FORT LEONARD WOOD (AP) - The Army is aggressively investigating sexual assault complaints, the commanding general at Fort Leonard Wood said Wednesday - days after more than a dozen U.S. veterans filed a lawsuit accusing the Pentagon of failing to take their complaints of sexual abuse by older soldiers seriously.
Seventeen current and former service members who say they were raped or assaulted by fellow soldiers said they filed the federal class-action lawsuit to force the Pentagon to change how it handles such cases. One of the plaintiffs was a former Army sergeant who claimed that when she approached a chaplain at Fort Leonard Wood to discuss stress related to running into a service member who had allegedly raped her in the past, the chaplain told her that "it must have been God's will for her to be raped" and suggested she attend church more often.
Maj. Gen. David Quantock, the commanding general of the Missouri Army post, did not specifically discuss the lawsuit, but told reporters that reports of sexual assaults at Fort Leonard Wood had declined from 57 incidents in 2009 to 28 in 2010. A Fort Leonard Wood spokesman declined to comment on the allegations against the chaplain, who was not named in the suit.
"We have nothing whatsoever to hide," Quantock said. "We are a culture intolerant of sexual assault and sexual abuse of any kind."
Sgt. Rebekah Havrilla of West Columbia, S.C., alleges in the lawsuit that during her career she was allegedly raped by an individual in a canine unit in Afghanistan in 2006. She reported the incident under a military policy that allows a rape to be reported without it triggering an investigation if the alleged victim wants it to remain confidential.
Later, the lawsuit says she was at Fort Leonard Wood in 2009 for four weeks of active duty training when she ran into the alleged perpetrator, which caused her to go into shock. That's what caused her to reach out for assistance from the chaplain, according to the lawsuit.
Although The Associated Press normally does not identify the victims of sexual assault, the plaintiffs in the lawsuit have publicly discussed the cases. The suit names Defense Secretary Robert Gates and his predecessor, Donald H. Rumsfeld.
Asked Wednesday at a congressional hearing about the lawsuit, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the military has zero tolerance for sexual assault and has hired dozens more investigators, prosecutors and others to assist in such cases.
The military now has a victim's advocate at every installation, with the percent of these types of cases going to court martial increasing from about 30 percent to 52 percent, Gates told lawmakers.
"So, we are making headway," he said. "The fact is, we aren't where we should be. It is a matter of grave concern, and we will keep working at it."
Speaking at the same hearing, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said despite progress it is "unacceptable that ... we haven't gotten where we need to be on this."
"There still is enough anecdotal information coming out of both Iraq, and particularly in Afghanistan, to certainly be of concern," Mullen said.
Quantock, the Fort Leonard Wood commander, convened the press conference Wednesday after the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported in late January that eight of the 19 pending courts-martial at the installation involve sexual assaults by soldiers. The general said he met with Sen. Claire McCaskill in Washington on Tuesday to discuss the problem after she wrote a letter seeking explanation.
"Mothers and fathers across our nation entrust their sons and daughters to our military, bravely knowing that their child may pay the ultimate sacrifice for their country when fighting a dangerous enemy," McCaskill wrote. "What they will not tolerate, and what I will not allow, is when our soldiers feel unsafe within their own military family."
With nearly 90,000 soldiers passing through Fort Leonard Wood annually, the installation faces the same problems as society at large, Quantock said. He also decried the role of alcohol in many of the cases - and reiterated that soldiers deserve to be held to a higher standard of conduct.
The Army post has 38 programs dealing with sexual assault prevention as well as a special prosecutor who solely handles such cases, Quantock said.
"Young kids make mistakes," he said. "But they have to understand that in the Army, those mistakes . . . will not be tolerated."