Military sexual assault victims share heartbreak as lawmakers renew push
Rep. Jackie Speier, a California Democrat, introduced a bill Wednesday that would take convening and prosecuting authority in sexual assault cases out of the chain of command and put it instead into the hands of a specially trained office within the military. Behind her are Jody Rabhan, deputy director of the National Council of Jewish Women; Miranda Peterson, policy advisor for Protect Our Defenders; Army veteran Kelly Smith; and Lisa Maatz, director of public policy for the American Association of University Women.
WASHINGTON — Jeremiah Arbogast loved being a Marine.
He was stationed with Weapons Training Battalion at Quantico, Va., when one of his former superiors — a staff sergeant — invited him over for dinner to give him some advice for his new job. The staff sergeant drugged his cranberry juice and then raped him, Arbogast said.
Arbogast was embarrassed and scared, but he eventually reported the attack and was able to get a full confession from the man on tape for investigators.
But the staff sergeant was convicted of only one of six charges at a court martial.
The judge took the man’s 23 years of service into account and decided not to sentence him to any jail time. The man later cut the skin off his fingertips to avoid being fingerprinted and registered as a sex offender, Arbogast said.
“He walked off base and into someone’s neighborhood,” Arbogast said Wednesday at a press conference in front of the Capitol, seven years after he was medically retired for the post-traumatic stress he suffered as a result of the attack. “The military justice system is fundamentally broken.”
Rep. Jackie Speier, a California Democrat, wants to change that system. She introduced a bill Wednesday that would take convening and prosecuting authority in sexual assault cases out of the chain of command and put it instead into the hands of a specially trained office within the military. Speier introduced similar legislation in the last session of Congress; that bill, also called the Sexual Assault Training Oversight and Prevention Act, or the STOP Act, gained more than 130 co-sponsors, but died in committee.
In fiscal 2011, there were 3,192 reports of sexual assaults involving service members. However, then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said he believed that based on anonymous surveys and the percentage of assaults that go unreported that the actual number of sexual assaults is closer to 19,000.
Speier said those numbers – and the low percentage of cases — in fiscal 2011, less than 20 percent — that reach court martial show the changes the Pentagon have made are not working.
“This bill fixes the problem,” Speier said.
While the legislation was not successful last year, Speier said she believes the revelation of sexual abuse and assault by military trainers at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas and the case that was overturned by a convening authority at Aviano Air Base, Italy, have underscored the need for change.
Arbogast and Kelly Smith, an Army veteran, spoke at a press conference about the bill, along with representatives from several advocacy groups.
Smith said she was sexually assaulted in her barracks room while she was sleeping. She screamed and the man ran away down the hall, she said, and she tried to convince herself it didn’t happen at all. The next day, she said, she was called into her commander’s office and threatened with hospitalization if she would not tell him what had happened.
Smith said she was interrogated by investigators for eight hours after she made the report, but that then a witness came forward to say she had seen the man running down the hall after hearing Smith scream. The attacker eventually confessed. Smith was sent to Madigan Army Medical Center for therapy, she said, and her attacker was later placed in the same therapy program.
“I had to sit next to him every day,” she said, and was called “unreasonable” when she complained.
Later, Smith said she was attacked again, by the man in charge of the therapy program. That man also confessed, she said, but was not punished.
Yet, while Smith left the military, her first attacker was promoted twice and was able to retire.
Arbogast was medically retired from the Marine Corps because of post-traumatic stress related to his attack, and said he was stigmatized by friends, family and other Marines. He said the stress has taken a toll on his relationship with his wife and daughter; his PTSD and depression led him to attempt suicide.
He is now paraplegic from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.