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Originally published Saturday, July 20, 2013 at 5:40 PM

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Military sex-assault cases often stalled by career fears

Veterans and active-duty military personnel here sounded a consistent theme: They believe commanders in charge of deciding which sexual assault cases to prosecute conceal far too much out of fear that the cases will taint their careers.

The New York Times

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OCEANSIDE, Calif. — Among the scores of memories that Tiffany Lucas collected during her years as a Marine gunnery sergeant, she wears most of them with pride.

When a superior ordered male Marines not to curse in front of female Marines — as if the women were too delicate to take it — she spit an expletive his way.

When other women selected the skinniest male Marines to carry on their shoulders during training, as if from the battlefield, she instead picked the heavy ones.

But the memory that has haunted her was her failure to push back against a commander who told her not to file a complaint from a young female recruit who said she was raped by a male Marine, who, Lucas said, went on to assault two more women.

“I was too weak to stand up to my commanding officer,” said Lucas, who served in the Marines for 11 years, including in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2006 and 2007. “I really wish I had done something. If I could go back in time, I would stand up for her.”

In Oceanside, a scrappy beach town 10 miles south of Camp Pendleton, the Marine base that sprawls for 195 square miles along the Southern California coastline, almost everyone who has served has a story to tell about sexual misconduct in the military. Some were harassed or assaulted themselves, while others worked among men and women who were victims of abuse.

But in more than a dozen long interviews, veterans and active-duty military personnel here sounded a consistent theme: They believe commanders in charge of deciding which cases to prosecute conceal far too much out of fear that the cases will taint their careers.

“It’s a huge problem, mainly because of the fact it goes unreported,” said Jimmy Coats, who served in the Navy for eight years and was raped, he said, by a man he had been dating.

“My supervisor told me not to tell my commanding officer,” Coats added. “I worked in a clinic, and in quite a few instances there were people who didn’t want to talk about it. When a report was made, they tried to keep it as quiet as possible.”

A recent Pentagon survey found that an estimated 26,000 people in the armed forces were sexually assaulted last year, up from 19,000 in 2010.

Congress, led in part by women on the Senate Armed Services Committee, is trying to grapple with the issue in a series of legislative proposals that are intended to crack down on offenders and keep commanders from reversing guilty verdicts in sexual assault convictions, which happens very rarely.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., proposed a measure that would give military prosecutors, rather than commanders, the power to decide which sexual assault cases to try, with the goal of increasing the number of people who report crimes without fear of retaliation.

The idea of removing these powers from commanders has been met with stiff resistance both throughout the Pentagon and among some fellow lawmakers. The measure was rejected by the committee, but Gillibrand has said she will try to revive it this year on the Senate floor.

Lucas, 34, who was the only woman in her unit, oversaw a large group of trainees, including a 22-year-old woman who liked to go out drinking, Lucas said. After an overnight trip outside Reno, Nev., the trainee told Lucas she had been raped by a male Marine with a stellar training record. Lucas, appalled, went to her commanding officer to get an investigation started.

“I was told not to file a complaint,” Lucas said, adding that she suspected it was because her commanding officer did not want such an event recorded on his own performance evaluation. “He felt the girl was promiscuous,” Lucas said of her commanding officer. “She drank.”

Her commanding officer told her, she said, that the male Marine was great in every other aspect.

“I said, ‘That’s not the point.’ I really wish I had done more.

She was depressed, and he went on to assault two women in Japan.

While there are disagreements among veterans and active-duty military personnel about whether commanders should have power over prosecutions, there is broad agreement that the system does not always function in a way that best serves victims or the accused.

Victims have long said that they fear retaliation if they report sex crimes to commanders, and that their careers could suffer.

President Obama joined the debate in May when he proclaimed at the White House that those who commit sexual assault in the military should be “prosecuted, stripped of their positions, court-martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged — period.”

“This has always been part of the culture,” said Howard Buford, 88, who served in the Air Force for 20 years.

“The women always kept their mouths shut, because people didn’t pay attention to them. But I think there is enough pressure now that the generals and colonels will start acting like they know what’s going on.”

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