Military focuses on mission to bring justice for sexual assaults

Fort Bragg Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair appeared to be at the top of his game, deeply involved in the war in Afghanistan as the 82nd Airborne Division's deputy commanding general for support.

But in May, Sinclair was sent home. Fort Bragg officials refused to say why at the time, only that Sinclair was being assigned a desk job while facing a criminal investigation.

Five months later, on Sept. 27, Fort Bragg announced that Sinclair had been charged with forcible sodomy and other sex offenses.

The charges against such a high-ranking officer are unusual. And the case draws attention to the military's poor record in curbing a rising number of sexual assaults in its ranks.

The military's focus on the issue extends from the Pentagon to Fort Bragg. The Defense Department has assigned a two-star general to oversee the militarywide program, which includes everything from websites to hotlines. At Fort Bragg, officials say, the commanding general is personally focused on the problem, and the post is ready to respond to complaints with victim advocates and sexual-assault forensic examiners.

The military's efforts are an attempt to battle long-standing assertions by women that their chains of command look the other way, often sticking up for the service members accused of assaulting them. As a result, women victims can be reluctant to acknowledge that an assault even occurred.

The numbers appear to support their claim. The Pentagon estimates that 19,000 service members were sexually assaulted last year, yet only 3,192 cases were reported. Of those, an NBC News analysis shows, 240 led to prosecution.

The Pentagon recognizes the extent of the problem. In April -- after the release of an annual report on sexual assaults in the military -- Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced new initiatives to curb sexual assaults, including establishing a "special victims' unit" within each service branch.

Panetta ordered sexual complaints to be handled by a colonel or officer of equal rank rather than having a service member's unit commander evaluate charges and decide whether to pursue disciplinary action.

"Sexual assault has no place in this department," Panetta said in a news conference coinciding with the release of the report. "It is an affront to the basic American values we defend, and to the good honor of our service members and their families."

In September, the Pentagon announced even more initiatives, including improving sexual assault prevention training for commanders and senior enlisted service members.

The following day, Fort Bragg announced the charges against Sinclair -- forcible sodomy, fraud, sexual conduct, alcohol violations and possession of pornography.

The charges leave lawyer Susan Burke wondering whether Sinclair routinely ignored sexual assault complaints from soldiers under his command.

"In the past 27 years, how many cases could Sinclair have been able to shut down?" Burke said. "It's very troubling."

'Pervasive threat'

Burke filed a lawsuit last month on behalf of 19 current and former service members. The lawsuit alleges that the military's failed sexual assault policies and directives have created a "pervasive threat" in which higher-ranking officers prey on young and lower-ranking troops.

A report released early this year shows that a typical sexual assault victim in the Army is a junior enlisted woman, age 18 to 25, who is often under the influence of alcohol and attacked by a male of similar rank. The attacks happen most often during the weekends, away from military supervision, according to the report.

Among the service members filing the lawsuit is Fort Bragg soldier Tamika Lane, who alleges that she was raped twice while in the Army.

The first rape was in December 2001, Lane said, when she was attacked by a stranger at her duty station, Fort Lewis, Wash., at age 17.

At the time, Lane said, she did everything she thought she could do. She immediately reported the rape to her command and completed a rape kit at a local hospital.

Shortly after her report, she said, five other female soldiers stepped forward with allegations that Lane's attacker had abused them, too.

Instead of a court-martial or a discharge, the soldier accused of raping Lane was given a slap on the wrist, a nonjudicial punishment that had no lasting or serious consequence, she said.

Despite the rape, Lane rose through the ranks, becoming a sergeant first class in seven years and landing a coveted assignment within Fort Bragg's Joint Special Operations Command.

Lane said she was convinced that she would retire as a sergeant major, but her career has been cut short. Later this month, she will be medically retired.

She said she had put the first rape long behind her by the time she reported for duty at Fort Bragg in March 2007. For two years, Lane said, she performed her job well and loved what she did.

But in May 2009, Lane said, she was raped in her Fayetteville home by a co-worker in the Joint Special Operations Command, a Marine whom she had considered a friend for two years.

When Lane reported back to work after a long weekend, she broke down and told her chaplain but held off making an official report. After what happened in Washington, she said, the humiliation and privacy violations that came with the rape investigation just didn't seem worth the hassle.

For the next two months, the emotional trauma took a toll, she said. She found herself staring at her computer when she should have been working.

On lunch breaks, she sat in her car and sobbed. At night, Lane said, she barely slept as she soaked her pillows in tears.

When Lane finally did come forward, in July 2009, Army and Navy investigators took on her case, and she was encouraged by the progress.

"I thought the system was actually working," Lane said. "It was very uncomfortable and very, very intense. But I thought it was going to work for me."

Despite the encouragement she felt with the court system, Lane felt no such comfort within her unit.

As her performance declined, senior leaders accused Lane of making up the attack to get out of work and repeatedly told her that she was not "JSOC material."

"It was horrible," she said. "It still is horrible. I was being revictimized over and over, on a daily basis."

The torment eventually led her to a mental hospital in Texas. Lane said she has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress, depression and severe anxiety.

With the chain of command seemingly against her -- Lane said she overheard one sergeant major making light of her rape in front of a group of officers -- she felt alone.

"I felt like I had nowhere and nobody to go to," she said.

But unlike her first rape, this time Lane's accused attacker faced a court-martial -- a jury made up of male Marines.

The jury acquitted the Marine of rape and instead convicted him of adultery. His punishment? A letter of reprimand.

"Obviously, the system is broken," Lane said.

Few convictions

A review by The Fayetteville Observer of more than 800 reported sexual assault cases in the Army found that convictions seem to be the exception for a variety of reasons:

Many military cases are handled administratively.

Victims cease cooperating.

There is insufficient evidence to prosecute, as in the case of a female specialist who alleged that a sergeant major raped her at her home.

Some cases are turned over to civilian authorities.

Some cases result in "discharge or resignation in lieu of a court-martial."

Another major reason convictions are rare is the reluctance of victims to come forward to report a sexual assault.

"One of the biggest challenges is that it's an underreported crime," said Maj. Gen. Gary S. Patton, who directs the Department of Defense's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office. The office, created in March in response to the sexual assault problem, has a $21 million budget and a two-star general as its director.

Statistics indicate that underreporting is a problem at Fort Bragg, home to more than 50,000 soldiers. The post has documented 96 or fewer sexual assault cases in each of the past three years.

Fort Bragg officials are quick to point out that soldiers have many different ways to report sexual assaults.

"We want our numbers to go up because that means people are using the system and trust the commands," said Tom McCollum, a Fort Bragg spokesman.

The Army has a slogan, "I. A. M. Strong," which stands for intervene, act and motivate.

"We encourage witnesses to step forward," McCollum said. "You've got to help your fellow soldier out. If you don't step forward, then you are allowing that predator to continue."

The Service Women's Action Network says factors that may discourage victims from coming forward include low conviction rates, administrative punishments and retention of service members who are convicted.

"The military retains one in three convicted sex offenders," said Katy Otto, a spokeswoman for the organization in New York. "Only the Navy has mandatory expulsion upon conviction."

The Service Women's Action Network wants to see mandatory removal upon conviction throughout the armed services, Otto said.

The organization also wants to remove the option for officers to resign instead of facing court-martial, she said.

Fort Bragg has 500 victim advocates who can work with sexual assault victims.

Victim advocates accompany and provide information and referrals for medical care, criminal justice and counseling. Womack Army Medical Center has 22 trained sexual-assault forensic examiners and a round-the-clock hotline.

Fort Bragg officials tout their programs, saying they are effective when victims do come forward.

Sgt. 1st Class Jacob Rodriguez, who works with sexual-assault victims in the 82nd Airborne Division, has a favorite success story.

"Last year, I had a service member who was sexually assaulted while being on deployment," he said. "They sent the soldier back."

The unit leaders who remained at Fort Bragg "responded beautifully," allowing the soldier to attend all appointments required for sexual-assault victims, he said.

"All the resources were available to that soldier -- medically, counseling," Rodriguez said.

The soldier, who was in the same unit as the offender, was able to take advantage of a military-wide program that allows victims to move away quickly from the unit or even the installation where the assault happened.

Rodriguez said military criminal investigators gave 30-day updates directly to the soldier rather than to the commanders, and enough evidence was found to send the offender to a court-martial. The case is pending.

"A soldier reported a sexual assault, the command responded well, the victim advocates responded well, then all the tools that were in place were used," Rodriguez said. "It worked out well for the soldier, even the investigative piece."

Rodriguez, an artilleryman, is the division's noncommissioned officer in charge of SHARP -- Sexual Harassment/Assault Response & Prevention.

Col. Marilyn Brooks, a nurse who has spent 40 years in the Army, is SHARP's program manager for Fort Bragg and the 18th Airborne Corps. She works directly with Lt. Gen. Daniel Allyn, commander of the corps and post, and Allyn's deputy commanders.

They are part of an effort throughout the Army and Defense Department to encourage victims to come forward and get help.

"Success has to be defined in increments," Brooks said. That means making victims feel they got the help they needed and also making people throughout Fort Bragg aware of the program.

Deanne Gerdes, executive director of the Rape Crisis Volunteers of Cumberland County, praised Fort Bragg's efforts to combat sexual assault. Gerde said that about 40 percent of victims at her center come from Fort Bragg.

"In the past, the Department of Defense and Fort Bragg have done great things as far as sexual assault," Gerdes said. "They have a great sexual assault nurse examiner program."

More work to do

But officials at the Pentagon concede that much more needs to be done. The Army reports a 28 percent increase in the rate of sex crimes between 2006 and 2011.

The issue has led organizations outside the military to start taking a closer look.

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights will hold hearings on sexual assaults in the military on Jan. 11 in Washington.

"It is time the public got a good look at what the Pentagon is doing to resolve these problems, how they are handling those who are alleged to have perpetrated these acts, how the victims are treated when they report assaults and have to go through the legal process and how reporting these acts affects their health and military careers," said Civil Rights Commission member Dave Kladney, who encouraged the inquiry.

Patton, director of the Pentagon's sexual assault program, said the answer to reducing sexual assaults in the military "is not one silver bullet."

"The solution (is) a multipronged approach that must be done persistently and from the top all the way to the bottom," he said.

The approaches include training, investigation, accountability, advocacy and assessment, Patton said.

Victims can make confidential "restricted" reports and receive the same services as victims who file "unrestricted" reports subject to criminal investigation.

Getting victims to report sexual assaults is essential, Patton said.

"That has to be echoed and emphasized all the way down through the chain of command to your soldiers on Ardennes Street by their team leaders, by their squad leaders, by their platoon sergeants," he said.

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