Maj. Gen. Gary Patton faces the daunting task of ending the epidemic. "There's no single silver bullet," he says. But the fact that Secretary of Defense Panetta recently put Patton in charge of the DOD's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office is one of the encouraging signs that the military may finally be taking this issue seriously. Patton, who served as an infantry officer for 34 years, including 45 months of combat duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, spent a year implementing the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," a cultural shift of such magnitude that Marine Corps commandant Gen. James Amos had predicted disastrous, even fatal results. (Instead, the repeal went so smoothly that Amos said last summer, "I'm very pleased with how it's turned out.") Patton has also staked out some cultural change on very personal terrain, having gone public with his own PTSD in an effort to encourage troops to seek mental-health help.
"To make real cultural change it has to start from the top down," says Patton, and because attitudes and orders in the military flow downhill, that buy-in from the leadership is crucial. That was a lesson learned from an early turning point of the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," when the then-Joint Chiefs of Staff endorsed the move. "Adm. [Mike] Mullen said it was a matter of integrity: that for years we required service members to lie about their sexual orientation, but integrity is one of our core values," says Patton. "And in hindsight I think that turned the tide." Accordingly, newly intensive sex-assault prevention training has focused on commanders, reframing the issue of rape as not merely a crime but an act that threatens the stability and cohesion of a unit. "Cohesion is such an important part of readiness," says Patton. "So when we look at the crime of sexual assault, it's also an affront to our military values."
Those trainings are going on in tandem with a host of other attempts at reform. New training programs for investigators and JAGs are under way, and special victims units are being made available to consult with local teams. In response to the Lackland scandal and under heavy pressure from Congress – which, catalyzed by last year's Oscar-nominated documentary The Invisible War, was already taking renewed interest in military sexual assault – Panetta has ordered a sweeping review of all basic training protocols, across all armed forces. He has also tinkered with the current system of "command disposition" – though he opted not to overturn the practice of commander interference in sex-crime cases, but instead moved the decision-making authority to commanders higher up the chain. It's a good start, but many experts think sexual-assault cases need to be taken out of the chain of command altogether and put into the hands of an impartial judiciary, in a manner more resembling the civilian system. The military brass, however, is adamant that their policy not be tampered with, insisting that command involvement is crucial.
That reluctance to rethink tradition is why outside pressure will be key to a successful anti-rape campaign. Indeed, most radical new changes on behalf of military sexual-assault victims have originated not from the Pentagon but from Congress, who tacked a record 19 sex-assault provisions onto this year's National Defense Authorization Act. Among the most notable is Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand's amendment compelling all branches of the military to expel all convicted sex offenders. In addition, Sen. Barbara Boxer's amendment will bar the military from granting waivers for recruits who are convicted of a felony sex offense – something the military did, in violation of its stated zero-tolerance policy, until 2009. "Now it's statute, it can't be reversed, and that does send a message about zero tolerance," says Boxer. "But believe me, this battle is far from over."
After waiting more than a year for the results of her rape investigation, the end came swiftly for Rebecca Blumer in April 2011, when she found herself sitting across a desk from a new rape investigator – the old one had been transferred. But the new agent assured her that she'd read through Blumer's file, and had just one question about her assault: "Do you think you could have imagined it?" she asked. Blumer seethed.
"She was blatantly calling me a liar," she recalls. Within days the JAG informed Blumer that the investigation had concluded there was no evidence that her assault had taken place. (Blumer says the NCIS agent later told her over the phone, "We closed it because we don't have any leads to go on," not for lack of an assault.) Found guilty by default of a DUI, Blumer was discharged from the Navy 10 days later. Instead of receiving her final paycheck on her way out, Blumer says she was handed a bill for $14,000 – re-enlistment bonus money she now owed for the three years remaining on her Navy contract.
Despondent, nearly friendless after being deserted by most of her Navy colleagues, and without a plan, Blumer drifted to San Antonio in pursuit of a military-contractor job that never materialized. She'd spent her adult life within the regimented structure of the military; having to fend for herself, Blumer fell through the cracks. She spent the next seven months homeless. In this, Blumer's fate isn't unusual. A study by Veterans Administration researchers has found that up to 53 percent of homeless women veterans have been victims of Military Sexual Trauma.
"After my assault, and the 14 months of the investigation, and then being thrown out, I was just completely re-traumatized by the world," Blumer says through tears from her apartment in Houston. "I had nowhere to go. No one to talk to. I mean, I just lost all hope." She'd stay in cheap motels until her unemployment check ran out, then slept on buses, on the streets or on strangers' couches. She tried renting a room from a nice-seeming couple, but one night they barged in and tried to tear off her clothes; Blumer fought them off and fled. She began carrying a knife for protection. "I had been turned into a fighter," she says. At one point, Blumer checked herself into the VA hospital for suicidal thoughts. She still has nightmares of being violently attacked, and wonders if they're suppressed memories of the night of her assault, or whether her mind is trying to fill in that terrible blank. "I may not ever really know what happened to me that night," she says. She hasn't had a sip of alcohol since.
In the past year or so, Blumer's been getting it together. She's sharing an apartment with her new fiance, whom she met while still homeless. One of her coping strategies for life on the city streets had been to clean herself up enough and go to nightclubs where she could find refuge till the early morning. She met John in one club, and he was surprised to discover he'd been chatting up a street urchin. "Turns out we get along, and we fell in love," Blumer says. She recently landed a job working in a furniture showroom, where she was awarded Employee of the Month. When she gets letters from collection agencies on behalf of the DOD, Blumer puts them in a box and doesn't look at them again. "Yeah, I'm doing good," she says, her voice faint. It's a far cry from the life of adventure she'd envisioned – traveling the globe, cracking secret codes for her country – but right now, she'd be satisfied just to feel normal again. When Blumer thinks back on her younger self, so full of pride and optimism, ready to live a life of consequence, she bitterly wants to laugh at that ignorant girl who thought the service to which she swore an oath would in turn protect her.
"I loved everything about the Navy," she says. "Now I hate it."
This story is from the February 14th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.
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