Female GIs Report Rapes in Iraq War

by Miles Moffeit and Amy Hardy
Denver Post 1/25/04:
Published on Sunday, January 25, 2004 by the Denver Post

Female troops serving in the Iraq war are reporting an insidious enemy in their own camps: fellow American soldiers who sexually assault them.
At least 37 female service members have sought sexual-trauma counseling and other assistance from civilian rape crisis organizations after returning from war duty in Iraq, Kuwait and other overseas stations, The Denver Post has learned. The women, ranging from enlisted soldiers to officers, have reported poor medical treatment, lack of counseling and incomplete criminal investigations by military officials. Some say they were threatened with punishment after reporting assaults.

The Pentagon did not respond to repeated requests for information about the number of sexual assault reports during the conflict. Defense officials would say only that they will not tolerate sexual assault in their ranks.

"Commanders at every level have a duty to take appropriate steps to prevent it, protect victims, and hold those who commit them accountable," according to a written statement from the Pentagon.

Members of Congress told the newspaper they are alarmed by the assault reports, confirming that they have learned of incidents as well.

Colorado Sen. Wayne Allard - a key figure in the investigation of the Air Force Academy rape scandal - said he intends to raise the issue with colleagues on the Senate Armed Services Committee. And two Pennsylvania congressmen, Rep. Joseph Pitts and Sen. Arlen Specter, intervened last month on one rape victim's behalf to bring her home. "Congressman Pitts is extremely concerned," spokesman Derek Karchner said. "We have heard that there were cases that hadn't been reported or were not being investigated."

Senate leaders pledged last year to investigate the military's handling of rape and domestic-violence cases after a Post series found widespread problems in the armed services, including flawed investigations, inadequate victim services and leniency for thousands of soldier sex offenders. Although congressional hearings were called for, none have been scheduled.

Women have served greater combat support roles in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts than ever before, flying fighter jets, serving on patrols and analyzing intelligence data, among other duties. According to a Department of Defense estimate, women represent 10.4 percent of the total forces who were "in theater" between October 2002 and November 2003. A total of 59,742 women have been or are currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. As women have returned from duty overseas in recent months, they have sought help from civilian trauma centers and advocates.

"We have significant concerns about the military's response to sexual assault in the combat zone," said Christine Hansen, executive director of the Connecticut-based Miles Foundation, which has assisted 31 women. "We have concerns that victims are not getting forensic exams. Evidence is not being collected in some cases, and they are not getting medical care and other services."

To protect the soldiers' privacy, the foundation and other victim advocacy organizations contacted by The Post declined to release details of individual cases - such as locations of the attacks or a breakdown of which branch of the military was involved - and revealed only general trends.

Disregard for the victims

Many of the victims are women of high rank. Several are officers. Most were stationed in Kuwait, a common launching point for troops occupying Iraq.

Among the most disturbing trends, say the victim advocates, is a disregard for the women's safety and medical treatment following an assault. Women are being left in the same units as their accused attackers and are not receiving sexual-trauma counseling.

"If you don't even get the victim to a level of medical accessibility, how do you get to anything else, such as evidence collection through forensic exams?" Hansen said. "There appears to be a shortage of criminal justice personnel to help them, too."

The military environment magnifies intense stress for victims, Hansen said.

"Just by virtue of the fact that they have to salute the individual who attacked them adds tremendous emotional trauma."

It could take months or years before a more definitive picture of the prevalence of sexual assault during the war takes shape. Defense Department officials have not disclosed such statistics in the past.

But some surveys have shown high rates of sexual abuse and harassment among women troops during past military conflicts.

Nearly 30 percent of 202 female Vietnam veterans surveyed in 1990 said they experienced a sexual encounter "accompanied by force or threat of force," according to the Congressional Record. And a study of troops in the 1991 Persian Gulf War by Department of Veterans Affairs researchers found that 7 percent of surveyed women reported sexual assaults, while 33 percent reported sexual harassment.

Susan Avila-Smith, a Washington state-based civilian advocate, assisted Danielle, the rape victim who received congressional help to return home. A military intelligence officer who asked that her full name not be used, Danielle was assaulted Nov. 28 while in Kuwait.

She was stationed with her Fort Lewis, Wash., unit at Camp Udairi, about 15 miles from the Iraqi border, for training before deployment to Iraq. She had just finished guard duty at 2:30 a.m. and was stepping into the latrine on the edge of camp when she was hit on the back of her head and knocked unconscious, she said.

She recalled waking to a man raping her: He had tied her hands with cord, stuffed her underwear into her mouth and wrapped cord around her head, as well. He used a knife to slice off her clothes, cutting her in the process. She was blindfolded. When she began to fight, he threatened to cut open her crotch. He then hit her with an object between the eyes, again knocking her unconscious.

When she awoke, the man, who remains unidentified, had left. Danielle said she ran, naked, bleeding and gagging, into camp. A fellow soldier cut the cords binding her hands and mouth and put his coat around her before waking her commanders.

She was driven to an aid station, where a rape examination was performed. She received no other treatment for the injuries to her head, back and knees, she says. After the exam, a commander drove her to another camp, where she was allowed to stay. She was interviewed for about three hours, she said.

For the first few days, Danielle said, a fellow woman soldier from her old camp remained with her. Then the woman had to leave to resume training, and Danielle was left alone. Requests to see the chaplain were denied, and she was not given counseling for sexual trauma.

An investigator scheduled a polygraph exam for her but never followed through. "I was hysterical," she recalled. "There I am, all bruised up and beaten, and somebody in my chain of command wanted me to take a test."

After several more days in isolation, she overdosed on anxiety medication and was hospitalized. Involvement of family and lawmakers enabled her to return to the United States.

Within days of her return, she said, her commanders at Fort Lewis told her to get back to work, even though she still suffered from migraines, blurred vision and pain from back and leg injuries from the assault. Smith, her civilian advocate, intervened, and Danielle was granted leave.

She has been told that a medical discharge could take six months. Meanwhile, she has heard nothing about her case and fears her rapist will return to Fort Lewis. She has requested to be assigned to another base, but so far her request has been refused.

The military's attitude, she said, has been to downplay her assault.

"Just because I came back with all four limbs intact, they're treating me like I'm faking," Danielle said. "I feel like my chain of command betrayed me. I gave four years to that unit, and I feel like it kicked me in the teeth when I was down."

A Fort Lewis spokesman, Jeff Young, said her case is being investigated and that she has received proper health care. "Those who deploy are served well. She received medical treatment both in theater (overseas) and here."

Maj. Shawn Phelps, one of Danielle's commanders, said he could not comment on how her case was handled in Kuwait, but said that, since her return to Fort Lewis, she has received counseling and been given a military victim advocate.

Congressional probe urged

Allard said he plans to inform his colleagues on the Senate Armed Services Committee of The Post's findings on sexual assaults in the war zone. "I have heard of one or two other cases coming forward," Allard said.

The senator also said he would probably suggest expanding planned congressional hearings to cover issues in the military as a whole, not just the Air Force Academy sexual-assault scandal. But he stressed that the decision rests with committee chairman John Warner and Saxby Chambliss, a Georgia senator who heads up the subcommittee on personnel issues.

Hansen of the Miles Foundation said the recent reports add new urgency to the need for a full-scale congressional investigation.

"There should be a sense of alarm that Congress not only needs to be aware of these cases, but what is happening under the criminal justice system" in the military, Hansen said. "Whether it's in Europe or Iraq or back home, it's incumbent upon Congress to examine these issues."

Additional sexual-assault cases could be reported to rape crisis centers as a growing number of deployed troops return home. More than 100,000 military personnel are expected to return during the next few months.

In recent days, Jennifer Bier, a Colorado Springs sexual-trauma therapist, has counseled women soldiers who have been assaulted in the recent war, but citing privacy concerns, did not divulge any information about the cases.

Emotional trauma for the women has been compounded by the war mission, Bier said, because they had no civilian safe havens to turn to after their assaults.

"Such assaults are horrifying by their nature and violate a person at a very core level - their sense of safety," Bier said. "Back home, they can find some safe solace somewhere. But you can't over there."

Post researcher Anne Feiler contributed to this report.
Copyright 2004 The Denver Post