War declared on sex assaults
Tampa Tribune, Fla.
LAKELAND -- Sitting in the living room of her Lakeland apartment, Karin Whitley opens an American-flag-decorated box and pulls out pictures of moments in her military career that made her proud.
There are pictures of her on the aircraft carrier USS Independence performing last-minute checks on F/A-18 Hornets about to scream down the deck. There are pictures from the back seat of one of the fighters in flight, taken because she was one of the few women qualified to ride at the time.
But Whitley, now 44, has boxes of memories much darker.
Memories of being sexually assaulted by Marines who broke in to her barracks, and of being sexually seduced as a 17-year-old by the man who recruited her into the Navy.
Memories of a military that tried to sweep her problems under the rug by sending her away and of years of battles to gain accountability against her attackers.
Memories of two failed marriages, frequent moves, depression and thoughts of suicide, all symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder that, according to the Veterans Administration, resulted from the sexual assaults.
This week, U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta outlined new guidelines for investigating military sexual trauma, which is on the rise, according to the Department of Defense.
Sitting at home with her boxes of memories, Whitley, who spent 16 years as a Lakeland police dispatcher after leaving the Navy, wonders if it is too little, too late.
In January 1990, Whitley, then an aviation electrician's mate third class, was asleep in her barracks at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma in Arizona when two Marines from the base broke into her room and sexually assaulted her.
The Marines were caught and detained, she said, but never charged.
"I spoke to a lieutenant afterwards and asked if anything would happen," said Whitley. "He said 'I doubt it, the Marines take care of their own.' "
Whitley said that base officials dealt with the assault by sending her on a long flight in a small plane full of men back to her home base.
"It was awful," she said.
Three years earlier, while at Naval Air Station Fallon in Nevada, Whitley was sexually assaulted by a civilian while on liberty. Base officials there, she said, took the same tack.
They shipped her back to her home base.
After the assaults, Whitley's life unraveled. She divorced and married again, only to divorce a second time. There were panic attacks. Sleepless nights full of horrific dreams about the assaults. The traumatic thoughts intruded during the daytime, too. At times she was aggressive; other times she was withdrawn.
"At first I thought I was bipolar," said Whitley, who served in active duty Navy from 1986 to 1990, then with the Navy Reserve from 1991 to 1993.
Finally, about nine years ago, a VA therapist determined that Whitley wasn't bipolar. She was suffering from PTSD, caused by the sexual assaults.
During her therapy, she also realized that the military sexual abuse began even before she put on a uniform. It was in the form of sexual encounters with the man who recruited her out of Lakeland High School.
As she struggled to recover, Whitley also fought for accountability.
She joined the Service Women's Action Network, an organization dedicated to allowing women to serve "without threat of harassment, discrimination, intimidation or assault." She reached out to the bases where she was stationed and contacted her senators and representatives.
What happened to the men who attacked her? Where are the records?
Even those in Congress kept getting the same answers from the Navy and Marines: If any records existed, they were long gone.
In the past fiscal year, there were 3,192 reports of sexual assault involving service members as either victims or perpetrators, according to the eighth annual survey of the subject conducted by the Department of Defense. That represents a 1 percent increase from the previous year.
The report also showed that discipline has increased as well, with the percentage of courts-martial against offenders more than doubling since 2007 to more than 60 percent.
But at a press conference last week, Panetta said the reported sexual assaults are only a small fraction of the real number.
Panetta said that "because we assume that this is a very underreported crime, the estimate is…actually is closer 19,000."
Panetta introduced several measures designed to "reduce and prevent sexual assault, to make victims of sexual assault feel secure enough to report this crime without fear of retribution or harm to their career, and to hold the perpetrators appropriately accountable."
Local unit commanders are required to report sexual assault cases to a special court-martial level or, if necessary, to a general court-martial level for investigation. A special victims unit or capability within each of the services will be created with experts trained in evidence collection. Victims who report a sexual assault will be given an option to quickly transfer from their unit or installation to protect them from possible harassment. Written reports of sexual assault to law enforcement will be retained for 50 years to make it easier for veterans to file a claim with the Department of Veterans Affairs at a later date. Establish a Defense Department sexual assault advocate certification program requiring sexual assault response coordinators and victim advocates to obtain a credential aligned with national standards.
After years of battling her own demons, the military and the VA, Whitley won a huge victory in October.
The VA ruled that she was unable to work any longer as a Lakeland police dispatcher because of "post traumatic stress disorder with secondary major depression and panic disorder" that resulted from "military sexual assault."
Whitley lives with her husband of eight years — Shane Whitley, a retired Marine who also suffers from PTSD. She has good days and bad days and spends a lot of time making jewelry as a way to cope.
Panetta's guidelines, she said, "are a start." She was especially encouraged about the provision about keeping reports for 50 years.
The lack of reports, she said, "was my biggest hurdle in proving my case."
Distributed by MCT Information Services