Sen. Murray, survivors talk about assault

Veterans join lawmaker to call for action on sex attacks in military

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Tacoma — Former Marine Cpl. Angela Arellano felt like the criminal after she reported being raped by an enlisted supervisor.

Her attacker walked away with no repercussions. She, on the other hand, stood accused of making a false statement against a fellow Marine. Her command docked her pay two months and assigned her extra duty.

The lopsided investigation “made me feel worse than the actual incident,” Arellano, 39, said, remembering the attack 20 years ago.

The Tumwater resident spoke at a Friday news conference in Seattle supporting Washington Democratic Sen. Patty Murray’s effort to reform the way the military responds to sexual assault complaints.

Murray and New Hampshire Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte are carrying a bill to provide more protections for victims who fear retaliation if they report sexual abuse in the ranks, just as Arellano experienced during her five years with the Marines.

The bill would appoint victim advocates and in some cases take sexual assault prosecutions out of the military’s typical chain of command to prevent bias from influencing cases.

“It is absolutely unconscionable” that service members are sexually abused by people they trust in uniform, Murray said.

She’s pushing for reforms as the Defense Department steps up efforts to police itself on sexual assault. It released a report last month showing a rise in reported sexual assaults across all services to 3,374 cases, from 3,192 in 2011.

The military acknowledges that most sexual assaults go unreported, and it estimates that 26,000 service members faced unwanted sexual contact last year.

“The prevalence of this crime is astonishing,” Murray said.

At the same time, the military saw a string of embarrassing incidents including the arrest of the Air Force’s chief sexual assault prevention officer on charges of sexual assault, an Army sexual abuse educator’s arrest on charges of running a prostitution ring, and two Air Forces cases in which senior officers gave clemency to men convicted of sexual assault.

It’s hard to get precise numbers of sexual assaults because so many cases go unreported for years after service members leave the Armed Forces, said Joyce Wipf, director of women’s programs at the Department of Veterans Affairs Puget Sound.

About 40 percent of female patients seen at the Puget Sound VA over the past three years report having experienced sexual trauma during their military service, Wipf said. In addition, 2 percent of male patients have experienced it, she said.

Both figures are double the percentage the local VA offices expected to see based on national studies.

“I am concerned that the prevalence of military sexual trauma is actually much higher than the national figures,” Wipf said.

At Joint Base Lewis-McChord, the Army has been taking steps to increase reporting of sexual assaults. It’s requiring soldiers to watch “The Invisible War,” a 2012 military sexual assault documentary, and in some cases bringing victims to the base to speak to groups of soldiers.

Victims have the option of reporting the crime in such a way that their chain of command will learn of the assaults, or in a manner that connects them with social services but does not alert their leadership.

Victims also can request transfer to other units. Four victims at the base have taken that course this year.

The Army puts brigade commanders on the spot to report how their units respond to sexual assaults, said Col. Ruben Rodriguez, who leads the base’s Sexual Harassment/Assault Prevention and Response Program.

Rodriguez thinks the attention is paying off with more reports of sexual harassment that commanders might have ignored in the past, such as pinching someone’s buttocks. “Those are things that are going to help us change the culture in the military,” he said.

Murray and some of her supporters who joined her Friday want to see more than new messages to service members.

Former Army Spc. Nichole Bowen of Seattle, 34, said she kept quiet about the persistent sexual harassment she felt during her deployment to Iraq in 2003. She said she was propositioned almost every day. “Every day on the deployment was a rape threat,” she said.

Both she and Arellano said the effects of the unwanted sexual contact haunt them years later.

“It’s a constant struggle,” Arellano said. “I want to say it’ll go away, but it won’t.”