By ASHLEY PARKER
Published: February 15, 2011
WASHINGTON A federal lawsuit filed Tuesday accuses the Department
of Defense of allowing a military culture that fails to prevent rape
and sexual assault, and of mishandling cases that were brought to its
attention, thus violating the plaintiffs' constitutional rights.
The suit brought by 2 men and 15 women, both veterans and
active-duty service members specifically claims that Defense
Secretary Robert M. Gates and his predecessor, Donald H. Rumsfeld,
"ran institutions in which perpetrators were promoted and where
military personnel openly mocked and flouted the modest
Congressionally mandated institutional reforms."
It also says the two defense secretaries failed "to take reasonable
steps to prevent plaintiffs from being repeatedly raped, sexually
assaulted and sexually harassed by federal military personnel."
Myla Haider, a former Army sergeant and a plaintiff in the suit, said
she was raped in 2002 while interning in Korea with the military's
Criminal Investigative Command. "It is an atmosphere of zero
accountability in leadership, period," she said an interview.
Ms. Haider, who appeared with other plaintiffs at a news conference
earlier Tuesday at the National Press Club, said: "The policies that
are put in place are extremely ineffectual. There was severe
maltreatment in these cases, and there was no accountability
whatsoever. And soldiers in general who make any type of complaint in
the military are subject to retaliation and have no means of
In the complaint, Ms. Haider said she did not report her rape because
she "did not believe she would be able to obtain justice." But she
said she joined the suit because she wanted to "address the
systematic punishment of soldiers who come forward with any type of
complaint," whether it involves sexual assault or post-traumatic
stress disorder related to combat.
The plaintiffs' stories in the complaint include accounts of a
soldier stripping naked and dancing on a table during a break in a
class on preventing sexual assault, physical and verbal harassment,
and the rape of a woman by two men who videotaped the assault and
circulated it to the woman's colleagues.
Geoff Morrell, a Pentagon spokesman, said in a statement that "sexual
assault is a wider societal problem" and that Mr. Gates was working
to ensure that the military was "doing all it can to prevent and
respond to it."
"That means providing more money, personnel, training and expertise,
including reaching out to other large institutions, such as
universities, to learn best practices," Mr. Morrell said. "This is
now a command priority, but we clearly still have more work to do in
order to ensure all of our service members are safe from abuse."
Though the suit, which was filed in Federal District Court in
Virginia, seeks monetary damages, those involved with the case said
their goal was an overhaul of the military's judicial system
regarding rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment.
"You should not have to be subjected to being raped or sexually
assaulted because you volunteered to serve this nation," said Susan
L. Burke, the plaintiffs' lead lawyer.
At the news conference Tuesday, Anuradha Bhagwati, a former Marine
captain and executive director of the Service Women's Action Network,
called for a new system to improve accountability and provide other
avenues for filing complaints.
"There are veterans who, after service, are literally reeling from
post-traumatic stress" as a result of rape and sexual assault, she
said in an interview. "It can be a lifelong process. We hear from
veterans who are in their 50s and 60s who are still coping with the
trauma of having been psychologically and physically tortured."