Sexual Violence Victims: Military Justice System is ‘Broken’
By Quil Lawrence and Marisa Peñaloza
Many sexual violence victims in the military say they have nowhere to turn and risk ruining their careers by reporting attacks.
Myla Haider took a roundabout route to becoming an agent in the Army's Criminal Investigation Command, or CID. Wars kept interrupting her training.
"My commander wanted to take me to Iraq as the intelligence analyst for the battalion, so I gave up my seat in CID school," Haider says.
She speaks in a steady, "just the facts ma'am" tone. Once a cop always a cop, the 37-year-old says.
Her commander from the 101st Airborne, retired Lt. Col. Marty Herbert, describes Haider as a sharp, even-keeled analyst, standing out in a battalion of hundreds. Haider went with the 101st to Kandahar in 2002, and then to Iraq in 2003.
"On the invasion, it was me and three other guys living in the vehicle for days at a time," she says.
If you wanted to bathe, you could use one of the four precious bottles of water in the daily ration, Haider recalls.
"There was no privacy; it was just sand as far as you can see," she says. "I didn't change clothes; we were in chemical suits for two weeks straight."
Paradoxically, it was a good time in her life. Under fire, Haider says, those soldiers from the 101st became her brothers. She never felt sidelined because of her gender, never felt the least bit threatened living among the men. In the downtime there was plenty of joking around — they'd peg each other with a Nerf football. In such close quarters, there were hardly any secrets.
Except Haider was carrying a heavy one.
Before she ever went to war, during CID training, Haider was raped. With some experience already with the military's attitude toward rape, she decided not to report the attack.
"I've never met one victim who was able to report the crime and still retain their military career," she says. "Not one."
Haider made that decision and was at peace with it; she left that one terrible incident in the past. In many ways the camaraderie with male soldiers in the 101st, forged in Iraq and Afghanistan, helped her heal. Soldiers there treated her with respect and helped her remember not all men, not all soldiers, are sexual predators.
But the past wouldn't stay buried. A few years later, after she'd become a CID agent, Haider got a phone call from an officer who was investigating a possible serial rapist — the soldier who raped her.
It was a moral dilemma, with an obvious course.
"All of the other women who were involved in the case had been attacked after I was attacked," Haider says. "So I thought the only right thing for me to do was to be involved."
A Reluctance To Report Attacks
Her reluctance to report the rape initially is one that victims' advocates understand too well.
"It's a very telling story about a broken system," says Susan Burke, an attorney who has sued the Pentagon on behalf of many rape plaintiffs, including Haider.
The Department of Defense estimates there are about 19,000 sexual assaults in the military per year. But according to the latest Pentagon statistics, only 1,108 troops filed for an investigation during the most recent yearly reporting period. In that same period, 575 cases from were processed — and of those, just 96 went to court-martial.
"They were only willing to go forward on a small fraction, and then of those, only a portion, only 96 of them, get court-martialed," Burke says.
Then — at court-martial — the officer who convened the trial can change the charge, reduce the sentence, or even overturn the verdict.
That's what happened last month in a case at the U.S. Air Base in Aviano, Italy. A military jury had convicted an officer of sexually assaulting a houseguest while she was asleep. The general presiding over the case — the "convening authority," in military-speak — threw out the verdict, without explanation.
The Aviano case spurred a Senate subcommittee hearing last week, where senators grilled the Judge Advocate General from each of the services about the continuing issue of rape in the military.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., asked the Air Force's JAG, Richard Harding, if he thought the Aviano case was handled justly.
"I think that the convening authority reviewed the facts and made an independent determination, and he did so with integrity," Harding replied.
But there's resistance. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who is also a lawyer in the Air Force Reserve, says Aviano is an extremely rare case — and the system shouldn't change.
"We have generally held the view that the one person that has the power to determine good order and discipline is the military commander," Graham said.
The secretary of defense is reviewing the Aviano case. And the Pentagon is making some changes; for example, a pilot program in the Air Force gives legal counsel to victims.
Maj. Gen. Gary Patton heads the Pentagon's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office.
"Sexual assault has no place in my Army, and no place in my military," he said at the same Senate hearing. "It is an affront to the values that we defend, and it erodes the cohesion that our units demand."
Patton says a highly critical documentary film called The Invisible War is now part of the military's curriculum on sexual assault. He says he watched the film with his grown daughters and was struck by the scope of the problem.
Victim Keeps Paying A Price
But that film features lawyer Susan Burke and former CID agent Myla Haider, who both argue that trained military police and lawyers should oversee rape investigations, not "convening authorities" who may have no legal training and are within the chain of command where the assault took place.
Until that happens, the victim will keep paying the price, says Haider. That's what happened in her case.
"When I reported it, it was a very small part of my life. But by making that choice, my reporting of it took over my life, ruined my career and wound up, ultimately, getting me kicked out of the Army," she says.
Haider and several other plaintiffs testified, but in the end, the charges were reduced, and the perpetrator stayed in the service without going into a registry of sex offenders.
In a cruel twist, Haider was called out to investigate a rape the same night she got the phone call that opened her own case. Later, when she testified in that case as a CID agent, she realized her career was done.
"While I was testifying, the defense attorney said, 'Isn't it true that you're a rape victim yourself?' And I was appalled, because as an investigator, it had nothing to do with the case," she says.
From that point on, colleagues at CID treated her differently. For years she'd heard CID agents doubt the stories of rape victims, and now they doubted her work. She says that after years of praise from commanders, she got reprimands. Haider had endured war. She'd endured rape. It was reporting the crime that drove her out of the Army, after nearly a decade of service.
She's now getting a degree in counseling, and has been helping rape survivors — a new career, a good one. But, she says, not the one she chose.