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Utah women among 19 suing over military sexual assault

Department of Defense estimates just 6% of those who commit sexual assault in the military do any time in jail.

First Published Sep 28 2012 12:31 pm • Last Updated Jan 07 2013 11:32 pm

The Army that Kelly Alvesteffer Smith joined a month after graduating from Wyoming’s Green River High School in 2001 taught her all about battle buddies.

She knew to always stick with a friend, especially when off a military base at night.

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But nothing in her training prepared her for a reality that she and thousands of other servicemen and women face: sexual assault and rape at the hands of fellow soldiers, airmen, sailors and Marines.

"They were trying to protect you from civilians when, it turned out, they weren’t protecting you from the military," said Smith, now 29 and one of 19 plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit filed Friday in San Francisco.

Smith has lived in Utah off and on during the past decade, and moved to Texas in August. A second plaintiff and former soldier, Sascha Garner, also is from Utah.

The lawsuit brought by 14 women and five men who are current and former members of the Army and Air Force alleges that top military brass deprived them of their constitutional rights to due process, speech and equal protection.

They claim that in spite of promising reform for two decades, the military continues to foster a culture of sexual harassment and doesn’t seriously investigate or punish sexual predators.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, his two predecessors and the secretaries of the Army and Air Force are named as defendants.

"The pattern is the same in all of them: The victim is blamed, ostracized, retaliated against. Rape kits are lost, evidence is lost, there is no court martial," attorney Susan Burke said in an interview.

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‘An epidemic that cannot be tolerated’ » Burke, a Washington D.C. attorney, has three other lawsuits pending against Pentagon leaders in various courts across the country. Another is on appeal. She was a key figure in the documentary about the topic, "The Invisible War," which won the audience award at Utah’s Sundance Film Festival in January.

Panetta has taken some good steps, but it’s not enough, says Burke. "They have a huge imbedded population of sexual predators because they haven’t caught them and put them in jail."

Burke was joined at a San Francisco press conference by two of the plaintiffs, including Kole Welsh of Washington state.

After five years in the Army, Welsh earned a scholarship to an ROTC training program at Fort Lewis. It was there in 2007 that he was sexually assaulted by his staff sergeant supervisor. A couple of weeks later, Welsh learned he had tested positive for HIV. He wasn’t the only one.

 "Young men that I knew were becoming infected with HIV because of this jerk," said Welsh, who was discharged shortly after contracting the virus. "He felt like he had a free pass, and he could do whatever the hell he wanted to."

 Welsh said he complained to his superiors but his warnings went unheeded. It wasn’t until two years later that the staff sergeant was sent to prison by a civilian court.  

"Other victims I’ve met are so ashamed and devastated by the fact that they have been given HIV; they remain in the shadows," Welsh said. "The treatment of rape victims in the military is so humiliating, so stigmatizing, many would rather die (than come forward)." 

Rep. Jackie Speier, D-San Francisco, was also at the press conference. She is sponsoring legislation that would take decisions on whether to prosecute away from the military’s chain of command and give it to an impartial office.

"The military is becoming an institution that basically protects sexual predators," Speier said later. "The only answer is more prosecutions and more convictions."

Next week, she will be part of a Congressional visit to Lackland Air Force Base, site of the most recent scandal.

"You cannot continue to have 19,000 victims every year," said Speier. "This is an epidemic that cannot be tolerated."

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