A press conference was held this morning to announce a lawsuit filed by attorney Susan Burke in the Eastern Virginia federal court against former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates for failing to prevent, investigate, and prosecute the sexual assault and rape of the 17 plaintiffs. The plaintiffs in the case are veteran and active-duty service members from the Army, Navy, Marines, Coast Guard, and Reserves who were sexually assaulted, raped, or harassed by active duty military members.
Eleanor Smeal, President of the Feminist Majority Foundation, Anuradha Bhagwati, Executive Director of Service Women’s Action Network and a former Captain in the Marines, and Keith Rohman, President of Public Interest Investigators, spoke in support of the survivors and were joined by three of the plaintiffs in the case.
Smeal explained that 95 percent of rapes and assaults are committed by serial rapists and repeat offenders and that the military system of inadequately dealing with these crimes leads only to more crime. It must be changed so that perpetrators are punished, not promoted. Smeal asserted, “There are no winners here. This lawsuit is necessary because all else has failed and it is necessary to change this pattern. We will prevail because there is no question that this injures the victims, their families, the military, and all of us. It will take time but we will and must prevail.”
According to a 2003 study by the Veterans Affairs Medical Center, at least one-third of all women veterans have experienced rape or sexual assault during their service, and thirty percent of military women experience domestic violence. Moreover, rape occurs in the military nearly twice as often as in the civilian world. Members of the US House of Representatives, including Susan Davis (D-CA), Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), Louise Slaughter (D-NY), and Jane Harman (D-CA) have pressed the military to address sexualized violence, working on task forces and proposing legislation.
Bhagwati stated, “It is time to finally acknowledge that the military judicial system is broken when it comes to case of rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment, and that an alternative system must be created to guarantee accountability and justice for these crimes. American youth should not sacrifice their right to bodily integrity when they step forward to serve our nation. They bravely and honorably volunteer to wear the uniform with the understanding that they may make the ultimate sacrifice. That is enough to ask of them.”