Fourteen current and former members of the U.S. military charged in a lawsuit filed Tuesday that the Pentagon turned a blind eye when they reported being sexually harassed, assaulted and raped by fellow service members while on active duty.
Interviews by NBC News with some of the plaintiffs in the case reveal disturbing and previously unreported allegations of sexual abuse in the military, including some in the war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq. In addition, one of the plaintiffs, identified as a naval aviator, charges in the lawsuit that she was drugged and then gang raped by two of her colleagues while serving at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma just two months ago.
Mary Gallagher, a former sergeant in the Air National Guard, says that within weeks of being deployed to an air base outside of Baghdad in 2009 she was brutally assault by a fellow sergeant who burst into the ladies room, pushed her up against the wall, pulled her pants and underwear down and ground his genitals against her, talking the whole time how much he was enjoying it.
"I thought he was going to kill me that night," Gallagher told NBC in an interview. "I felt completely isolated and alone and really scared. Here I was, in the middle of a foreign country in the middle of a war."
When she reported the attack, she says her commander’s only response was to reassign her assailant and tell her "this stuff happens."
Rebekah Havrilla, a former Army sergeant who served as the only female member of a bomb squad in eastern Afghanistan, said she was attacked by a colleague at Salermo Forward Operating Base near the Pakistani border on her last day in the country in 2007.
"He pushed me down on the bed and used his body weight to hold me down and proceeded to rape me," she said in an interview. While holding her down with one arm, her fellow U.S. Army sergeant took photographers of her. She was later horrified to discover the photographs had been posted on a pornographic website, she said.
Sexual abuse reports rising
The lawsuit, being filed by civil litigator Susan Burke, is an attempt to shine the spotlight on what Pentagon officials have acknowledged is a serious problem — a steady increase in reports of sexual abuse within the U.S. military. Last year, the Pentagon reported there had been 3,230 complaints of sexual abuse by members of the military services during fiscal year 2009, an 11 percent increase over the year before.
But Pentagon officials acknowledge that most cases go unreported — and of those that do, department figures indicate less than one in four ever get criminally prosecuted.
The lawsuit alleges that the Pentagon has failed to crack down on the sexist culture of the military services or implemented policies that would insure aggressive investigations of those accused and bar retaliation against service members who file complaints.
In addition to the 14 current and former members of the military services who are plaintiffs, there are two others who served in the Coast Guard, a part of Homeland Security, because the Defense Department has some responsibility for handling its sexual abuse complaints. The lawsuit does not identify the names of any of those who allegedly committed the attacks.
"This is a tough issue," said Kaye Whitley, director of the Pentagon’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, a small unit set up in 2004 to promote training programs and greater sensitivity within the services to the problems of sexual abuse and harassment.
Whitley said she couldn't comment on the specific cases outlined in the complaint, but insisted the Pentagon has been making progress. "We're talking about changing the way people think and the way people feel … the research tells us it takes eight to ten years to change the culture."
The lawsuit specifically names Defense Secretary Robert Gates and his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, as defendants, charging that both have failed to take aggressive measures to deal with the problem or follow edicts from Congress.
Delays with reporting complaints?
It charges, for example, that Rumsfeld in 2004 delayed reporting members to a commission mandated by Congress to investigate the military's handling of sexual assault cases and resisted congressional oversight of the issue. It accuses Gates of violating the plaintiffs' constitutional rights by permitting military commanders to use "nonjudicial punishments" for accused rapists — and failing to meet a congressionally mandated deadline for creating a database that would centralize all reports of rapes and sexual assaults.
"Sexual assault is a wider societal problem and Secretary Gates has been working with the service chiefs to make sure the U.S. military is doing all it can to prevent and respond to it," Geoff Morrell, Gates' press secretary, wrote in an email to NBC.
"That means providing more money, personnel, training and expertise, including reaching out to other large institutions such as universities to learn best practices. This is now a command priority, but we clearly still have more work to do in order to ensure all of our service members are safe from abuse," he added.
'I just kind of panicked'
One of the more disturbing stories in the complaint is that of Sarah Albertson, a former Marine corporal at Camp Pendleton who says that after a night of partying, a superior office climbed into the bed where she was sleeping and forced himself on her.
"I just kind of panicked, froze. I didn't say anything," she said. She admits she was drinking heavily that night, but after reporting the incident, she was still forced to work in the same office as her assailant.
"I was told I needed to suck it up until the end of the investigation and I was told to respect the rank he deserves," she said. Suffering from depression as a result of the experience, she gain 30 pounds and was eventually assigned to a weight-loss training program. The officer in charge was the man she says had raped her. "He was in charge of judging my body," she said.
Albertson — like Havrilla and Gallagher — says the men they accused denied the charges of non-consensual sex, essentially making their cases ones of "he said-she said."
But all three believed their military commanders never took their complaints as seriously as they should have. As much as they say they don't want to sweep this [problem] under the rug, "that’s what they want to do," said Gallagher.
"It's sad in a way that you have to file a lawsuit to get their attention."