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Veterans sue over sexual abuse

Group aiming to alter handling of complaints

Veterans Kori Cioca, 25, of Wilmington, Ohio (left), and Panayiota Bertzikis, 29, of Somerville, Mass., are among plaintiffs who say officials’ response to rape complaints is often inadequate. Veterans Kori Cioca, 25, of Wilmington, Ohio (left), and Panayiota Bertzikis, 29, of Somerville, Mass., are among plaintiffs who say officials’ response to rape complaints is often inadequate. (Cliff Owen/Associated Press)
By Kimberly Hefling
Associated Press / February 16, 2011

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WASHINGTON — A group of US veterans who say they were raped or abused by their comrades wants to force the Pentagon to change how it handles such cases.

More than a dozen female and two male current or former service members say servicemen get away with rape and other sexual abuse and victims are too often ordered to continue to serve alongside those they say attacked them.

In a federal class-action lawsuit filed yesterday that names Defense Secretary Robert Gates and his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, the group seeks an objective third party to manage such complaints because individual commanders have too much say in how allegations are handled.

The alleged attackers in the lawsuit include an Army criminal investigator and an Army National Guard commander. The abuse alleged ranges from obscene verbal abuse to gang rape.

In one case, an Army Reservist says two male colleagues raped her in Iraq and videotaped the attack. She complained to authorities after the men circulated the video to colleagues. Despite being bruised from her shoulders to elbows from being held down, she says, charges weren’t filed because the commander determined she “did not act like a rape victim’’ and “did not struggle enough’’ and authorities said they didn’t want to delay the scheduled return of the alleged attackers to the United States.

“The problem of rape in the military is not only service members getting raped, but it’s the entire way that the military as a whole is dealing with it,’’ said Panayiota Bertzikis, a plaintiff in the lawsuit who says she was raped in 2006. “The entire culture needs to be changed.’’

Although the Associated Press normally does not identify the victims of sexual assault, the plaintiffs in the lawsuit have publicly discussed the cases.

Bertzikis, 29, of Somerville, Mass., says she was raped by a Coast Guard shipmate while out on a social hike with him in Burlington, Vt. Bertzikis complained to her commanding officer, but she said authorities did not take substantial steps to investigate the matter. Instead, she said, they forced her to live on the same floor as the man she had accused and tolerated others calling her a liar and whore.

In response to her treatment, Bertzikis founded the Cambridge-based Military Rape Crisis Center in 2006. The center offers counseling to victims of military sexual assault.

Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said in a statement that sexual assault is a wider societal problem and that Gates has been working to ensure the military is doing all it can to prevent and respond to it.

The military had already planned to roll out a new hot line that victims can call in April, said Pentagon spokeswoman Cynthia Smith. It has another initiative that encourages service members to help those who are assaulted or raped. In 2005, the military created an office charged with preventing sexual assault.

In Congress, Representative Niki Tsongas, a Democrat from Lowell, Mass., and member of the House Armed Services Committee, has led efforts to improve the Pentagon’s handling of rape cases.

A provision in a defense spending bill last year forces the military to adopt a better system for reporting and documenting sexual assaults and require the Department of Defense to devise ways of offering legal counsel to all victims, whether or not they want to report an assault.

Sarah Albertson, a former Marine corporal who is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said one of the hurdles in getting improvements in the system is that military commanders do not want any marks on their record such as a rape in their unit.

Albertson alleges she reported she was raped in 2006 by a fellow Marine, but instead of being helped, she was forced to live one floor below the alleged perpetrator for two years.

“People who did believe me and . . . were supportive of me were still telling me, ‘Don’t tell anybody about this, don’t go to the public, don’t let this get out because it will make the military look bad,’ ’’ Albertson said.