Connecticut Lawsuit Reveals Military Sex Assault Data

, The Connecticut Law Tribune

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Margaret Middleton
Margaret Middleton

Connecticut is hundreds of miles from Washington, D.C., and so it might not seem like a place where the current national debate over sexual assault in the armed forces resonates loudest.

But consider this: There is a nuclear submarine base in Groton, and the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London. There is a U.S. senator who has been outspoken on the issue. There is an active volunteer force of attorneys who are aggressive about the rights of veterans. And there are a pair of lawsuits in U.S. District Court in New Haven.

The Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School has sued the Department of Defense and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs on behalf of the Service Women's Action Network and American Civil Liberties Union. The plaintiffs charge the two agencies were unlawfully denying access to public records about sexual assaults in the military. The suits also say the VA has not provided public records about claims for benefits brought by military personnel as a result of those assaults.

A few weeks ago, a partial settlement was reached in one of the lawsuits that resulted in the release of some data. The statistics revealed that while 53 percent of all claims for post-traumatic stress disorder are approved by the VA, only 32 percent are approved in cases involving sexual violence.

"We hope the release of this information will finally allow the public to understand that the VA discriminates against survivors of military sexual trauma," said Yale law professor Michael Wishnie, who as co-director of the Veterans Legal Services Clinic worked with law school students to achieve the settlement. "We didn't know about that discrimination until this case."

The settlement comes at a time when discrimination against women in the military, particularly women who have been victims of violent sexual assaults, has been the impetus behind two high-profile bills backed by Connecticut lawmakers.

U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal, the former Connecticut attorney general, introduced legislation that would give military crime victims appearing the military courts the same basic rights as civilian crime victims. These rights include protection from the accused, opportunity to speak at trial and the right against unreasonable delay in trial proceedings. Another bill in Congress, co-sponsored by U.S. Representative Rose DeLauro, D-New Haven, seeks to remove the chain of command from investigating sex crimes within military units, are necessary.

Both bills were brought in direct response to a recent U.S. Defense Department study that estimates as many as 26,000 military members may have been sexually assaulted last year alone, with the vast majority of those incidents going unreported. The number represents an increase of 7,000 from 2011, according to the report, which found thousands of victims have been reluctant to come forward out of fear they would face retaliation. Among the 3,374 military personnel who did report sexual assaults in 2012, 62 percent said they were retaliated against either professionally or socially.

Part of the problem, Blumenthal said in a statement, is a military culture that puts undue stress on the victims. For instance, he said, the military typically drags out disciplinary hearings for two years or more. And commanders have been permitted to reduce disciplinary findings after the fact, as an appellate court might in the civilian courts.

"There's no reason military sexual assault victims should be given less respect or fewer rights than civilian sexual assault victims," Blumenthal said.

'Victimized Three Times'

While the bills make their way through Congress, the legal action brought by the Yale clinic has helped raise awareness about the issue. Margaret Middleton, executive director of the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center in West Haven, said veterans who are sexually assaulted in the military are "victimized three times."

"There's the direct assault they endure, then there is the military's inability to address the cultural problems that make reporting such crime difficult, and then the third betrayal is when the Veterans Affairs office refuses to provide benefits for injuries," she said.

As a visiting lecturer at Yale Law School and a supervising attorney in the school's veterans clinic, Middleton is involved in the lawsuits against the Defense Department and VA. The two federal lawsuits were filed in 2010, after the military rejected a public records request for sex crime statistics. At one point, the military said the records would cost $128 million to produce.

Back in 2010, then-U.S. District Judge Mark Kravitz was assigned to preside over the case. In April 2013, after Kravitz's death, Judge Stefan R. Underhill approved the settlement between the plaintiffs and the Department of Veterans Affairs after the agency agreed to release information about claims for sexual assault.

The litigation invovling the Department of Defense remains pending; the plaintiffs want all investigative reports pertaining to sexual assault in the military. In the meantime, Middleton said she hopes the recent settlement will lead to expanded benefits for current military personnel and veterans who have emotional issues that occurred as a result of sexual assault. What needs to change, she said, is the burden of proof the VA requires before authorizing benefits.

"It's a particularly difficult burden," she said. Unlike combat-related post traumatic stress, the victim must show documentation of the sexual assault to get benefits. "That's like asking someone in battle to take notes while they are being fired upon," Middleton said.

Coast Guard Increase

Eugene R Fidell, who teaches military justice at Yale, said the issue especially hits home in Connecticut, because the state's economy is somewhat reliant on the defense industry. "Connecticut is home to important military installations. I'm talking about Groton. I'm talking about the U.S. Coast Guard Academy," he said. "The state has a very proud history involvement with national security issues."

The Coast Guard Academy in New London has had its own controversies over sexual misconduct. Although there were no reported sexual assaults at the academy from 2007 to 2009, there were six reports of sexual offenses against students from 2010 to 2012.

That trend was reflected in the Coast Guard as a whole, where the number of reported sexual assaults increased from 88 in 2011 to 156 in 2012. At a hearing before a Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this year, the Coast Guard's judge advocate general testified he was working to reverse the increases in sexual assaults.

At the same time, the Coast Guard commandant has indicated a zero tolerance on sexual assault. "Not in my Coast Guard," he said in his recent State of the Coast Guard Address.

According to Panayiota Bertzikis, a former member of the U.S. Coast Guard who is executive director of the Military Rape Crisis Center at the academy, problems persist. She runs support groups for cadets who have been assaulted, but for the most part, never reported.

About 40 women and 10 men currently attend the sessions. "We work with the cadets one on one, and we tell them if they want to report what happened, we will help them," Bertzikis said. "A lot of the times, they don't want to make an on-record report, because they are afraid it will hurt their career. So a lot of the time, they don't want to go through a full legal investigation."

Bertzikis said when sex crimes do occur, the academy could remove the accused cadet from service and allow prosecution to take place in state Superior Court. "I've never seen that happen, I've never seen a state prosecution," she said. Instead, the Coast Guard handles the matters internally, which is usually a difficult ordeal for the victim, even when the charged person is punished by being discharge. "Most of the time, the victim gets kicked out of the service, too," she said.•

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