WASHINGTON (AP/ ABC7) - Eight current and former members of the U.S. military allege in a new federal lawsuit that they were raped, assaulted or harassed during their service and suffered retaliation when they reported it to their superiors.
The lawsuit, being filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Washington, accuses the military of a having a "high tolerance for sexual predators in their ranks" and of fostering a hostile environment that discourages victims of sexual assault from coming forward and punishes them when they do.
The suit says the Defense Department has failed to take aggressive steps to confront the problem despite public statements suggesting otherwise.
The eight women include an active-duty enlisted Marine and seven veterans of the Navy and Marine Corps. Seven women allege that a comrade raped or tried to sexually assault them, including in a commanding officer's office after a pub crawl in Washington and inside a Navy barracks room in Florida. The eighth says she was harassed and threatened while deployed overseas, only to be told by a superior that "this happens all the time."
The women say rapes and sexual assaults are widespread in the Navy and Marine Corps. and that high-ranking officers routinely cover them up.
They say they've suffered depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder because of the assaults. One woman says she tried to commit suicide after being raped inside her row home by a senior officer and his civilian friend.
The lawsuit names as defendants past and present military leaders, including Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and his predecessors.
Defense Department spokeswoman Cynthia Smith said she could not discuss pending litigation, but said the military has no tolerance for sexual assault. Under a policy announced in December, service members who report a sexual assault have the option of quickly transferring their unit or installation. Another policy required the retention of written reports for 50 years to make it easier for victims to file a claim at a later date.
She said the department has also increased funding for investigators and judge advocates to receive specialized training in sexual assault cases, is assembling a data system to track reports of sexual assault and is reviewing how commanding officers are trained in preventing and responding to rape cases.
"It is important that everyone in uniform be alert to the problem and have the leadership training to help prevent these crimes," Smith said in a written statement.
A Navy spokeswoman, Lt. Cmdr. Alana Garas, said the Navy has developed an education and training program on sexual assault reporting.
Ariana Klay, a former Marine Corps officer and plaintiff who says she was raped in August 2010, said the military avoids scrutiny for its handling of these accusations by projecting a warrior culture and because the public doesn't want to believe these crimes and cover-ups are occurring among service members.
"A noble cause is a great vehicle for corruption because nobody wants to look and nobody is going to look," Klay said.
After serving in Iraq, Klay was recruited to Military Barracks Washington in the nation's capital, where she says she was falsely accused of adultery, taunted as a "slut" and "whore" and told to "deal with it" by a superior. She said the situation became so uncomfortable that she requested a deployment to Afghanistan, but that request was denied because she was told she was too critical to the command. Klay alleges she was raped inside her row house near the barracks on the morning of Aug. 28, 2010, by a senior officer and a civilian friend.
Klay said she reported the rapes and left the barracks, but was told she must have invited the harassment because of her clothing. She says one of her alleged attackers was ultimately court-martialed, but was judged guilty of lesser offenses of indecent language and adultery. She became so despondent amid the retaliation that she attempted suicide, she said.
"We have the most advanced modern technologically, advanced military in the world. This is not where we should be in terms of our attitudes toward women," Klay said.
Another plaintiff, Elle Helmer, who says she was told she got a public affairs position at the Marine Barracks because she was considered the "prettiest," reported being sexually assaulted by a commanding officer following a St. Patrick's Day pub crawl in Washington's Capitol Hill in 2006.
Helmer said her commander called her to his office and attacked and raped her. She was found naked from the waist down by the Colonel.
She said her commander was never reprimanded and that the Colonel tried to keep her silent.
"The Colonel asked me not to seek medical attention and that once this went outside the barrack walls, he could no longer protect me," Helmer said.
She was discouraged from submitting to a rape kit and medical examination, was told she needed to toughen up and was investigated for public intoxication and conduct unbecoming. She left the Marine Corps soon after.
"There's no way I could even look some of those officers in the eye and even think they're worthy of a salute," Helmer said.
"It took approximately 72 hours for the victim to become the accused in this example, and that was really the beginning of the Spanish Inquisition," Helmer said.
Although The Associated Press normally does not identify the victims of sexual assault, Klay and Helmer agreed to publicly discuss their case.
"Are they saying we're all lying? Are they saying it doesn't happen? Hiding behind their rhetoric of zero tolerance is entirely cowardly and misleading and they know it," Helmer said.
The women say they are not seeking financial compensation. They simply want reforms put in place to protect members of the military in the future.