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Nineteen former and active-duty service members, including seven airmen, accuse Air Force and Army leadership of subjecting them to sexual assaults by fostering an environment that tolerated such crimes, according to a lawsuit filed Sept. 28 in U.S. District Court.
The claim is the fifth of its kind filed by Washington, D.C., attorney Susan Burke and the first that targets the Air Force. All but one of the cases is pending; a federal judge dismissed a similar lawsuit against former Defense Secretaries Donald Rumsfeld and Robert Gates in December.
The most recent case, filed in the court in the Northern District of California, names as defendants Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Air Force Secretary Michael Donley, among others. A "pattern and practice of ignoring and failing to prosecute rape and sexual assault" has led to a series of scandals, the lawsuit states, including more than a dozen military training instructors coming under investigation at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland.
The MTIs have been accused of crimes ranging from rape and aggravated sexual assault to improper relationships via social media.
The airmen who have filed suit include five women and two men who said they were denied due process, equal protection, free speech and the right to a jury trial after they were sexually assaulted by a fellow service member.
Most of the airmen immediately reported the attacks; some sought medical treatment, according to the suit. The airmen were then ostracized and retaliated against, the claim states, while their alleged assailants escaped criminal prosecution — and in some instances were promoted. All seven airmen in the suit say they continue to experience anxiety, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. Four have left the service.
The suit includes the following allegations:
• A former staff sergeant said she was harassed and accused of being a liar after reporting she was sexually assaulted by a classmate at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif., in 2005. Two other women had accused her alleged attacker of rape. She learned in 2010 that the commander chose not to pursue any of the allegations.
• A master sergeant who reported to the military that he was struck on the head and sexually assaulted by an officer in September 2010 was in turn charged with a series of crimes for his "participation" in the attack. The master sergeant, who said he was ostracized and retaliated against by his superiors, was cleared of all the charges. He suffers from a traumatic brain injury and PTSD. The officer was never charged with sexual assault.
• A female senior airman suffered escalating sexual harassment and assault while at Hurlburt Air Force Base, Fla., in 2004. Though she reported it to her supervisor, the case was never investigated. She ultimately submitted a complaint with the Equal Opportunity Office, which backed up her allegations. Her assailant received a letter of reprimand and remained in the service.
• A captain said he was drugged and sexually assaulted by a fellow serviceman at a party while at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas. He reported the assault and sought medical attention. The captain was ordered to attend an alcohol abuse evaluation.
Burke, whose father was career Army, said she began filing the lawsuits in 2010 after she was approached by a military wife who said she was raped by a friend of her husband.
"When I looked into it, I was appalled and shocked by the state of affairs. I simply held myself out as willing to" take on these cases, she said in an interview. "I was inundated with calls. It's a national disgrace."
Burke assumed the military "had fixed everything" after the 1991 Navy Tailhook scandal, she said, referring to the dozens of officers accused of "improper and indecent" conduct at a Las Vegas hotel. "I was really upset and disappointed" to learn otherwise, she said.
Burke has appealed the lawsuit that was dismissed. "We think we can win," she said.
A spokesman for Donley, Lt. Col. Samuel Highley, said the Air Force cannot comment on ongoing lawsuits.
"However, I can tell you that Air Force leadership is personally committed to maintaining a safe and professional working environment for all our airmen," Highley said in an email statement. "The crime of sexual assault is incompatible with our Air Force core values, harmful to our people, and ultimately makes us a less effective fighting force. We continue to take aggressive steps to eliminate sexual assault from our workplace by creating a culture of prevention."
Defense Department spokeswoman Cynthia O. Smith said in an email that Panetta has taken multiple steps to try to prevent sexual assault in the military, support victims and hold perpetrators accountable, including establishing a "special victims unit" within each service so that "specially trained investigators and prosecutors assist when necessary."