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U.S. military must change how it deals with rape, lawmaker says

U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier on Wednesday castigated the U.S. militaryfor its policies in dealing with rape and sexual assault and repeated her call for legislation to fix a system she said was broken.

In a floor speech, Speier (D-Hillsborough) called for passage of her legislation that would move rape and assault investigations out of the normal chain of command and put them in the hands of an impartial office. Her speech came in the same week that eight current and former members of the U.S. military filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging they had been raped, assaulted or harassed while serving, and that were targeted by superiors after reporting the attacks.

The Pentagon has repeatedly deplored sexual assaults and has insisted that it has no tolerance for such attacks. In December, it announced a new policy that gives those charging a sexual assault the option of a quick transfer to another unit or installation. The Defense Department has also stepped up training in handling such cases and in preventing assaults.

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But the military system dealing with the issue remains a broken system, Speier said. The Department of Defense estimates that more than 19,000 service members were raped or sexually assaulted in 2010. But only 13% of them actually reported the incident, and of those 13%, only 8% of the perpetrators were prosecuted and an even smaller percentage were convicted, she said.

“I rise again this morning to highlight the epidemic of rape and sexual assault in the military,” Speier said. “I’m here to decry a code of dishonor that protects rapists and punishes victims. I’m here to call out an entrenched chain of command that squashes reports of sexual assault because they bring unwanted attention to the unit. I stand here today as I have 15 previous times to tell the story of a U.S. service member who was raped by a fellow service member and then robbed of justice by an unfair system that puts too much power in the hands of a single commander.”

Speier recounted the story of Airman First Class Jessica Nicole Hinves of the Air Forcewho was allegedly raped in 2009 by a co-worker who broke into her room. The suspect was scheduled for a court martial, but the proceeding was canceled by a superior officer, Speier said. Hinves was eventually transferred to another base, and “now suffers from severe panic attacks and anxiety,” Speier said.

She added that the case illustrates the power of commanding officers to decide such cases, a power that she said should be checked by an impartial office outside the chain of command.

It is too soon to know whether the California Democrat’s measure will pass the GOP-controlled House of Representatives. But some have moved their cases to the civilian courts.

On Tuesday, eight present and former service members who served in the Marines and the Navy filed suit in U.S. District Court in Washington, accusing the military of having a “high tolerance for sexual predators in their ranks.” The suit also alleges that the military fosters a hostile environment for those who complain that they were assaulted.

“There [are] no circumstances under which women who are brave enough and patriotic enough to stand up and defend this nation should have to be subjected to being called ‘slut, whore, walking mattress,’” Susan Burke, a lawyer representing the women, told the Associated Press. “This is the year 2012. This kind of conduct is not acceptable.”

The women charged that they’ve suffered depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder because of the assaults. One woman says she tried to commit suicide after being raped inside her home by a senior officer and his civilian friend, according to the wire service.

In a statement released Tuesday night, the Marine Corps challenged the allegations of two former Marines, Ariana Klay and Elle Helmer, and said the cases were properly handled.

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michael.muskal@latimes.com


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