Ariana Klay’s assignment to Marine Barracks Washington should have been the cherry on top of an already illustrious military and academic career. A National Merit scholar and superstar athlete, Klay was recruited by the Naval Academy, becoming the first member of her family to attend college. After a stint at Camp Pendleton, she served an eight-month tour in Iraq before being tapped for the prestigious base.
But shortly after her arrival, she tells The Daily Beast, the base chaplain took her aside and warned her to be careful. Within days, she says, junior Marines were calling her “slut” and “whore.” In December 2009, four months after her arrival, Klay formally requested deployment to Afghanistan. The request was denied—as were three subsequent ones. Seven months later, she says, a senior Marine officer and his friend came into her home, a block from the base, and gang-raped her. But that was just the beginning of Klay’s ordeal: because of the retaliation she says she was subjected to after reporting the rape, she fell into a deep depression, and last March she attempted suicide.
Now Klay is leading seven other women in a lawsuit against Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, his predecessors Robert Gates and Donald Rumsfeld, and six current and former heads of the Marine Corps and Navy. The suit, filed on Tuesday morning by D.C. attorney Susan Burke, alleges that despite more than 20 years of claims to the contrary, military leadership not only has refused to take action to address rape, sexual assault, and harassment within its ranks, but also has unlawfully failed to comply with congressional mandates pertaining to the issue. “Each plaintiff suffered directly from Defendants’ unlawful conduct,” the suit states, “which created and maintained a hostile environment for servicemembers reporting rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment.”
Asked to respond to the filing, the Department of Defense said, “Without seeing the lawsuit, we are unable to provide comment at this time.”
The suit comes a year after Cioca v. Rumsfeld, in which Burke represented Kori Cioca and 17 other survivors of military sexual assault, alleging constitutional-rights violations against Gates, Rumsfeld, and the Department of Defense. In the months following the filing of that case, Burke received what she calls a “flood” of calls from other survivors, and the number of plaintiffs grew to 28. The case was dismissed in federal court in December, and Burke has filed an appeal.
In this case, Burke is targeting specific installations, most notably the Marine Barracks in Washington, D.C. The base is one of the oldest and most symbolic military installations in the United States. Marines from the base, also known as ”8th and I,” conduct ceremonial honors at the Pentagon and the White House, provide military funeral detail at Arlington National Cemetery, and make up the Silent Drill Platoon, a 24-man rifle platoon that performs a precision-drill exhibition that the military says “exemplifies the professionalism associated with the U.S. Marine Corps.”
As first reported in the forthcoming documentary The Invisible War, which won this year’s audience award at the Sundance Film Festival, Marine Barracks Washington is also, according to several soldiers who have served there, a place where a combination of mandatory drinking events, few other official responsibilities, and a widespread sense of entitlement form a toxic brew. “I’d been to the academy, been in other commands, and been deployed in Iraq, and I’d never seen anything like what I saw there,” Klay tells The Daily Beast. “It’s a base that was founded in the 19th century, and that’s where their attitudes toward women have remained.”
Among the documents filed on Tuesday morning is a page titled “Hurt Feelings Report.” It has a list of “reasons for filling out this report” that include: “I am a pussy;” “I have woman like hormones;” “I am a queer;” and “I am a little bitch.” At the bottom, it asks you to name the “Real Man who hurt your sensitive little feelings.” According to Burke, the document was posted to Facebook under the caption, “My Marines Crack Me Up,” last November by the base’s director of protocol. “That document is openly mocking someone who is coming forward being harassed,” Burke tells The Daily Beast. “It just shows what a mockery they make of this.”
According to the court papers in the newly filed case, the Marine Corps investigation into Klay’s alleged assault determined that she had consented to group sex and that the behavior she called “harassment” was sexual attention she’d encouraged by wearing makeup and exercising in running shorts and a tank top. She was transferred to another base through the length of the investigation, and last August, a year after the assault, was discharged. In December, one of her alleged perpetrators was convicted of adultery and indecent language and sentenced to 45 days in military jail; the other was given immunity.
It was a remarkably tough sentence, given Department of Defense statistics. According to its annual reports, just 2 percent of reported sexual assaults result in a conviction. Ninety percent of those who report an assault, meanwhile, are involuntarily discharged, often after receiving dubious diagnoses of “personality disorders.” Given the numbers, it’s no surprise that according to a Pentagon estimate, less than 15 percent of the estimated 19,000 assaults that occurred in 2010 were reported.
“It’s the way they treated her afterward that’s probably the most horrifying,” says Klay’s husband, Ben. “Intellectually, you can deal with the idea that there are bad people out there, and there are always going to be bad people out there. But to be in an organization and risk your life for it, and in a moment where your wife has been degraded beyond human comprehension and is in need of, not just help, but fairness, for that organization to so aggressively turn on her ... I was absolutely appalled.”
Ariana Klay is now pursuing a master’s degree in social work, and Ben Klay, a graduate of Yale University and Harvard Business School who also served two tours of duty in Iraq, works in the National Security Division for the federal government. In December, with Ariana having decided to participate in the lawsuit and both Klays agreeing to appear in the documentary, he resigned from the reservist unit he’d joined after graduate school. It wasn’t an easy decision. “I was amazed at how terrifying it would be to be a whistle-blower,” he says. “They gang-raped my wife. You’d think I’d be ready with a hatchet. But it’s terrifying. Your personal, terrible story that you’ve never told anybody becomes part of your identity. ‘That’s Ben Klay. His wife was gang-raped.’ That’s nobody that you ever want to be. I wanted to be ‘Ben Klay, he was in the military and he did good things.’”