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The Rape of Petty Officer Blumer

Inside the military's culture of sex abuse, denial and cover-up

February 14, 2013
The Rape of Petty Officer Blumer
Photograph in Illustration Courtesy of Rebecca Blumer

The first thing Petty Officer 2nd Class Rebecca Blumer realized upon waking was that she was freezing cold and naked. The second thing was that her body ached all over. Blumer groggily scanned the unfamiliar room for clues. She saw a concrete floor splotched with vomit, a metal door and a window onto a hallway, where a woman in an orange jumpsuit was sweeping.

"Where am I?" Blumer called hoarsely.

"Richmond County jail," the inmate told her.

Blumer shivered. "I need to see a doctor," she whispered.

The woman nodded. "You've been screaming that all night."

Blumer sat back in shock. She was a normally cheerful 23-year-old Navy intelligence analyst stationed at Fort Gordon, a vast Army base of 15,000 military employees in Augusta, Georgia. Blumer, whose job was to sift through top-secret data, was part of a thousand-­member naval unit. The night before, February 12th, 2010, she and some friends had gone to a bar not far from base for a couple of beers. Three Army guys – one with light hair, the other two dark-haired – had sent Blumer a shot of Jägermeister, a drink she didn't care much for but had downed anyway. The light-haired man had rounded the bar to talk to her. The last thing ­Blumer remembered was being overwhelmed by a dizzy, sluggish feeling, her limbs and head too heavy to lift, the ­noises in the bar rising up and caving in on her. Only later would Blumer find out the rest: that at 1:40 a.m., police had noticed her driving with her headlights off. That she'd barely been able to stand upright during her field sobriety test, but when placed under arrest she'd gone berserk, trying to break free of the police car and screaming incoherently. In jail, she'd yelled for a doctor and fought with the cops so ­wildly that she'd been hosed down in an effort to quiet her. Now, crouching in her cell with a swollen jaw; bruises smudging her wrists, ankles and neck; her abdomen sore inside; and her lower back and buttocks afire with what felt like rug burn, it dawned on ­Blumer. She'd been roofied and raped.

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She was desperate to get back to the safety of Fort Gordon. "I need to go to the hospital," a panicked Blumer told the master-at-arms when he arrived to return her to base. Sitting in the car wearing the previous night's turtleneck and jeans, Blumer reminded herself that she was in good hands. She came from a long military tradition; while in the cavalry, her great-grandfather had once been stationed at this very base. So Blumer was confused when, arriving at Fort Gordon, the master-­at-arms drove her not to the military hospital but to the Judge Advocate General's offices, where a half-dozen members of her chain of command were ­solemnly waiting in their black dress uniforms to discipline her for driving under the influence.

Blumer, a standout sailor with an unblemished record, was sure she could clear things up. She wrote a statement in the crowded office that described her suspicions about what had actually occurred, and her urgent need for medical attention. Then she obediently left the room so her superiors could discuss the matter. When she was allowed in a few minutes later, Blumer was told that she would be taken to the hospital – but with orders only for a toxicology report, to see if there really were date-rape drugs in her system. "Whether you get a rape kit is up to you," the female JAG prosecutor cautiously told Blumer, who struggled to make sense of what was happening: The military she'd trusted to care for her wasn't interested in caring for her at all. She was even more shaken by the JAG's jarring question later on: "Did you inflict your injuries yourself?"

The implication floored Blumer. "How could anyone even think that I would do that to myself?" she says now. It was ­Blumer's first glimpse of a hidden side of military culture, in which rapes, and the sweeping aside of rapes, happen with disturbing regularity. And it was her first sense of what lay in store after coming forward as a military rape victim: that she would be treated with suspicion by those charged with helping her, penalized by command and ostracized by her unit. "Once my assault happened," Blumer says, "my whole future disappeared."

The scandal of rape in the U.S. Armed Forces, across all of its uniformed ser­vices, has become inescapable. Last year saw the military's biggest sex-abuse scandal in a decade, when an investigation at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio revealed that 32 basic-training instructors preyed on at least 59 recruits. In Fort Bragg, North Carolina, Army Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair is currently facing court-martial for sex-crimes charges, including forcible sodomy, for alleged misconduct against five women. In October, an Air Force technical sergeant filed an administrative complaint describing a work environment of comprehensive harassment – in which all women are "bitches"; and claimed that during a routine meeting in a commander's office, she was instructed to take off her blouse and "relax" – edged with menace and punctuated by violent assaults. In December, a Department of Defense report revealed that rape is rampant at the nation's military academies, where 12 percent of female cadets experienced "unwanted sexual contact." And an explosive series of federal lawsuits filed against top DOD brass on behalf of 59 ­service members (including Rebecca Blumer) allege that the leadership has done nothing to stop the cycle of rape and ­impunity – and that by failing to condemn sexual assault, the military has created a predators' playground.

"Sexual assaults make up the fabric of daily American military life," says former Marine Capt. Anu Bhagwati, executive director of the advocacy group Service Women's Action Network. Research suggests that one out of every three women in the U.S. military is the victim of sexual assault, making military women twice as likely to be raped as civilians. (Victims are disproportionately female, given that women make up less than 15 percent of the military, but men are victimized, too: More than 40 percent of vets receiving treatment for Military Sexual Trauma are men.) An anonymous DOD survey found that in 2010, an astonishing 19,000 service members were ­sexually assaulted; a mere 13.5 percent of those attacks were reported to authorities. Victims have little incentive to report, since the military's insular justice system rarely holds perpetrators accountable. Of the sliver of sexual assaults reported last year, 92 percent never saw the inside of a courtroom but rather were dismissed or administered wrist-slap penalties like fines, reduced PX privileges or counseling – a prosecution record even outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has called "an outrage."

Incredibly, this ugly picture comes after two decades of very public sex scandals – Tailhook in 1991, Aberdeen in 1996, the Air Force Academy in 2003 – after each of which the DOD swore "zero tolerance," then resisted any meaningful reform. But as survivors have begun to speak up, and legislators resolve to take action, the military finds itself facing a public relations crisis at a time when it's not only trying to justify its $633 billion budget but also desperate to step up recruitment. Women, widely seen as a way to help stop attrition of troops – and now, for the first time, cleared to serve in combat alongside their male peers – are projected to make up one-quarter of the armed services by 2025.

"The military is changing. Military culture has to change, too," notes Rep. Niki Tsongas, who co-chairs the new, bipartisan caucus on military sexual assault, and whose interest was sparked by an Army nurse who told her, "Ma'am, I'm more afraid of my own soldiers than I am of the enemy." But as it stands now, "blue on blue" sexual crime has become ­utterly commonplace. Just ask 23-year-old Lance Cpl. Nicole McCoy, who was assaulted so often during her four-year stint that she came to regard it as an unavoidable, even sanctioned, part of service. "I thought it was just a normal thing in the military, almost like a hazing process," remembers McCoy, who left the Marines in May 2012. "It seemed like everyone gets raped and assaulted and no one does anything about it; it's like a big rape cult."

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