintains there is still a long way to go. One measure that she has pushed that has not yet been enacted is a requirement to provide legal advice to all alleged victims, including those who wish to remain anonymous. So far she has been unsuccessful in advancing such a law; the legislation passed in December only requires the Pentagon to study the feasibility of doing so.

“Confidentiality and access to a lawyer are still very, very important going forward,’’ she said.

Bryan Bender can be reached at top stories on Twitter

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