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Originally published Thursday, September 28, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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Soldier charged for refusing to go to Iraq with unit

A Fort Lewis soldier who says that sexual offenses by three superiors left her unwilling to return to Iraq was charged by the Army with...

Seattle Times staff reporter

A Fort Lewis soldier who says that sexual offenses by three superiors left her unwilling to return to Iraq was charged by the Army with missing a troop movement and being absent without leave.

The charges announced Wednesday against Spc. Suzanne Swift, 22, carry the risk of a court-martial trial and imprisonment. But Army officials also are considering less severe actions, such as a restriction of privileges or a letter of reprimand and discharge.

"The chain of command hasn't decided how to proceed," said Sgt. Maj. Yolanda Choates. "This is the first step in the process."

Swift's military-police unit departed for Iraq in January, but Swift opted to go absent without leave. She attracted national attention as she was arrested at her mother's home in Eugene, Ore., amid allegations that she had been coerced into a sexual relationship with her platoon sergeant during a 2004 tour of duty in Iraq, and he retaliated against her after she quit the relationship.

"I had a squad leader who literally singled me out to be the person that he was going to have sex with during the deployment," Swift said in an interview broadcast Sept. 18 by Democracy Now. "And you know, I was 19. I fell for it, and for months I was like his little sex slave, I guess. It was disgusting, and it was horrible, and I didn't know what to do."

Army officials said Wednesday that they took the allegations seriously, and that the Fort Lewis commander, Lt. Gen. James Dubik, requested a full investigation that involved interviews with more than 20 soldiers. However, the claim of coerced sex could not be substantiated, said Choates.

"He said he didn't — it was his word against hers," Choates said.

Army officials also were unable to substantiate Swift's sexual-harassment allegations against a second person in Iraq.

Army officials, however, did substantiate a charge of sexual harassment that Swift made against a team leader and noncommissioned officer she encountered upon her return from Iraq at Fort Lewis.

In her interview with Democracy Now, Swift said that the team leader would call in the middle of the night and ask her about her underwear and once said that she was to report naked to his bed as a place of duty for the day.

Choates said a letter of admonishment was put in the soldier's file documenting the harassment and the soldier was transferred to another unit away from Fort Lewis.

Swift could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

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Her mother, Sara Rich, said she didn't oppose her daughter's decision to enlist.

Rich said she has been a peace activist for years but wanted to support her daughter. She said her daughter believed she'd been promised that her enlistment wouldn't include duty in Iraq.

Even when Swift began to report from Iraq that she was being sexually harassed, Rich said, her daughter didn't take action because she wasn't ready to make a break with her company. "No, I have to redeploy with these people," Rich remembers her saying.

Swift changed her mind in January, as she was getting ready to deploy. She "froze with her keys in her hand and said, 'I can't do it,' " Rich said.

Swift is now serving with another unit at Fort Lewis, and is not at risk of going back to Iraq unless that unit is deployed, Choates said.

The case has been championed both by anti-war activists and women's groups, including Puget Sound based Women Organizing Women, whose founder, Susan Avila-Smith, has been in contact with Swift as recently as Tuesday.

"The military is still continuing to persecute and prosecute the victims rather than the perpetrators," Smith said.

Swift is one of a small but expanding number of soldiers who have refused Iraq duty and faced charges.

According to the Pentagon, the number of soldiers absent without leave is fewer than 1 percent of the total force. In 2005, 2,011 soldiers were reported AWOL, down from 4,483 in 2002.

The war resisters include Sgt. Kevin Benderman, an Army mechanic who spent more than a year at a Fort Lewis correctional facility after refusing to board a plane in Georgia for Iraq for a second tour of duty in January 2005 and said he was a conscientious objector.

At Fort Lewis, the most high-profile case involves 1st Lt. Ehren Watada, who declined in June to deploy to Iraq with a Stryker brigade and called the war illegal.

He has been charged with missing a troop movement, actions unbecoming an officer and showing contempt toward political leaders.

He could face eight years in prison if found guilty at a court-martial trial.

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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