When military sexual assault survivors call Susan Avila-Smith, she advises them to keep their mouths shut while she works on getting them home.
“It breaks my heart to do that,” she says, “but I want to get them out alive and that’s my main goal.”
Since she left the Army in 1995, Avila-Smith estimates that she has helped about 1,200 rape survivors separate from the U.S. Armed Forces and claim their Veterans Affairs (VA) benefits. As founder of Women Organizing Women, an online support group for survivors of military sexual trauma (MST), Avila-Smith has heard it all. But lately, she’s been more sensitive than usual.
“Maria’s case has triggered something in me,” she says. “I imagine the VAs are filling up right now with women who never even stepped foot in there before.”
“Maria” is 20-year-old Marine Lance Cpl. Maria Lauterbach, who disappeared from Camp Lejeune, outside of Jacksonville, N.C., on Dec. 14, 2007, one month before she was expected to give birth. As the local police enlisted the press to help reach out to Lauterbach and solicit information from the local community, it was soon reported that she had recently accused a superior at Camp Lejeune of rape.
Naval Criminal Investigative Service agent Paul Ciccarelli attempted to quell suspicions that the two might be linked, assuring the Associated Press that the “sexual encounter” was “not criminal.” On Jan. 10, the Marine Corps Times, a weekly newspaper serving military personnel, bolstered this claim, speculating that she may have fled to avoid charges for “making false statements.”
That same day, Lauterbach’s accused assailant, Marine Cpl. Cesar Laurean, was scheduled to appear at the Onslow County Sheriff’s office for questioning. He never showed up. On Jan. 11, Laurean, who had reported for duty for a full month after Lauterbach’s disappearance, failed to do so. His wife told investigators that she believed he had left for Mexico and gave investigators a note written by Laurean that said Lauterbach had slit her own throat with a knife, and he then buried her. Detectives have rejected that claim, and an autopsy found that Lauterbach died of a blunt force trauma to the head.
Later that day, her charred body was uncovered in a shallow grave behind the Laurean home. The horrific discovery took place only weeks before she was to testify against Laurean.
The drama set off a media frenzy, with updates on the cross-border manhunt constantly flashing across CNN tickers. Radio and talk show hosts, meanwhile, dissected Lauterbach’s character and credibility and questioned the delayed military response.
But Avila-Smith wasn’t surprised. “Unfortunately, the way her case was handled is the norm,” she says.
The Lauterbach case, according to Avila-Smith and many others, exemplifies the “criminal failure” of all branches of the military to address sexual assault for what it is – a violent crime. It is a “broken system” that she says puts victims on the defense, grants immunity to assailants and, in the end, puts rape survivors who have the courage to speak out, in even greater danger than if they had just accepted the abuse as collateral damage in their military careers.
Missing the mark
Following a 2003 firestorm of media reports and investigations exposing the prevalence and tolerance of sexual assault in the armed forces and training academies, Congress called on the Department of Defense (DoD) to revamp its approach. That same year, the results of a study conducted by Dr. Anne Sadler of the Iowa City VA Medical Center found 30 percent of female veterans having suffered MST while on active duty.
In response, Congress called on the DoD to overhaul its approach to sexual assault within its ranks. The 2005 defense authorization bill mandated the creation of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO), which, according to its website, has since served as “the single point of accountability and oversight for sexual assault policy.”
SAPRO has made many strides in fine-tuning the Uniform Code of Military Justice and encouraging MST reporting. It has held a range of workshops, trainings and outreach campaigns to define and denounce sexual assault. It also has set up a website to educate service members on how to deal with – and deter – the crime. At the same time, Sexual Assault Response Coordinators (SARCs) and victim advocates have been stationed on every major base to coordinate victims’ services.
However, according to many women, the reforms are missing the mark.
Former Army Pvt. 1st Class Jessica Doe, who prefers that her last name remain confidential, says that after she was raped by an instructor at Fort Eustis, Va., the SARC “blew it off like it was nothing.” Jessica pressed charges anyway, but says all that came of her search for justice was “rumors, scorn and lack of friends within my own unit.” The instructor was verbally reprimanded.
“I lost my benefits and everything,” she says. “I lost my career because the Army was going to be my career.”
Interrogators, not investigators
A 2004 survey of U.S. service members conducted by the Pentagon’s Advisory Committee on Women in the Services found fear of repercussions to be the number one “perceived barrier” to reporting sexual abuse, noted by 81 percent of female respondents and 73 percent of male respondents.
Confidentiality, career-related concerns and distrust of leadership were also cited by a majority of rape victims.
Marine Cpl. Brittany Thornton says a member of her unit in Okinawa, Japan, raped her on Christmas Day 2005. She reported the incident right away, pressed charges and was put on antidepressants, which she says her commanding officer saw as reason to remove her from her post in weapons maintenance and assign her to a desk job.
“They revoked all of my certification,” she says, “even though my psychiatrist said the drugs wouldn’t affect anything.” As a result, Thornton was unable to go on deployments, while her alleged assailant was “traveling all over the Pacific.”
“I felt like I was being punished,” she says. “I think it was just a way for them [the chain of command] to make things difficult for me because they didn’t believe me.”
The administrative position, however, gave her access to court documents and allowed her to look up her own file. Thornton says she was appalled at what she found.
The CID (or Criminal Investigation Division) agent in her case had taken the liberty to completely revise her account of the assault. “She made it sound like I told her that we went out and got drunk and had sex and I didn’t really want to, and afterwards I regretted it,” she says. “It was nothing like what I had [actually] said.” Meanwhile, her case “went nowhere,” she says, and her assailant eventually received nothing more than a “slap on the wrist.”
‘A different truth’
Former CID agent Sgt. Myla Haider told In These Times that Thornton’s case is not rare. “If there was an adequate response to begin with, it might have made it to court and gotten prosecuted,” she says, “but [Thornton’s case] wasn’t anything unusual from what I’ve seen.”
Haider has investigated dozens of rape cases and says she almost always encountered a pervasive “attitude toward victims,” that guarantees the failure of the case.
“The investigators themselves,” Haider explains, “when working on cases, tended to focus on reasons a victim could be lying.” She described seeing “tag team interviews,” in which “one agent after another is sent in there to ‘get the truth’ out of the victim.”
“On occasion, that results in the victims becoming very upset,” she added, describing one case in which a victim “went running out of the office and declined to cooperate any further.”
Every MST survivor interviewed for this investigation told a similar story.
“My CID wasn’t an investigator, he was an interrogator,” says Pvt. S. Clark, of North Carolina, who preferred her first name not be used. “The thing that I remember is him leaning over the desk, with his cigarette breath, screaming at me, ‘Why won’t you admit that it was rough, consensual sex between two drunken adults?’ ”
Clark’s attacker had beaten her so badly that, months later, she began having seizures, which her doctors attributed to “cranial tearing.” Still, she says, the CID agent “made me feel as if I had dishonored my army and my country by speaking out against another soldier.”
Sometimes this attitude, says Haider, leads to claims being recanted. “The law enforcement response makes it so that victims don’t want anything to do with the investigation anymore,” she says.
Even if the victim continues to cooperate despite being re-victimized by law enforcement, the focus on her credibility happens at the expense of collecting relevant testimony, leaving the case little chance of surviving.
While physical evidence is collected according to protocol, Haider says this can seldom prove anything other than intercourse – useful for “stranger rapes,” but irrelevant for proving acquaintance rapes, which are the majority of cases.
“CID training does not focus on evidence collection for acquaintance rape situations,” Haider says. As a result, “CID agents tended not to take acquaintance rape seriously.”
CID spokesman Chris Grey says that since Haider left the command, it has begun “a very comprehensive Sexual Assault Sensitivity Training program.”
However, according to Haider, recent data call into question the effectiveness of that training.
According to the Pentagon’s “2006 Annual Report on Military Services Sexual Assault,” 18 percent of the cases reported in 2004 were thrown out for being unfounded, unsubstantiated or “lacking sufficient evidence,” prior to reaching a court martial.
In 2006, the first full year during which the training program had the opportunity to reap results, the proportion of cases thrown out on the same grounds more than doubled, to 37 percent.
Even when cases do result in commander action, that action is rarely ever a criminal justice response.
In 2006, only 292 cases (out of 2,974 reported) resulted in a court martial. Meanwhile, 488 cases resulted in an “administrative punishment,” such as a letter of reprimand, a discharge from the military, forced resignation or a reduction in pay or rank.
“The 2005 reforms have done nothing in terms of offender accountability,” Haider explains. “There are public service announcements and ad campaigns that say the military has zero tolerance for sexual assault, but the reality speaks a different truth.” She said she doesn’t believe there are many rapists in the military, but those that are sexual predators learn quickly that they can get away with it and will inevitably go on to attack again.
“They are sending women into combat zones, but not doing what it takes to protect them,” she says.
Protection, however, is not only a matter of deterring crime through punitive measures. It is also a matter of taking action to protect victims from their alleged assailants after a crime is reported. That responsibility rests in large part with commanders.
Thornton was allegedly left to live in the same barracks as her assailant for a full six months after her assault, despite repeated requests for a transfer.
Sara, a former Airman 1st Class who requested that her full name not be used, says that after her assault in late 2005, she was met with the same indifference.
“I was never granted a protective order, although I asked frequently,” she says. “It also took me three months to be granted a new room so that my attacker would not know where I lived. Then they moved me into a room that was closer to his room than the first.”
According to Mary Lauterbach, Maria’s mother, it’s that kind of negligence that may have cost her daughter her life.
Maria Lauterbach had obtained a military order of protection – a feat in itself – but was forced to stay on the same base as her alleged assailant and attend meetings and functions that he would inevitably be at, in spite of her protection order. She was on her way to one such event on Dec. 14, when she was last seen.
Maria’s mother is now urging the Marine Corps to take greater steps to remove victims from harms way and put distance between them and their accused assailants.
“We think the Marines could have done more to protect Maria when she made the report,” Chris Conard, Mary Lauterbach’s attorney, told NBC’s “The Today Show.” “We know everything was done to protect the accused – perfectly proper. But they could have transferred her to another base, another unit.”
“It was an avoidable tragedy,” his co-counsel, Merle Wilberding, says.
‘The second rape’
Leaving survivors in the same place to fend for themselves also leaves them open to the scorn of their fellow soldiers. Many survivors call it the “second rape” – the moment when they realize that not only their command but their platoon, as well, is going to desert them.
Lauterbach told her mother that Laurean was “very popular” on base, and that after filing charges against him, she was harassed and even punched by one of his friends. Someone even keyed her car.
According to Clark, the private from North Carolina, the hardest part of reporting her assault was losing the “spirit of brotherhood” that she previously enjoyed in the Army. “They all hated me and acted like I turned on them personally,” she says. “These are the people that if you go to war, you’re supposed to stand up and take a bullet for them. [Yet] they are the people that will turn their back on you and call you a whore when you are assaulted.”
Others were formally punished for making complaints, and hit with charges for “false reporting,” “lewd behavior” or “adultery.”
Airman 1st Class Cassandra Hernandez, 20, says three of her fellow airmen gang-raped her during a late-night party at Pope Air Force Base in Fayetteville, N.C., in May 2006. She says she reported the incident and sought all of the help available to her. Nonetheless, she wrote in a letter to the governor of Texas, her native state, “I felt like no one was looking out for my interests.”
Hernandez says she stopped cooperating with the investigation when charges were filed against her for “lewd behavior” and “underage drinking.” The three men accused of gang raping her were offered testimonial immunity in exchange for cooperating with the prosecution.
After much media scrutiny, however, her commander dropped the lewd behavior charge but still gave Hernandez an administrative punishment for underage drinking.
According to the Dorothy Mackey, founder of Survivors Take Action Against Abuse by Military Personnel and a former U.S. Air Force captain and commander, the only way to address the epidemic of sexual assault in the military is by establishing an agency, completely independent of the Pentagon, that would be responsible for investigating and prosecuting rape within its ranks.
“The agency would be two-fold,” Mackey explains. “One part that deals with nothing but the victims, and another part that has prosecution authority.”
Although such an agency may be difficult to fund, she says, it would be in the interest not only of military personnel, but also the civilian world. “When assailants’ records are kept clean, they return to the civilian world with no record of violent crime and are kept out of the sex offender registry,” she says.
In the civilian world, that is significant. Nearly one in four veterans in state prisons nationwide were sex offenders, compared to one in 10 non-veterans, according to a 2004 Department of Justice report.
Mackey believes the military is incapable of policing itself because she says it glorifies violence and shuns individual rights. And she’s not alone in her thinking.
“We espouse violence as the means to all ends,” says former Maj. Tyler Boudreau, who resigned from the Marines last year after 18 years of military service, and became an avid blogger and war critic. “It is not curious when the individual soldier or Marine packs that brainwashing home with him to his wife or to the barracks where the females live.”
Although Boudreau says he preached the need to treat women with respect, the message was overwhelmed by the glorification of violence as a means to establish dominance, for both a man and a nation. That message, he says, transferred into an “intensely chauvinistic” atmosphere.
According to ex-CID agent Haider, the chauvinist culture might explain quite a bit. “Rape is not taken seriously enough in the military because it is a crime that affects primarily women – and women are still not taken seriously in the military,” she says. “There is a lot more sympathy if the victim is a man because most agents are male and they can relate to the violation. They are horrified by that. But when it’s a woman, it’s the opposite. Their attitude is almost contemptuous.”
But she hopes that will change.
So does former Pvt. Jessica Doe. “What happened to Maria Lauterbach was a worst-case scenario, but I know she wasn’t the first to lose her life like that,” she says. “I just hope that her loss will open more people’s eyes and help us to make a change.”
Maria Lauterbach was buried with full military honors on Feb. 2, with her dress blues placed in her casket. Her unborn son, whom she had decided to name Gabriel, was buried beside her in a small, silver casket.
Approximately 900 people attended the funeral service in Maria’s hometown of Vandalia, Ohio. Among them was Marine Lance Cpl. Robin Kahle, who drove 900 miles round trip to place her own Good Conduct Medal on Maria’s casket. She then paid her respects by reporting her own rape to a high-ranking Marine participating in the service.
“It was a very respectful service,” says Avila-Smith, who traveled from her home in Seattle to represent the thousands of military sexual trauma survivors moved by Maria’s story, “and a real wake up call.”