ALEXANDRIA, Va. (CN) - Seventeen veterans, male and female, claim they were raped, sexually assaulted or harassed on active duty while officials turned a blind eye to the crimes and even promoted the assailants. "After plaintiffs and other victims reported the crimes against them, they were retaliated against, drummed out of the services, or, in some tragic cases, killed," the veterans say.
The veteran-plaintiffs say Defense Secretaries Donald Rumsfeld and Robert Gates "failed to investigate rapes and sexual assaults, prosecute perpetrators, provide an adequate judicial system as required by the Uniform Military Justice Act, and abide by congressional deadlines to implement congressionally ordered institutional reforms to stop rapes and other sexual assaults."
The veterans say that military leaders "ran institutions in which perpetrators were promoted and where military personnel openly mocked and flouted the modest congressionally mandated institutional reforms. Defendants ran institutions in which plaintiffs and other victims were openly subjected to retaliation, were encouraged to refrain from reporting rapes and sexual assaults in a manner that would have permitted prosecution, and were ordered to keep quiet and refrain from telling anyone about the criminal acts of their work colleagues."
The 42-page complaint relates grisly tales of sexual assault.
One Coast Guard Seaman says her superior officer spit in her face, threatened to kill her and "then began to break into her room at night, stand over her bed and masturbate."
She says she had to sleep with a knife under her pillow to defend herself.
She says the officer eventually raped her, but was allowed to plead guilty only to hitting her and was punished with a minor loss of pay and restriction to base for 30 days.
A member of the Air National Guard says she was assaulted by a co-worker while on active duty in Iraq.
She says her co-worker "pushed [the plaintiff] up against the left side of the wall, took his right hand and pulled [her] pants and underwear down, and then used his hand to rub her vagina. He simultaneously ground his penis against [her], and talked about how much he was enjoying the assault."
She says her attacker was only told to stay away from her, and she was given a lecture by a base chaplain, who told her that 96 percent of sexual assaults occur when drinking is involved, though she had not been drinking when she was attacked.
A male plaintiff with a Russian surname says he was raped during his service with the Army in 2009.
He says that during basic training his colleagues told him "We'll send you back to Russia split in half, you commie faggot," and "Now you champagne socialist faggot from New York gonna get what you deserve."
He says "his Command laughed at him" when he reported the rape.
"Rather than properly investigate the matter, Command instead forced [the plaintiff] to sign a typed statement on May 19, 2009, stating - falsely - that he was a 'practicing homosexual.' Command then used the statement to discharge [the plaintiff] under the 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy," he says.
More instances of ambivalence from higher-ups are detailed in the complaint, including a Marine sergeant who simply made a Marine lieutenant apologize to a plaintiff after the lieutenant "shoved his fingers up [the plaintiff's] anus until they penetrated him."
This man says his fellow Marines told him "that reporting the sexual abuse would ruin his career because 'bad things happen to those who rock the boat.'"
The veteran-plaintiffs say 3,230 sexual assaults and rapes in the military were reported in 2009, up from 2,947 such reports in 2006.
"After plaintiffs and other victims reported the crimes against them, they were retaliated against, drummed out of the services, or, in some tragic cases, killed," the plaintiffs say. They claim that a female Marine "was murdered and buried in a shallow fire pit" in a servicemember's back yard for reporting a rape.
"After plaintiffs and other victims reported the crimes, Command forced them to salute and otherwise show 'respect' for their rapists. Plaintiffs were forced to live and work alongside their rapists, and some were put under their direct command," they say.
The complaint adds that the Pentagon refuses to report conviction rates from courts martial, and "destroys evidence gathered during forensic examination after only one year from its collection date if the victim has chosen to use the restricted reporting system."
The veterans say Gates and Rumsfeld "repeatedly and systematically violated plaintiffs' constitutional rights." They seek compensatory damages.
"Rapes and sexual assaults continue to occur at increasing rates because the top leadership - namely, the defendants - failed to challenge the misogynistic military culture that prevented the various programs from being fully implemented," the veterans say.
They are represented by Susan Burke of Washington, D.C.
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