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Military sex assault likened to 'friendly fire'
Updated: 2004-04-01 11:29

Sexual assaults by U.S. military men against their female comrades-in-arms amount to a different kind of "friendly fire" in the Iraqi-Afghan theater, victims' advocates told members of Congress on Wednesday.

"While these friendly fire attacks leave no trail of blood, they leave many damaged souls in their wake," Scott Berkowitz, president of the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, told a panel of women lawmakers. "They rob our country of the services of many we have trained and nurtured to protect us."

There have been 129 cases of sexual assault reported to the independent Miles Foundation in the current theater of operations -- Iraq, Kuwait, Afghanistan and Bahrain -- but only 27 were reported to military officials, according to foundation chief Christine Hansen.

One reason victims are reluctant to tell their commanding officers is the lack of confidentiality and a blame-the-victim mentality within the military, Hansen told the Congressional Caucus for Women's Issues.

Others may fear that simply reporting an attack will hurt their careers, especially for victims who are officers, who may be charged with such disciplinary infractions as fraternization, conduct unbecoming an officer or adultery while their rapists face nominal penalties and stay in the military, Hansen said.

"The more you report, the more they say you're making it up," said Jennifer Machmer, a U.S. Army captain who was sexually assaulted in Kuwait in 2003 and is being medically discharged from the military as a direct result.


Machmer said she had reported extreme sexually abusive language by a subordinate in 2001, and was sexually abused by a military chaplain to whom she went for marital counseling in 2002.

She did not report the 2002 incident, but when she was assaulted in Kuwait in March 2003, "There was no way I could file away another violation, so I went and I reported it within a half hour."

The investigation took until August, but Machmer said the man was never punished and remained in the military, while she is being discharged with a 30-percent temporary retirement benefit.

Rep. Louise Slaughter, a New York Democrat who chairs the panel, said the U.S. military's inadequate response to sexual assault "brings on a disconcerting sense of deja vu ... and once again, military leaders are 'shocked, shocked' that there's a problem."

Slaughter said she had monitored the issue since the 1991 hearings into the Tailhook scandal, when 140 male Navy and Marine officers were accused of abusing 90 women at a meeting in Las Vegas.

More recently, an Army sexual scandal involved the rape in 1996-97 of female recruits by male drill sergeants. Last year, U.S. legislators pointed to a "culture of discrimination" at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs after female cadets made allegations of sexual assault.

Anita Blair, deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for personnel, told the panel that a Pentagon task force on military sexual assault was due to report to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld by April 30.

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