US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta listens during a Pentagon press conference on September 27, 2012 in Washington, DC. (Paul J Richards / AFP / Getty Images )

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Service Members Sue Defense Secretary Over Alleged Military Rapes

Nineteen former and current U.S. military service members sued Leon Panetta and former secretaries of defense Friday alleging civil-rights violations—stemming from sexual assault accusations they say were not taken seriously by the military. Jesse Ellison reports.

Daniele Hoffman was 17 years old when she met the recruiter for the National Guard who she says eventually attempted to rape her. The child of a single mother, Hoffman says the man “became the fatherly figure in my life.” She signed up for service both to “give back to my country and to make him proud. I wouldn’t have joined if it weren’t for his influence.”

But then, she says, the recruiter began to touch her inappropriately, make physical advances, and eventually attempted to rape her, warning her not to tell anyone by saying, “I gave you everything you have, and I can take it all away.”

Hoffman’s story, and the subsequent harassment and sexual assaults she says she experienced while deployed in Iraq, are detailed in a lawsuit “Daniele Hoffman, et al., v. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, et al.,” filed Friday, morning in the U.S. District Court, Northern District of California (Case No. C12 05049 DMR), on behalf of 19 current and former Army and Air Force service members against the current and former secretaries of defense, alleging ongoing violations of their civil rights. The lawsuit’s second plaintiff, Kole Welsh, a former Army cadet, says he was raped by his staff sergeant, and was infected with HIV as a result of the assault.

The key problem, the lawsuit says, is “permitting the ‘chain-of-command’ (i.e., a single individual) to control which sexual assault allegations are fully investigated and prosecuted. They have not eliminated the ability of a single officer to prevent a victim from accessing the military’s judicial system. The reality is that this officer may well be a sexual predator himself.”

The case is the fifth of its kind brought by the Washington, D.C., attorney Susan L. Burke. Like the previous cases, all of which are pending in the district or circuit courts, it alleges that defendants knew the military was violating the constitutional rights of men and women who reported rape and sexual assaults, that they presided over dysfunctional systems in which a tiny fraction of sexual assault charges are investigated, and that they repeatedly refused to do anything to fix the problem. “Each Defendant repeatedly cites a policy of ‘zero tolerance’ and systematic reform regarding rape and sexual assault,” the suit reads. “Yet this rhetoric has failed to change the misogynistic culture of the Army and has not resulted in any meaningful reform or reduction in sexual assaults.”

According to current Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, some 19,000 sexual assaults are alleged to have occurred in the military last year alone, but because of fears of retaliation, only 20 percent of those are reported. On Thursday night, Panetta was interviewed on NBC about the issue, which he called an “outrage.” He once again pledged his commitment to confronting the issue, as he has repeatedly in the last year, announcing a slew of new measures, including the establishment of special victims units within every branch, new policies that would allow victims to transfer into a different unit, and—as of just this week—he ordered all branches to review their sexual-assault training and response programs.

But according to Burke and others, the changes don’t go far enough. “The reason we keep bringing more is because, despite the rhetoric and the show of good faith from Panetta, we still haven’t seen any obvious fixes,” Burke told The Daily Beast. “And they’re continuing to deprive people of their constitutional rights.”

“After being raped or sexually assaulted by uniformed colleagues, these survivors reported the crimes … instead of their perpetrators being punished, the victims were intimidated, isolated, and retaliated against.”

On Wednesday, the Army announced it was bringing charges of forcible sodomy, adultery, and sexual misconduct against Jeffrey Sinclair, a brigadier general who has served in the Army for 27 years. “He’s exactly the kind of person that was the intermediary between victims and the justice system,” Burke says. “How many rape investigations did he pass on?”

Burke, Hoffman, and Welsh were joined at the announcement by California Rep. Jackie Speier, who has been one of the leaders of reform efforts on Capitol Hill. “The service members who have bravely joined this lawsuit are demanding nothing more than the justice they could not gain through the military’s grossly deficient judicial system that is inherently biased against victims,” Speier said in a statement, noting that next week she will travel to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, to investigate an unfolding sexual assault scandal, now allegedly involving 19 instructors and 43 victims. “After being raped or sexually assaulted by uniformed colleagues, these survivors reported the crimes committed against them. But instead of their perpetrators being punished, the victims were intimidated, isolated, and retaliated against.

Hoffman, now a 27-year-old nursing student whose enrollment in the National Guard will wrap up in the next two months, did eventually decide to report her attempted assault. Word quickly spread around the unit, and soon six other women came forward with similar stories, all alleged against the same perpetrator. Those women were no longer on active duty, so they pursued their case through the civilian court system, where the recruiter was charged with 31 counts of sexual misconduct, rape, sexual assault, and abuse of authority. He was sentenced to four years in prison. Welsh’s attacker, too, was convicted in a criminal case and is currently in prison for sexually assaulting and intentionally infecting several people with HIV.

Both plaintiffs say their complaints were never taken seriously within the military. Hoffman says she was subjected to ongoing retaliation and harassment for the duration of her time in the National Guard—treatment that she says caused her more trauma than the attack itself. Speaking just prior to announcing the lawsuit, she told The Daily Beast that she almost didn’t get on the plane to California from her home in Indiana because she was so nervous. “But there are still women in the military who are going through this and who can’t speak up,” she said, her voice cracking. “And it’s really, really, really lonely. I just want them to know that they’re not alone, and we’re fighting for them.”

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