Meeting with a military investigator for the first time, a sexual-assault victim might imagine she's confiding in a neutral party whose only interest is obtaining justice. Not so, says former Sgt. Myla Haider, who spent three years in the Army Criminal Investigative Division, and while investigating rape reports discovered that her fellow agents were "contemptuous" of sex-assault complainants. "The attitude was, 'She's probably lying.' Our job was basically to get the truth out of her and figure out why she's full of shit," says Haider, who was stunned to encounter an atmosphere so openly skeptical about rape. "People would say among themselves, 'Real rapes almost never happen.' 'I've never worked a real rape, it's just bullshit.' "
The instinct, says Haider, was to blame the victim: Was the woman wearing sexy clothes? Was she drunk? Was she flirtatious? Haider recalls one case in which an 18-year-old soldier was gang-raped by fellow troops while she lay passed out drunk. "The special agent in charge was, 'Why did she drink so much alcohol? Why was she even at the party?' " Had CID agents like Haider received better training about sexual assault, they might have known that faked rape reports are rare – between 2 and 8 percent – and that nearly three-quarters of rape victims are acquainted with their attackers. What's more, in heavy-drinking populations like colleges and the armed services, alcohol plays a part in three-quarters of sexual assaults. "The training was really about stranger rape," says Kimberly Lonsway, a researcher for End Violence Against Women International who now teaches Army investigator courses. "And then you go to work and get a case of acquaintance rape, and it doesn't match what you've been taught."
In the hierarchical culture of the military, there's another complicating factor. According to a recent DOD report, sexual assaults in the armed services generally involve men who outrank their victims, the vast majority of whom are women under the age of 25, who feel that as subordinates, they can't fight back.
"He was my superior," explains former marine Nicole McCoy of why, when in April 2010 her alleged assailant groped and kissed her, it didn't occur to her to scream or, despite her combat training, to fight. "You're taught to be nothing but respectful. It makes it hard to stand up for yourself, or to report it." McCoy was able to extricate herself, but decided to report the assault attempt when she realized her assailant had the master key to her quarters. The investigating agent asked McCoy whether she sustained injuries while fighting off her superior's advances. "No," she answered. "But emotionally I felt completely violated and didn't feel I had the right to say no and have him stop." The agent persisted, asking McCoy why she'd followed the sergeant into his room, why she didn't object when he closed the door, and what she'd been wearing. Her case was swiftly closed.
That helplessness in the face of rank has been a hallmark of some of last year's most sensational headlines. It was the theme of Lackland Air Force Base's instructor-trainee scandal, in which predatory instructors would reportedly select victims at the start of basic training, some as young as 17, and assign them duties where they would be alone. At the court-martial of Staff Sgt. Luis Walker – who was convicted of assaulting 10 women – a recruit described that when Walker began undressing her, she saw no alternative but submission: "I just let it happen to me."
In the case of Army Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair, a captain who had had an affair with the 50-year-old married man testified in a November evidentiary hearing that she was honored when the relationship began: "I was extremely intimidated by him. Everybody in the brigade spoke about him like he was a god." But when she tried to break off the three-year affair with her commanding general, she testified, he threatened to kill her, and twice ended the conversation by forcing her to give him oral sex. A prosecutor asked whether the general was aware she didn't want to participate. "Yes, I was crying," the woman answered. Sinclair is also accused of making demoralizing comments about female staff officers; when challenged, he allegedly replied, "I'm a general, I'll do whatever the fuck I want."
With witnesses rare, sex-crime cases inevitably become "he said, she said" credibility contests, further stacking the deck against subordinate victims, since higher-ranking troops are considered inherently more credible. Hard-driving soldiers with pristine military records – "water walkers" – are especially immune to criticism. "There's a belief that if this guy is a fabulous performer, then it makes him less likely to commit this crime," says defense attorney Bridget Wilson. (The notion that a "good soldier" is incapable of bad acts is even encoded into the military justice system with the "Good Soldier" defense, wherein at court-martial a soldier can win an acquittal on the strength of his service record – a defense famously used in the 1998 sexual misconduct case of Army Sgt. Maj. Gene McKinney to successfully counteract the testimony of six women.) In the case of Lt. Elle Helmer, she reported her 2006 rape by a well-regarded major so promptly that he was still passed out and pantsless at the scene of the crime. But then, she says, "They circled their wagons and turned against me." Helmer's rape kit mysteriously disappeared, and investigators dismissed her case – because she was knocked unconscious during the struggle, and so couldn't remember the assault itself.
Myla Haider, the former CID investigator, says that even agents who disagreed with these antiquated attitudes and heavy-handed techniques were pressured to toe the party line: When she raised objections, Haider says she was mocked as an overly sensitive "social worker" and threatened with insubordination. "Understand, they think they're doing the right thing," says Haider. "They don't see it as mishandling the case, or traumatizing this victim. They see it as, they're making sure some innocent service member's career doesn't go down the drain because some lying whore filed a report." That's why when Haider herself was raped by a fellow CID agent, she chose not to report it – a decision supported by the agents she confided in. "Nothing good could come from it," she says.
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