TACOMA, Wash. — Former Marine Cpl. Angela Arellano felt like the criminal after she reported being raped by one of her enlisted supervisors.
Her attacker walked away with no repercussions to his career. She, on the other hand, stood accused of making a false statement against a fellow Marine. Her command docked her pay two months and assigned her extra duty.
The lopsided investigation “made me feel worse than the actual incident,” Arellano, 39, said, remembering the attack from her time in the Marines 20 years ago.
The Tumwater resident spoke at a Friday news conference in Seattle supporting Washington Democratic Sen. Patty Murray’s effort to reform the way the military responds to sexual assault complaints.
Murray and New Hampshire Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte are carrying a bill to provide more protections for victims who fear retaliation if they report sexual abuse in the ranks, just as Arellano experienced during her five years with the Marines.
The bill would appoint victim advocates and in some cases take sexual assault prosecutions out of the military’s typical chain of command to prevent bias from influencing cases.
“It is absolutely unconscionable” that service members are sexually abused by people they trust in uniform, Murray said.
She’s pushing for reforms as the Defense Department steps up efforts to police itself on sexual assault. It released a report earlier this month showing a rise in reported sexual assaults across all services to 3,374 cases, from 3,192 in 2011.
The military acknowledges that most sexual assaults go unreported, and it estimates that 26,000 service members faced unwanted sexual contact last year.
“The prevalence of this crime is astonishing,” Murray said.
At the same time, the military saw a string of embarrassing incidents over the past few months including the arrest of the Air Force’s chief sexual assault prevention officer on charges of sexual assault, an Army sexual abuse educator’s arrest on charges of running a prostitution ring in Texas, and two Air Forces cases in which senior officers gave clemency to men convicted of sexual assault.
It’s hard to get precise numbers of sexual assaults because so many cases go unreported for years after service members leave the Armed Forces, said Joyce Wipf, director of women’s programs at the Department of Veterans Affairs Puget Sound.
About 40 percent of female patients seen at the Puget Sound VA over the past three years report having experienced sexual trauma during their military service, Wipf said. In addition, 2 percent of male patients have experienced it, she said.
Both figures for male and female patients are double the percentage the local VA offices expected to see based on national studies.
“I am concerned that the prevalence of military sexual trauma is actually much higher than the national figures,” Wipf said.
At Joint Base Lewis-McChord, the Army has been taking steps to increase reporting of sexual assaults. It’s requiring soldiers to watch “The Invisible War,” a 2012 military sexual assault documentary, and in some cases bringing victims to the base to speak to groups of soldiers.
“We recognize this is a problem, and we’re going to deal with it,” said Army Col. Ruben Rodriguez, who leads the base’s Sexual Harassment/Assault Prevention and Response Program.
Lewis-McChord recorded 102 reports of sexual assault in the 2011 federal fiscal year and 100 in 2012. So far this fiscal year, 71 cases of sexual assault have been reported involving soldiers or military dependents.
Victims have the option of reporting the crime in such a way that their chain of command will learn of the assaults, or in a manner that connects them with social services but does not alert their leadership.
Victims also can request transfer to other units. Four victims at the base south of Tacoma have taken that course this year, leaving their units for different assignments.
The Army puts brigade commanders on the spot to report how their units respond to sexual assaults, Rodriguez said. They meet each month to share ideas and discuss how they resolve those cases.
Rodriguez thinks the extra attention is paying off with more reports of sexual harassment that might have been ignored by commanders in the past, such as pinching someone’s buttocks.
“Those are things that are going to help us change the culture in the military,” he said.
Murray and some of her supporters who joined her Friday want to see more than new messages to service members.
Former Navy attorney Charles Swift, for instance, said he wants the senator to expand her legislation to require discipline for any senior military service member caught having a sexual relationship with someone under his or her command.
“You’re going to have to make some systemic changes,” he said.
Arellano and another sexual assault victim who spoke alongside Murray said a criminal reporting system that would have protected them from retaliation would have increased their comfort while serving in the ranks.
Former Army Spc. Nichole Bowen of Seattle, 34, said she kept quiet about the persistent sexual harassment she felt during her deployment to Iraq in 2003. She said she was propositioned almost every day.
“Every day on the deployment was a rape threat,” she said.
Both she and Arellano said the effects of the unwanted sexual contact haunt them years later.
“It’s a constant struggle,” Arellano said. “I want to say it’ll go away, but it won’t.”