Eight months after Rebecca Blumer's assault, she was still tending the well-clipped lawns of Fort Gordon. She was depressed and had seen a shrink for the anxiety that made it difficult to leave the house for fear of the smirks and stares. She recalls walking into a room once and hearing someone blurt, "Hey, there's that girl who made up that rape!" Her fun-loving, good-natured personality had morphed into an angrier, more confrontational self. "An aggressive side came out," says her friend and former Petty Officer 3rd Class Heather Letourneau. "People would try to tease her about something, and she'd yell, 'Shut up!' "
Her once-skyrocketing career had stalled. Before her assault, Blumer had had orders for a deployment to Naples, Italy – a dream assignment – but those had been swiftly canceled. She'd failed a promotional exam she'd been assured she would ace, because with her security clearance revoked she'd been denied access to the intelligence materials she'd needed to study. Her superiors even informed her that they were holding back on submitting her application for the officer program. Although she had been promised that her job and privileges would be restored if the investigation supported her claims, she knew her career was basically over. "They already made up their minds about me," says Blumer. "I was a problem, and they wanted to be rid of the problem."
Her colleagues saw the writing on the wall, too. Says Kinnaird-Estrada, who was stationed in San Antonio, "We had people of rank here that cared about her and were calling Georgia asking about her, and we were getting back a lot of, 'Stay out of it, it's none of your business.' It got swept under the carpet big-time."
By then, the JAG overseeing Blumer's case had already revealed that the toxicology results had come back negative: No date-rape drugs had been detected. Blumer was shocked – and confused, since the emergency-room nurse had already told her during a follow-up visit that drugs had been found. "So who do you believe, the nurse who was handling it? Or the command saying it didn't happen?" says Blumer. Concerned with privacy, she opted to discuss the issue not with a base social worker or victim's advocate, but with a therapist at an off-base crisis center, who reminded Blumer that depending on the drug, the dose and her metabolism, a date-rape drug could have left her system in less than 12 hours – and Blumer's urine had been tested 18 hours after that Jägermeister shot. Blumer raised the issue with the JAG and tried not to lose hope. Meanwhile, a DNA test had recovered skin cells on Blumer's underwear that weren't hers, proof that something had happened, although no one knew what.
"Because there was no seminal fluid found, we can't definitively say that they used themselves to rape you," was how the Naval Criminal Service Investigation agent delicately phrased it in the office of the JAG, who looked on silently while Blumer sobbed. "Maybe it was just heavy petting" – or her attackers had used condoms. Either way, the agent promised to follow up on every lead. "I believe you," he told Blumer. But his calls became fewer and further between until Blumer stopped hearing from him altogether. She wished she could leave, walk right off the base, but that was impossible – to do so would be to go AWOL, and Blumer wouldn't dream of defying orders. She popped an anti-anxiety pill and waited for the investigator's call.
Buried in the DOD's 734-page annual report on sexual assault is a diagram documenting the fate of each one of last year's military sexual-assault reports. It can best be described as the Flow Chart From Hell. Arrows explode in every direction to info boxes of varying shapes and colors, many of which are further footnoted into insane charts and graphs of their very own. But halfway down the page, the chaos winnows to a singular, telling moment of calm: a single arrow pointing to one Army-green box. It's the moment in the life of each sexual-assault case in which a viable suspect has been located, and the investigator believes the case has merit. But before the case can continue to court-martial, it must first survive the crucial step described in the green box: "Reviewed for Possible Action." Curiously, the box doesn't mention who does the reviewing. It isn't a sex-crimes expert. It isn't a legal expert. It's the accused's own commander.
In a military quirk known as "command discretion," the accused's commander ultimately decides a case's fate – a job sometimes assigned to the accused's immediate superior – in a decision that is final and holds no avenue for appeal. The rationale harks back to commanders' responsibility for the order and discipline of their units: that to ensure mission-readiness, commanders must deal with anything that could potentially disrupt the unit's functioning. And in matters as serious as a rape allegation, which could conceivably end with a service member yanked from his duties to serve time in the brig (or even be discharged), commanders are involved from the get-go, says former JAG Capt. Greg Rinckey: "A soldier's on the blotter for a sex crime, the commander's on the phone with you right away. He wants to know what's going on. That does put pressure on you."
Last year, of the cases brought before commanders, less than one-third were referred to court-martial; among those dismissed were cases that the commanders themselves somehow determined were "unfounded." The rest were moved outside the legal system into nonjudicial punishments of the commander's choosing – penalties include extra duties, verbal reprimands or docked pay – to avoid what military lawyers call "the stigma of a conviction." That stigma is considered so repellent that, in yet another quirk of military justice, there's even an escape hatch provided for those few defendants referred to court-martial: They're given the option of "resignation in lieu of court-martial," where in exchange for admitting guilt and quitting the military, all charges are dropped and the offender slips back into civilian society – an opportunity taken by 10 percent of military sex-crime defendants last year. It would be like if a civilian rape defendant was allowed to avoid trial by simply quitting his job and leaving town. "Due process just screeches to a halt," says SWAN policy director Greg Jacob, a former Marine captain. "It's ridiculous."
The few sex-crime cases that actually proceed to court-martial have withstood a brutal culling process. You'd think they'd stand a good chance at success. And yet victims say the trials are often a farce. In 2010, the case of 25-year-old Army Reserve Pfc. Sascha Garner was one of the few sexual-assault cases that made it to trial, after she claimed she was raped in Afghanistan while passed out drunk. Garner held out hope for justice even as ominous signs appeared. "The CID told me they couldn't charge him with rape because I couldn't remember parts of it," Garner recalls. "People were like, 'He has a wife and kids, he couldn't have done it.' " Five months after her assault, it seemed a victory of sorts even to be sitting in the anteroom of a makeshift Bagram courthouse, preparing to testify. But after Garner waited for three hours, the prosecutor emerged with startling news: The judge had determined the sex was consensual. "I just started bawling my eyes out," says Garner. "How could he rule it consensual without even hearing my side of the story? Nobody ever told me." Her alleged rapist was convicted of adultery – a crime under military law – for which he was reduced a rank and fined $900.
The outcome was similar for Ariana Klay. At her alleged assailant's December 2011 court-martial, he was convicted not of rape but of adultery and "indecent language," for which he served 45 days in the brig. "The fact that there was a resolution at all is so unusual," Klay notes wryly. "I guess I should be happy."
Myla Haider, too, agreed to testify at her alleged assailant's 2005 court-martial when it emerged that in the two years after her unreported attack, he had been accused of assaulting four other women. "I thought this had to go through," remembers Haider. "Five people who didn't even know each other, all with the same story? There has to be a conviction here." But even after the testimony of five women, Haider says, he was convicted of nothing worse than consensual sodomy – downgraded from one victim's anal rape. "That was the judge telling the victim that she wanted it."
The upshot is that of last year's 3,192 military sexual-assault reports, a paltry 191 cases – 6 percent – ended with a conviction. Only 149 perpetrators served jail time. And yet even those rare convictions haven't been enough to oust sex offenders from service. The Navy is the sole branch that automatically discharges them as part of their sentence. Elsewhere, one in three convicted rapists instead face a separations board that ponders whether he should be expelled. (The DOD doesn't keep statistics on how often those rapists stay in the military.) That the military doesn't automatically oust rapists means it hasn't fully acknowledged the severity of the crime, or its larger implications – research has demonstrated that men who have raped are likely to do so again, many times over. When college students in a respected 2002 study and Navy recruits in a 2009 study were granted confidentiality, approximately two-thirds of men who admitted to having raped – but who had never been caught – reported having done so more than once; in both studies, the rapists averaged six rapes each.
But while offenders are permitted to remain in the military, victims find themselves drummed out. "I have never met one victim that kept their career," says Haider. "Never one." Many are involuntarily discharged after reporting a rape, often with the catchall diagnosis of "personality disorder" or "adjustment disorder." In a cruel twist, many find themselves disciplined for collateral charges they pick up during their rape investigations, like fraternization, drinking or adultery. "If a victim claims rape she can be charged with adultery. It's absurd!" says former JAG Rinckey. "There are plenty of cases where victims come forward with sexual assault and charges are dropped against the accused, but then she's charged with adultery and it ends her career."
For Lt. Helmer, whose reputation was so trashed after her rape investigation that enlisteds no longer saluted her, she was separated for "unacceptable conduct," for speaking publicly about her rape. "My family has been in the military all the way back to the Revolutionary War, every generation, and I can't be buried with them because I don't have an honorable discharge," Helmer says. Still other victims voluntarily leave the military once their contracts end. "It wasn't even the rape," says Garner, echoing the sentiment of many victims. "If I'd gotten treated fairly afterward, I'd have re-enlisted – if the military had showed me they cared about me and not just about the perpetrator."
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