For six years, Lt. Col. Teresa James of the West Virginia Army National Guard kept her rape a secret because she was afraid coming forward would spell the end of her career.
When she did report it in 2012, she said, her fears were realized.
James, a former military police battalion commander who deployed to Anbar Province, Iraq, in 2009 and 2010, will have to take a medical retirement June 29 after 35 years in the Guard. And she's certain her medical board has to do with coming forward about being raped in 2006 by a senior officer.
"At one time, I considered myself to be a part of the good-ol'-boy system," James said in an interview with Military Times. "I've held all the assignments that are traditionally held by men. I've been a commander. I've deployed. I did all those things. I paid my dues, and I was very respected by my peers."
The West Virginia National Guard said that it did not retaliate against James, and that her medical retirement was not because she reported her sexual assault.
"West Virginia National Guard is adamant that there were no adverse actions taken against LTC Teresa James as an officer or as a commander as a result of her report of sexual assault," the guard said in a written statement.
The West Virginia National Guard said that as soon as it learned of James' assault, it acted immediately to report it to the appropriate law enforcement authorities.
"Three separate law enforcement entities declined to prosecute the case," the guard said. "As a result, [the Adjutant General, Maj. Gen. James Hoyer] immediately referred the case to [the National Guard Bureau's Office of Complex Investigations] for a thorough investigation."
"Maj. Gen. Hoyer was thorough and transparent in reaching out to external authorities with the jurisdiction and the power to prosecute. Not one agency could prosecute based on the information provided to them. With all other avenues exhausted, [Hoyer] took the most severe administrative actions available to him within the limits of his office, which included adverse separation and forfeiture of retirement benefits."
The officer who allegedly raped James is not being named in this story. Telephone messages left at his home requesting comment were not returned by press time.
Military survivors of sexual assault often face professional or social retaliation when they come forward, according to a new report from Human Rights Watch, an international nongovernmental organization that focuses on defending human rights. James was one of 150 sexual assault survivors interviewed and is identified under a pseudonym in the report, but agreed to allow her real name to be printed in this story.
"People see what happened to me and it instills fear," James is quoted as saying in the Human Rights Watch report. "If it can happen to a lieutenant colonel ... "
James' sexual assault allegations were substantiated in a National Guard investigation completed in January 2013, which she obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request and provided to Military Times. Investigators said they found James "very credible," and that she provided documentation, witnesses and medical records that were consistent with her version of events.
As it substantiated her report of sexual assault, the report about James' case concluded:
"The [Defense Department] definition of sexual assault is extremely broad. It includes use of intimidation or abuse of authority when the victim does not or cannot consent. We interviewed four witnesses and the victim. There is a preponderance of evidence to find the perpetrator used intimidation and fear to sexually assault the victim, resulting in nonconsensual intercourse. He was in a senior position to gain access to the victim, and evidence demonstrated a pattern of inappropriate conduct directed toward the victim. We find the victim very credible; she provided documentation, witnesses, and medical records consistent with her version of events."
The report said the alleged perpetrator declined to meet with investigators, but that another investigation in 2011 concluded he "had used hostility, fear, and strategic alliances that were extremely detrimental to the West Virginia National Guard, to the point that people felt unsafe at work." Investigators also said witnesses described his conduct as "unprofessional with an inability to control his anger, violent outbursts, and the use of threats and intimidation."
James, a full-time Active Guard Reserve soldier, is stationed at the West Virginia Guard's Joint Forces Headquarters in Charleston. She is now on terminal leave, but was most recently a personnel officer.
The guard investigators said James was described by those who knew her as always professional and not likely to fabricate a story of assault, and that she "has decades of military service and her performance on her OERs [Officer Evaluation Reports] has always ranged between good and excellent."
After her assault, James said she just wanted to put it behind her. But concerned that he may have done the same thing to other women, James came forward in August 2012. The investigation report said the delay in her reporting "is both understandable and common."
"Unfortunately, these common feelings of shame and embarrassment are how serial perpetrators go undetected," the report said. "Eventually, it was her feelings of guilt that other women may have become victims and sexually assaulted that she felt she had a duty and responsibility as a senior leader to report this extremely difficult and personal experience. When she realized that she was not the only one affected, she took immediate action."
The Army's Criminal Investigation Division decided it didn't have jurisdiction over James' case because she wasn't a Title 10 active-duty soldier, she said, so her case was eventually turned over to civilian prosecutors in Little Rock, Arkansas, where the alleged assault happened. But prosecutors there weren't able to collect enough evidence to move forward with a case before the statute of limitations expired, James said.
The retaliation started soon after she reported her assault, James said. After receiving a career of "good to excellent" evaluations, as inspectors said, that November James received a negative officer evaluation report, which she believes was retaliation.
"It was horrible," James said. "It was the worst report I had ever gotten in my life."
She was placed on convalescent leave for 30 days while she sought care — her health deteriorated due to the stress of reporting and the guilt she felt for not speaking up earlier — and while she pursued legal options.
In a March 2013 meeting, James said she was told her alleged perpetrator would be forced out of the Guard. James said she was also told that she was being referred to a medical board because she had not been at work since September 2012.
"That's where I said, 'Nobody's even called me to tell me what they want me to do, and you're going to send me to a med board, because I don't come to work?'" James said. "That's how I know it was reprisal. They said I refused to come to work, which is not the case at all."
"At the time, I'm a 32-year veteran, and I know right and wrong, and sitting at the house is not right," James said. "I never said I would not come to work. I wanted to get better, and I wanted to get back to work."
James fought the med board for nearly two years, but her appeals were unsuccessful and she will retire this summer. She said she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress stemming from both her sexual assault and her deployment. She filed a complaint with the Defense Department's inspector general April 2013 alleging retaliation, which is still ongoing.
The West Virginia National Guard strongly denied she was medically boarded as retaliation, and said her accusation "is in error and not reflective of the facts."
"The Medical Evaluation Board (MEB) is an independent process, separate and apart from oversight or decision making from the WVNG," the guard said. "A command must refer a service member for evaluation when that service member is unable to perform assigned duties."
But the Guard said it could not discuss any further details about the medical board with Military Times until James signed a full medical release.
James signed a Standard Form 180 military records request form to authorize the West Virginia National Guard to discuss her case with Military Times. But she said she would not sign a full medical release authorization, due to her ongoing IG reprisal complaint.
James said dealing with the aftermath of her disclosure was more stressful than going to war.
"The deployment was easier than the [stuff] I've been through the last three years," James said. "I'd do that ten 10 times over before I'd do what I did the last three years."