Eight current and former U.S. service members are today accusing U.S. military officials of tolerating a “staggering” level of sexual assaults within their ranks in a lawsuit that focuses in part on events at one of the most prestigious Marine Corps bases in the country — the U.S. Marine Barracks in Washington D.C.
The lawsuit includes graphic charges by two former Marine Corps officers: One, Ariana Klay, a Naval Academy graduate and Iraq war veteran, charges she was gang-raped at the Barracks in Aug. 2010. Elle Helmer, the former Barracks public information officer, says she was raped by a superior officer at the Barracks in March 2006.
Officials at the Marine Barracks, home of the Marine Corps Commandant and the Corps drum and bugle corps, strongly dispute the allegations. The charges were “thoroughly investigated” and found to be unsubstantiated, they said. Both women were accused of misconduct — including fraternizing with other officers and excessive drinking — and have since left the Marines, they said.
“An officer senior to me and his civilian friend came to my house on a Saturday morning, uninvited and both of them threatened me with death and raped me,” Klay said in an interview with NBC News. “And his reason for doing that, he said, was that I had humiliated him in front of his junior Marines and he wanted to humiliate me back.”
Elmer said in an interview that she was raped in 2006 in the office of a Marine Barracks officer who “grabbed my shoulder and pushed me against the wall and tried to kiss me.” She tried to flee the room, she said, but the officer “slammed the door on my arm” and “pulled me back in.” After a scuffle, she passed out and woke up in the next morning lying on the floor wearing the officer’s clothes. “I have zero doubt that my company commander raped me the night of March 16.”
The lawsuit is aimed at highlighting what top Pentagon officials acknowledged is an alarming number of sexual assault complaints within the U.S. military. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta recently estimated there were 19,000 sexual assaults each year, calling the number of “unacceptable.”
The complaint also includes an exhibit it says reflects s the “culture of retaliation” that confronts women who step forward to report being assaulted. It’s a “Hurt Feelings Report” — intended as satire — that was posted on the Facebook page by the woman officer in charge of the Marine barracks protocol office last November. It appears to mock fellow Marines who file complaints, listing under “Reasons for filing this report” such options as “I am a little bitch,” “I am a cry baby,” and “I want my mommy.”
The Marine captain who posted the document wrote on her Facebook page, “My Marines crack me up!” A Marine Barracks official said the posting was intended as a “joke” and showed and that the captain has since been disciplined for what the official called “poor judgment.”
But after being shown the document, Rep. Jackie Speier, a member of the House Armed Services Committee who has called for stronger measures to curb sexual assaults, said “This is disgusting. That is what’s wrong here. That is precisely what’s wrong. And the culture is one in which this kind of behavior, this kind of talk is OK.”
Klay and Helmer first told their stories in “The Invisible War,” an upcoming documentary — due to be released this spring — that focuses on the subject of military rapes and sexual assault. They both charge in the complaint and in interviews that they faced harsh retaliation after making their allegations.
Klay said at the court martial of her alleged assailant last year, “I felt like it was me on trial.” She also said she was blamed for sexual advances and taunts by male officers at the Barracks. “They said that I welcomed the sexual harassment by wearing make up and running shorts,” she said.
The alleged assailants are not named in the complaint. But Hatham Faraj, a lawyer for Klay’s alleged assailant, called Klay a “liar.” He said his client was acquitted of rape at the trial, but convicted of adultery and use of profane language that included the comment, “I’m going to do you like a slut.”
Rep. Speier, who has met with Klay and invited her to the State of the Union, said she believes her story. “This is the crème de la crème, the tip of the sword and she is manipulated and beaten down because she has the audacity to file a complaint against one of the officers there on the base who gang-raped her.”
Helmer’s alleged assailant was never charged. She says after she reported what happened to her, Marine officials at the Barracks never took her charges seriously and also retaliated against her. “You need to pick yourself up and dust yourself off,” one Marine officer told her, according to the complaint. He then remarked, “I can’t babysit you all of the time.”
"The military cannot continue to retaliate against the thousands of service members who bravely report being raped while serving this nation,” said Susan Burke, the lawyer for the plaintiffs, who is filing the complaint Tuesday morning in U.S. District Court in Washington. “'Zero tolerance' should be the military's attitude toward sexual predators, not toward victims of sexual violence.”
Air Force Maj. General Mary Kay Hertog, the new director of the Pentagon’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, would not discuss the lawsuit or any of the specific charges relating to the Barracks. But she said the Pentagon is committed to curbing the number of assaults. “We own this problem. We need to fix this problem. A majority of commanders want to absolutely do the right thing by any victim of sexual assault.”