AAUW Supports Second Sexual Violence Case against U.S. MilitaryMarch 07, 2012
“You need to pick yourself up and dust yourself off. … I can’t babysit you all of the time” was the response a Marine officer gave to Elle Helmer when she reported being raped by another Marine. Helmer was a public information officer at the U.S. Marine Barracks in Washington, D.C., and she is one of eight current and former active-duty service members who filed a lawsuit against the military on Tuesday.
The plaintiffs are accusing U.S. military officials of creating a culture in which sexual assault and rape is tolerated and in which people who report it face retaliation. The lawsuit focuses specifically on the U.S. Marine Barracks.
At a National Press Club event on Tuesday, Helmer and Ariana Klay, another plaintiff who is a Naval Academy graduate and Iraq war veteran, courageously shared their stories before a room of journalists.
Klay said that she was gang raped by another Marine and his civilian (but former Marine) friend and then sexually harassed by several officers. Her story illustrates the victim-blaming that many survivors face if they speak out and the lack of initiatives focused on preventing or addressing sexual assault and harassment.
When Klay reported the harassment and rape, she said that she felt like she was the one on trial. She said that, during the investigation, she was told that she must have welcomed the attention by wearing makeup, dressing in regulation-length skirts (as part of her uniform), and exercising in running shorts and tank tops.
One of the rapists was court-martialed but, as often happens in the cases of reported rapes, was convicted of a lesser crime: adultery and indecent language. Nothing happened to the men who harassed her.
The stories of both women are included in the documentary The Invisible War, which won the 2012 Sundance Film Festival Audience Award.
During the Press Club event, several speakers — including the plaintiffs’ lawyer, Susan Burke — talked about the lack of checks and balances within the military structure when it comes to these types of crimes. Survivors must report crimes internally, and they are handled internally instead of by civilian law enforcement or court systems. One outcome the plaintiffs want to see is a change in this structure so that survivors can seek help and justice outside of their military chain of command.
You can help. Contact your congressional representative and ask her or him to support the Sexual Assault Training Oversight and Prevention Act (STOP Act). This pending piece of legislation mandates the kinds of structural changes that the plaintiffs and AAUW want to see.
AAUW Executive Director Linda Hallman spoke at the event, and I’m proud to say that AAUW is offering financial support to both this lawsuit and a similar one that was filed last year, Cioca v. Rumsfeld. We know that speaking out publicly, as Klay, Helmer, and the other plaintiffs are, is critical. And we know that backlash and retaliation can be fierce. We stand with them as they stand for justice.