Victim speaks up as JBLM takes on ‘insider threat’ of sex assault

Sex assault reports at base increased by 20 percent in 2013 with victims feeling more comfortable reporting crimes, commanders say

Staff writerMay 17, 2014 

Christine Altendorf, the Army's director of Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention, visited Joint Base Lewis-McChord last to meet with local Army commanders. They're trying to refine the Army's approach to preventing sex assaults. Maj. Johnpaul Arnold/U.S. Army

COURTESY PHOTO

Spc. Amber Eaton never had a chance to thrive in the Army after she joined two years ago at age 19.

A senior enlisted soldier crudely tried to pick up on her when she arrived for in-processing at her first duty station, Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

Ten days later, a sergeant sexually assaulted her at a party off post. Another sergeant in a friend’s chain of command assaulted her again within two months.

She felt betrayed by the very soldiers who were supposed to help guide her in her military career. Eaton, now 21, says she’s done with the Army once her enlistment ends in the fall of 2015.

“I’m not proud to wear the uniform any longer,” she said. “It’s just been jaded for me.”

But before she goes, Eaton wants her story to help the Army confront a sexual assault crisis within the ranks that traumatizes victims and could lead Congress to rewrite military law.

She spoke Friday to about 300 of JBLM’s highest-ranking Army officers gathered for a conference to share a frank discussion on their efforts to curb sex assault within their units.

“The things we do in combat to protect our soldiers are the same things we should to protect soldiers at home,” said I Corps Commander Lt. Gen. Stephen Lanza, JBLM’s senior Army officer. “It is not an aberration. It is an insider threat that needs to be resolved,”

Their meeting followed the release this month of a study on sexual violence in the military that showed a rise in reports of sexual assault in the Army to 2,149 last year from 1,423 in 2012. At JBLM, the number of reports climbed to 120 in 2013 from 100 in 2012 .

Commanders do not believe the increased reports reflect a rise in sexual violence. They think it is a signal that soldiers feel more comfortable reporting the crime.

“Slowly but surely we are changing the culture,” said Christine Altendorf, the Army’s director of sexual harassment and assault response programs.

In the background hangs a proposal by U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, to rewrite military law in such a way that commanders would cede control of sex assault cases to military court prosecutors. Today, the Uniform Code of Military Justice gives commanders authority to decide when to bring criminal charges against their troops.

So far, lawmakers have rejected Gillibrand’s bill. She said at a forum last week in Washington, D.C., that she is seeking a meeting with President Barack Obama to persuade him to support the measure.

“If the commander in chief says it should change, it will change,” she said, according to Bloomberg News.

The Army invited The News Tribune to JBLM’s conference on the condition it not identify the brigade and battalion commanders who were called on to speak openly to Altendorf about sexual harassment and assault programs.

Those programs have mushroomed at JBLM over the past two years as pressure grew on the military to reduce sexual violence in the ranks.

Recently, JBLM opened the Army’s first sexual assault response center that puts lawyers, victim advocates and medical professionals under one roof. It has appointed two special attorneys who advocate for sex assault victims in court.

It also has held numerous mandatory sex assault forums for troops and has appointed sexual assault response and prevention officers to ground-level units.

The next steps battalion and brigade commanders want to see are:

n Better sharing of information about soldiers who have been accused of sexual harassment or assault in the past. Sometimes, soldiers with those records are moved to new units without commanders knowing of past complaints, an infantry battalion commander said.

n Positive reinforcement for junior soldiers who bring forward complaints about sexual harassment and assault. Another infantry battalion commander said three junior soldiers filed a complaint that led to a court-martial against a sergeant. The commander praised the junior soldiers in front of his 700-soldier battalion.

n More careful selection of sex assault response officers. The first batch of soldiers chosen for that assignment tended to be troops with free time; some were considered underachievers. Soldiers chosen for the next group often were highly competent leaders pulled in many directions by different responsibilities.

A logistics commander said a better fit would be a soldier known as a good listener.

“It might not be the greatest soldier, but it’s someone soldiers gravitate to,” he said.

n Fewer Army surveys asking soldiers about sexual assault. Commanders believe they are not getting good information because soldiers are taking so many surveys about sexual harassment, mental health and command climate.

“We are over-saturating the force on surveys,” an infantry commander said. “The soldiers are just going to tell us something so they don’t have to take another survey.”

n Guidance for soldiers on how to interpret sexist imagery in popular culture.

Sex assault victims at JBLM tend to look a lot like Eaton in Army statistics.

Col. David Oberlander, a military police officer, said 60 percent of victims at the base are women. More than half are under 24 and nearly two-thirds are junior soldiers holding the rank of specialist or private.

A majority of the reported incidents involve soldiers assaulting fellow soldiers.

As a junior soldier on base for the first time, Eaton fit all of those trends when she was assaulted.

Eaton felt further isolated in the Army because she believed she could not report the crimes without getting her friends in trouble. Her first assault took place at a party where underage soldiers drank alcohol. She did not want them to be disciplined.

As a result, Eaton tried to hide the trauma she felt from her fellow soldiers in JBLM’s field artillery brigade. She reported the assaults in a classified manner that would not lead to a prosecution and would not inform her chain of command.

“I didn’t want to deal with it,” she said.

Her attitude changed when she was chosen randomly to meet with Lanza in a roundtable of female junior soldiers. She talked about the harassment during her in-processing. She was told no one would be punished for underage drinking in a criminal case involving sex assault charges.

That was all she needed to hear to bring charges against her attackers. Both have been convicted. One is serving time in jail. The other took a plea agreement that kicked him out of the Army and cost him his veterans benefits.

Lanza responded to complaints about harassment during in-processing by changing the directive on where soldiers first report on base. Now, they’re supposed to check in with their own units first.

Since the courts-martial of her attackers, Eaton feels like she’s under a microscope in her unit.

When her company commander and first sergeant went to court hearings with her to show their support, she was nervous because she didn’t want them to see a personal part of her life. She has since changed her mind.

“I’m really glad they did; that was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” she said.

Eaton struggled to tell her story to the commanders at the conference. She cried a few times and left the room quickly after her remarks to gather herself.

When she came back, senior ranking soldiers thanked her for speaking up.

“Trust is the bedrock of our profession. If we don’t have trust, we don’t have anything,” one command sergeant major told her as he pressed a service coin in her hand.

She said she wants to continue working with military sex assault victims.

“I may not have a combat patch on my arm,” she said, “but I’ve been fighting the culture of America and our Army for a long time.”

Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646
adam.ashton@thenewstribune.com

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