Washington, DC — Today at the National Press Club, the Service Women's Action Network (SWAN) appeared at a press conference alongside eight service women who are suing the current Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, former Defense Secretaries Rumsfeld and Gates, along with the current and former Commandants of the Marine Corps and Secretaries of the Navy. The women are seeking justice for sexual assaults experienced while serving in the military, and for the retaliation perpetrated against them by their commands after reporting their assaults.
"In every single one of the plaintiff's cases, there is evidence that their commands retaliated against them for reporting their assault," said Anu Bhagwati, former Marine Corps captain and executive director of SWAN. "According to DOD, more than 85% of sexual assaults are not reported; in addition, a staggering 71% of unwanted sexual contact in the workplace goes unreported as well. Fifty-four percent of those not reporting cite a fear of retaliation from within their own units as the reason. From my own experience as a Marine Corps commander and after hearing the horrific experiences of these eight women, there is little doubt in my mind that when military leadership talks about 'zero tolerance' and 'changing the culture' with regard to sexual assault, it is meaningless rhetoric."
The lawsuit, Klay, et al v. Panetta, et al (case no. 12-0350) was filed by attorney Susan Burke in the U.S. District Court of Washington, DC. The suit is the second to be filed by Burke against DOD leadership for their failure to prevent rampant sexual assaults in the ranks. The first lawsuit was dismissed earlier in the year and is currently being appealed.
The DOD reports that over 19,000 sexual assaults occurred in the military during 2010, and sources say the number of reported assaults have increased in 2011. The DOD releases its annual report on sexual assaults in the military every April.
"It is long past time for the military to start working on meaningful, effective and sustainable policies that will end this crisis once and for all," Bhagwati said. "Sexual assault in the ranks is a readiness issue, and affects our nation's ability to defend itself. Effective bi-partisan legislative solutions have been introduced in Congress, and SWAN continues to work with lawmakers on identifying more. Our hope is that our military leadership will take a good look at these bills and implement changes that will protect the troops, instead of just defend the status quo."
A transcript of Anu Bhagwati's comments at the press conference can be found here.
SWAN is a national human rights organization founded and led by women veterans. SWAN's vision is to transform military culture by securing equal opportunity and the freedom to serve in uniform without threat of harassment, discrimination, intimidation or assault. SWAN also seeks to reform veterans' services on a national scale to guarantee equal access to quality health care, benefits and resources for women veterans and their families. You can follow Service Women's Action Network on Twitter at twitter.com/servicewomen, or on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/servicewomen.