- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 15, 2011

WASHINGTON (AP) — A group of U.S. veterans who say they were raped and abused by their comrades want to force the Pentagon to change how it handles such cases.

More than a dozen female and two male current or former service members say servicemen get away with rape and other sexual abuse and victims are too often ordered to continue to serve alongside those they say attacked them.

In a federal class-action lawsuit filed Tuesday that names Defense Secretary Robert Gates and his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, they want an objective third party to handle such complaints because individual commanders have too much say in how allegations are handled.

The purported attackers in the lawsuit include an Army criminal investigator and an Army National Guard commander. The abuse claimed ranges from obscene verbal abuse to gang rape.

In one incident, an Army Reservist says two male colleagues raped her in Iraq and videotaped the attack. She complained to authorities after the men circulated the video to colleagues. Despite being bruised from her shoulders to elbows from being held down, she says charges weren’t filed because the commander determined she “did not act like a rape victim” and “did not struggle enough” and authorities said they didn’t want to delay the scheduled return of the alleged attackers to the United States.

“The problem of rape in the military is not only service members getting raped, but it’s the entire way that the military as a whole is dealing with it,” said Panayiota Bertzikis, who is a plaintiff in the lawsuit and claims she was raped in 2006. “From survivors having to be involuntarily discharged from service, the constant verbal abuse, once a survivor does come forward your entire unit is known to turn their back on you. The entire culture needs to be changed.”

Although the Associated Press normally does not identify the victims of sexual assault, the plaintiffs in the lawsuit have publicly discussed the cases.

Ms. Bertzikis, 29, of Somerville, Mass., now is executive director of the Military Rape Crisis Center. She says she was raped by a Coast Guard shipmate while out on a social hike with him in Burlington, Vt. Ms. Bertzikis complained to her commanding officer, but she said authorities did not take substantial steps to investigate the matter. Instead, she said, they forced her to live on the same floor as the man she had accused and tolerated others calling her a “liar” and “whore.”

Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said in a statement that sexual assault is a wider societal problem and that Mr. Gates has been working to ensure the military is 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.”

The military had already planned to roll out a new hotline victims can call in April, said Pentagon spokeswoman Cynthia Smith. It has another initiative that encourages service members to help those who are assaulted or raped. In 2005, the military created an office charged with preventing sexual assault. Victims can opt to file a “restricted” or confidential report that allows them to get medical attention without an investigation being triggered.

Sarah Albertson, a former Marine corporal who is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said one of the hurdles in getting improvements in the system is that military commanders do not want any marks on their record such as a rape in their unit. Ms. Albertson says she reported she was raped in 2006 by a fellow Marine, but instead of helping her, she was forced to live one floor below the purported perpetrator for two years.

“People who did believe me and had my back and were supportive of me were still telling me, ‘Don’t tell anybody about this, don’t go to the public, don’t let this get out because it will make the military look bad,’” Ms. Albertson said.

In many of the described cases, no charges were filed. In other cases, the purported attackers faced lesser charges and were allowed to remain in the military, according to the lawsuit.

Kori Cioca, 25, of Wilmington, Ohio, described being hit in the face by a superior in one incident in 2005 and being raped by the same man in a second incident soon after while serving in the Coast Guard in Bay City, Mich.

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