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Former Marine to speak at Geneva Convention against sexual abuse

By SHARON MYERS | The Dispatch, Lexington, N.C. | Published: October 11, 2014

(MCT) — For Davidson County, N.C., native Stephanie Schroeder, the years of abuse she experienced after reporting a sexual assault while serving in the military has turned into a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to speak on an international stage.

Schroeder has been invited to travel to Switzerland in November to speak before the United Nations at the Geneva Convention during the Elimination of Violence Against Women session.

"I'm not sure exactly what I'm going to say yet," Schroeder said. "I want to challenge them to do the right thing because that is what is important. Women should not have to go through this. They shouldn't have to worry about reporting to their superior and have them laugh in their face."

Schroeder joined the United States Marine Corps shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001. During a night on weekend leave from her military occupation school, Schroeder was sexually assaulted in the bathroom of a restaurant by a fellow Marine. She said although the attack was horrible, the treatment by her superiors wounded her worse of all.

"Afterwards, I went to tell the staff officer that was on duty that I had been attacked, and she told me not to come bitching to her because I had had sex and changed my mind," Schroeder said. "I was shocked at her response. She sent me to my barracks room, and I was thinking someone would be coming down to speak to me, but no one ever came. On Monday, I went to sick call to get testing done, but instead I got counseled by the nurse for alcohol abuse. I realized pretty quick that I wasn't going to get anywhere."

In the years that followed, Schroeder said she began to experience blatant retaliation and was even specifically told by her superior officer that she was being punished for trying to submit a report.

"I was called a whistle-blower and a troublemaker," Schroeder said. "They made sure to do what they called non-judicial punishment, which is where they took my rank and my pay, and I was put on hard labor."

Shortly after giving birth to her and her husband's first child, Schroeder received her discharge papers, but she was taken aback when she read the reason for her release was a personality disorder. Many veterans advocate groups have claimed the military uses the diagnosis to discharge soldiers because it considers them troublesome or wants to avoid giving them benefits for service-connected injuries.

After her discharge, Schroeder became inspired to become an activist speaking out about her treatment by the military. She has worked with several legislators to promote changes to protect victims of sexual abuse serving in the military. She worked with U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., to pass an amendment to the Military Justice Improvement Act that now specifies that if a survivor comes forward to report an assault they are entitled to a change of command away from their attackers.

Earlier this year, a friend at the Avon Global Center for Women and Justice at Cornell University Law School in New York approached Schroeder to see if she would be interested in joining a petition to the United Nations to bring awareness to the global issue of violence against women. Much to her surprise, Schroeder and some of her fellow activists were invited to the Geneva Convention in November to tell their story. She also received a full scholarship from the U.S. Human Rights Network that will pay for her travel, hotel and a daily food stipend.

"I just didn't talk about it because I believed everyone would treat me like the Marine Corps did," Schroeder said. "Finally I said if I don't say something, who is going to? If I don't fight for all the active duty women and even the men, who is going to do it?"

Schroeder said she is looking forward to making people more aware of the rampant culture of disregard or downright retaliation against those who report sexual assaults while serving in the military.

"I never expected this in a million years," Schroeder said. "It is about bringing awareness. I was so broken and I still struggle, but it feels good to have them know that they can't ignore it any longer. … The Department of Defense and Department of Justice can't just brazenly argue that rape is just an incident of the job, that it is to be expected. I shouldn't expect it; you should fix it."

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©2014 The Dispatch, Lexington, N.C. Distributed by MCT Information Services
 

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