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Military Fails to Protect Service Members from Rape— Class Action Lawsuit filed against the Pentagon

By Ann Wright

On February 15, 2011, the Pentagon was slammed with a class action lawsuit ( filed by 15 women and 2 men who are victims and survivors of rape in the military. Filed in the Eastern District of Northern Virginia by attorney Susan Burke (http://www.burkepllc. com/firm/press-releases-detail.php?id=73&select_year=2011), the lawsuit contends that Donald Rumsfeld and Robert Gates, as Secretaries of the Department of Defense, “failed to investigate rapes and sexual assaults, failed to prosecute perpetrators, failed to provide an adequate judicial system as required by the Uniform Military Justice Act and failed to abide by Congressional deadlines to implement Congressionally-ordered institutional reforms to stop rapes and other sexual assaults.”

The lawsuit also states that the Department of Defense “ran institutions in which perpetrators were promoted and where military personnel openly mocked and flouted the modest Congressionally-mandated institutional reforms… victims were openly subjected to retaliation, encouraged to refrain from reporting rapes and sexual assaults in a manner that would have permitted prosecution and ordered to keep quiet and not tell anyone about the criminal acts of their work colleagues.”

Because of the hostile environment in the military itself for reporting rapes or sexual assaults, the Department of Defense in its 2009 Annual Report on Sexual Assaults in the Military ( estimated that “only 20 percent of service members who experience ‘unwanted sexual contact’ report the matter to a military authority.” The lawsuit contends that considering DOD’s admission, the more accurate numbers of rape and sexual assault in 2006 increased from the reported 2,947 to 14,735. In 2007 the numbers would have increased from 2,668 to 13,440, in 2008 from 2,908 to 14,540 and in 2009 the increase would have been from 3,230 to 16,150.

The 2009 report also acknowledged that retaliation against those who report rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment is widespread and that military personnel do not report rape and sexual assault because doing so is perceived as having “lasting career and security clearance repercussions.”

The lawsuit also contends that the Department of Defense allowed unit commanders to use non-judicial punishment for allegations involving rapes, sexual assaults and sexual harassment. Additionally, when cases went to military court-martial only 8 percent of those alleged to have engaged in rape or sexual assault were prosecuted compared to the civilian court system which prosecutes 40 percent of those alleged to be perpetrators.

Secretary of Defense and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Respond

During the House of Representatives Armed Services committee hearing on the military budget on February 16, 2011, Congressman Silvestre Reyes (D) of Texas asked Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen about the lawsuit.

Gates responded that he has “zero tolerance” for rape and sexual assault and said the military has spent $2 million to better train military prosecutors to handle rape cases. He added that the military has expanded the number of sexual assault prevention and response volunteers from 300 to 3,000, and now has one person designated for each unit, battalion or higher. Gates said that the prosecution rate of alleged perpetrators has increased from 30 percent to 52 percent.

Mullen commented that “it is unacceptable that we are not where we need to be on this issue. Anecdotal evidence concerns me. We must focus on leadership. We have significant work to do.” (

No Consolation for Father of Marine Carri Goodwin

Comments of “Zero tolerance” and “we have significant work to do” from the highest ranking civilian and military leaders in the Department of Defense are little consolation for Gary Noling from Alliance, Ohio. Noling attended the February 15 press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, where the details of the lawsuit were made public.

Noling’s daughter Carri Goodwin enlisted in the Marine Corps in August, 2007 at the age of 18. While at Pendleton Marine Base, California, Carri was raped by a Marine in her unit. She was bullied by her command for reporting a rape and the Marines forced her out with a personality disorder diagnosis.

She did not tell her family she had been raped and had received no support or assistance from her command. She did not tell them she was taking Zoloft, a drug for anxiety.

Mr. Noling said that he noticed Carri was drinking heavily when she returned from the Marine Corps. Five days after she returned home to Alliance, Ohio, underage at 20 after two years in the Marine Corps, Carri went drinking with her older sister. The drug Zoloft reportedly interacted with the alcohol and she ended up dead that night with a blood alcohol content of .46, six times the legal limit.

Later in going through her possessions, her family found journals that described the rape and how the Marine Corps treated her after she reported it. (

In a series of events spiraling downward for Carrie’s entire family as a result of her rape, Carri’s sister and a friend, Lori Osterland woman were charged with involuntary manslaughter for furnishing alcohol to an underage person. During the trial, Carri’s mother approached Osterland in the courtroom and yelled "she killed my daughter.” Carri’s mother was charged with felony counts of misdemeanor assault, intimidation of a witness and obstruction of official business. Carri’s sister was sentenced to probation and Carri’s mother served 3 months in jail. Carrie’s father spent over $10,000 in lawyers’ fees in the events that began with Carrie’s rape in the Marine Corps. (,0,2048128.story)

According to Mr. Noling, Carri’s rapist was accused of another rape at Camp Pendleton in 2006. The rapist received non-judicial punishment for raping Carri. He is still in the Marine Corps.

“We must focus on Leadership”

Mullen’s statement “We must focus on leadership” rings true to Anu Bhagwati, former Marine Corps Captain and now Executive Director of the Service Women’s Action Network (

Bhagwati stated during the February 15 press conference, that she “witnessed my own senior officers violate sexual harassment and sexual assault policies, shirk their responsibilities to their own troops and lie to families by ignoring reports of abuse, transfer sexual predators out of their unites instead of prosecuting them, promote sexual predators during ongoing investigations, and accuse highly decorated enlisted service members of lying about their abuse, simply because they were women. Any attempt to hold these officers accountable was met with threats and retaliation. I saw some of the nation’s finest service members left the military after their abuse and betrayal, while their perpetrators and the officers who willingly protected them to this day remain in uniform.”

Bhagwati also said that “the vast majority of victims are junior enlisted. In an institution where rank and chain of command determine your every move, sexual predators often exert power and violence over those with the least amount of rank. There are well-founded reasons that so few women and men report the crimes committed against them. Reporting sexual assault and sexual harassment in the military is brutally intimidating at best, and a death sentence at worst. Perpetrators often guarantee a victim’s silence by threat of retaliation. Unsympathetic commanders who fail to protect survivors are all too common. Often times, it is commanders who are complicit in cover-ups of these cases.”

Need for Registry of Sexual Offenders in the Military

Bhagwati challenges Secretary of Defense Gate’s statistics on the number of prosecutions of alleged rapists and calls for a registry of sexual predators in the military, “As for punishment, fewer than one in five sexual predators ever see the inside of a courtroom. Most walk away with slaps on the wrist, instead of jail time. We know that sexual predators are often serial offenders, and yet, the military not only fails to prosecute and convict most of them, it also fails to provide a sexual offender registry to civilian authorities, allowing military perpetrators to continue preying upon victims in civilian communities across the country.”

About the Author:

US Army Reserve Colonel, Retired, Ann Wright is a 29-year veteran of the Army and Army Reserves. She was also a US diplomat in Nicaragua, Grenada, Somalia, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Sierra Leone, Micronesia, Afghanistan and Mongolia. She resigned from the US Department of State in March 19, 2003, in opposition to the Iraq War. She is the co-author of "Dissent: Voices of Conscience."


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