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Troops who report sexual assault face retaliation

A National Guard officer kept her rape secret out of fear. When she came forward she says her fears came true.

The Arkansas hotel room smelled of smoke, and the television news showed footage of troops on patrol in Iraq.

Lt. Col. Teresa James recalls that she focused on the screen's images, rather than on the senior officer who was raping her.

James, a member of the West Virginia National Guard, kept the attack a secret for six years. She was worried she would not be believed, and if she came forward, her career would be derailed.

But when she feared a junior officer might be the man's next victim, James decided it was time to do something.

"I've paid for it ever since," she said.

After she reported the assault, she says, she began to face questions about her suitability as a leader and distrust from her colleagues. Her once-promising career stalled.

James' experience is not an isolated case. In a detailed report to be released Monday, Human Rights Watch says retaliation against military service members who report sexual assaults has contributed to a culture of fear and silence.

The organization's findings, based on interviews with hundreds of service members, provide an unprecedented look at a problem that the Pentagon acknowledges has resisted its efforts at reform, and show the challenge that commanders face in their goal of eliminating sexual assault in the military.

A Defense Department spokeswoman said officials are reviewing Human Rights Watch's findings and have been considering changes to policies to protect victims from retaliation. Spokeswoman Laura Seal said commanders are monitoring cases at monthly meetings for signs of retaliation.

"The department acknowledges that victims coming forward to make reports of sexual assault are crucial to our progress in the fight against sexual assault in the military and we are committed to ensuring that victims are treated fairly," she wrote in an email.

Don Christensen, the former chief prosecutor of the Air Force who now heads the anti-sexual assault group Protect Our Defenders, said many people who report being attacked find "the retaliation was worse than what the crime was."

If the military doesn't solve the problems of retaliation and sexual assault simultaneously, he said, "people will quit coming forward."

The Baltimore Sun does not ordinarily publish the names of victims of sexual assault. James has chosen to speak out.

She says her case was investigated, and a special National Guard office substantiated her allegations, but no charges were brought against the colonel who she says attacked her.

After reporting the assault, James says, she was reassigned, passed over for promotion and had a decoration withheld.

The West Virginia National Guard did not respond to a request for comment on the case. Messages left for the man James says assaulted her were not returned.

James says a part of her regrets reporting the assault. Another part thinks that's selfish.

Commanders say eliminating sexual assault is a high priority. The Pentagon recently reported that the number of service members who were assaulted had declined in 2014, while the number reporting assaults had climbed.

But retaliation remained pervasive, the Pentagon reported, with 62 percent of female victims saying they suffered consequences after filing a report. That figure has not budged over time.

"We're not making enough progress on countering retaliation," Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter said when the figures were released. "Too many service members, the data shows, feel that when they report or try to stop these crimes, they're being ostracized or retaliated against."

Former Air Force Capt. Maribel Jarzabek a lawyer who represented victims of sexual assault, said she had to walk her clients through the possible consequences of filing a report. She carefully vetted their behavior and experiences for any actions for which they might themselves be punished as retaliation for reporting.

"A lot of them had to make decisions," she said. "Some of them regretted reporting because of how they were treated."

Jarzabek became a critic of the response to sexual assault and left the military last year.

Human Rights Watch lays out a detailed picture of what that backlash against victims looks like. Service members reported facing alienation from other members of their units, poor performance evaluations and formal disciplinary proceedings.

In many cases, victims were also violating military rules when they were assaulted, so reporting the crime exposed them to criminal charges themselves.

"The threat of prosecution for collateral charges, even if the charges are not pursued, can be enough to convince victims not to report or to leave the service, and gives perpetrators cover for their crimes," the report's authors wrote.

They recommend that the department provide victims with immunity from minor offenses that are revealed in the course of reporting a sexual assault.

Christensen, a retired Air Force colonel, said even seemingly minor retaliation — colleagues refusing to sit with a victim at lunch, for example — can be serious for troops stationed overseas or at isolated bases, and who in some cases have to trust their comrades with their lives.

"For the DOD to downplay the social retaliation is … very offensive," he said. "To be excluded from your coworkers because you reported a sexual assault is huge."

While there are legal avenues open to service members to take action against people who retaliate against them, Human Rights Watch's researchers concluded they were mostly ineffective.

The Defense Department's inspector general is empowered to launch investigations into retaliation. But the office rarely does so, the researchers said, and has not substantiated a single claim in recent years.

James says a complaint she filed with the inspector general two years ago is still open. The office declined to comment on her case.

A law designed to protect military whistleblowers is so weak that it is essentially useless, the researchers say. Victims are required to demonstrate that they were retaliated against — a significant departure from civilian whistleblower cases, in which the burden of proof is mostly shifted to the accused.

The authors recommend changing that law and giving new powers to the inspector general.

James is now a few weeks away from retiring. With counseling, she says, she's managed to come to terms with her experience, and feels there's nothing more her comrades in the National Guard can do to hurt her.

"I am in such a better place today than I was two years ago, but it's not about me," she said. "If there's something that I can do, that I can say that will help change this process, that it will help one person to get through something like this, that's what it's about for me today."

iduncan@baltsun.com

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