Survivors of sexual assault during military service took their unanswered complaints to a San Francisco federal court Friday, accusing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and his predecessors of presiding over a system that condones rape and punishes its victims.
One was Daniele Hoffman, a sergeant in the Army National Guard in Indiana and an Iraq war veteran. She wept as she recalled an attempted rape by her recruiter at age 17 and the nine years of harassment and retaliation she endured for reporting it.
"I'm scared to be alone in my own house. ... I want my voice back," Hoffman, 27, said at a news conference. The lawsuit said she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and has attempted suicide three times.
The suit drew support from Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough, author of legislation that would transfer initial review of military rape cases from the commanding officer to a newly created office of investigators and prosecutors. She said the bill has 131 co-sponsors but has not been scheduled for a hearing in the House Armed Services Committee since she introduced it in November.
"Victims get discharged in the military, and perpetrators get promoted," Speier said.
The suit has 19 plaintiffs and is similar to four others filed by the same lawyers in other states, representing more than 60 current and former service members, said attorney Susan Burke.
The first suit, filed in 2010, was dismissed in December 2011 by a federal judge in Virginia who agreed with President Obama's Justice Department that a 1950 Supreme Court ruling bars soldiers and veterans from suing the government for injuries suffered during military service. Burke said an appeals court will hear that case in December.
The new suit was filed in U.S. District Court a day after Panetta, appearing on NBC's "Today" show, expressed "outrage" at the scant number of prosecutions for rapes on military bases. The Defense Department estimates that 19,000 sexual assaults occurred in the armed forces last year, but only 3,000 service members reported being assaulted, and about 240 cases were prosecuted.
A plaintiff in Friday's suit, Kole Welsh, told reporters the judiciary is "condoning and participating in the rape of service members" by protecting the military from liability.
Welsh, 27, who served in the Army from 2002 to 2007, said he was in training at Fort Lewis, Wash., in 2007 when he was sexually assaulted by a male staff sergeant, and later learned he had been infected with the AIDS virus.
He said the Army discharged him and denied him medical treatment but took no action against the sergeant, who had been the subject of similar complaints by other service members. The sergeant was later prosecuted and convicted by civilian authorities for sexually assaulting several other men and infecting them with HIV, Welsh said.
Hoffman, the lead plaintiff, said she fought off the recruiter who tried to rape her in 2003, while she was in training. After she reported the assault, she said, six female veterans came forward with complaints against the man, who was eventually tried in a civilian court and sentenced to four years in prison in 2008.
The Army took no action against the recruiter and instead blamed Hoffman, she said, adding that she was harassed in every unit to which she was assigned, and other soldiers were told to stay away from her.
During her deployment to Iraq in 2007-08, she said, her first sergeant tried to remove her from the unit and later ordered her to guard a tower for up to 12 hours at a time, three times the normal shift. When she sought help from a Judge Advocate General legal officer, she said, he told her the retaliation must have been her fault.
The suit accuses Panetta and predecessors Robert Gates and Donald Rumsfeld of knowingly allowing "a culture of sexual harassment and blatant retaliation." It seeks unspecified damages.
Bob Egelko is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org