WASHINGTON (AP) - Eight current and former members of the U.S. military allege in a new federal lawsuit that they were raped, assaulted or harassed during their service and suffered retaliation when they reported it to their superiors.
The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Washington, accuses the military of having a "high tolerance for sexual predators in their ranks" and fostering a hostile environment that discourages victims of sexual assault from coming forward and punishes them when they do. The suit claims the Defense Department has failed to take aggressive steps to confront the problem despite public statements suggesting otherwise.
The eight women include an active-duty enlisted Marine and seven others who served in the Navy and Marine Corps. Seven women allege that a comrade raped or tried to sexually assault them, including in a commanding officer's office after a pub crawl in Washington and inside a Naval Air Station barracks room in Florida. The eighth says she was harassed and threatened while deployed to Iraq, only to be told by a superior that "this happens all the time."
"There (are) no circumstances under which women who are brave enough and patriotic enough to stand up and defend this nation should have to be subjected to being called "slut, whore, walking mattress,"' said Susan Burke, a lawyer representing the women. "This is the year 2012. This kind of conduct is not acceptable."
The women say they've suffered depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder because of the assaults. One woman says she tried to commit suicide after being raped inside her home by a senior officer and his civilian friend.
The lawsuit names as defendants past and present military leaders, including Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and his predecessors.
Defense Department spokeswoman Cynthia Smith said she could not discuss pending litigation, but said the military has no tolerance for sexual assault. Under a policy announced in December, service members who report a sexual assault have the option of quickly transferring to another unit or installation.
She said the department has also increased funding for investigators and judge advocates to receive specialized training in sexual assault cases and has appointed a two-star officer to direct a sexual assault response and prevention office. The Pentagon is assembling a data system to track reports of sexual assault and is reviewing how commanding officers are trained in preventing and responding to rape cases.
"It is important that everyone in uniform be alert to the problem and have the leadership training to help prevent these crimes," Smith said in a written statement.