Military women across the country are responding to an NBC Bay Area investigation highlighting the alleged sexual assault and subsequent termination of a former member of the California National Guard. They say Master Sergeant Jessica Brown, a former airman in the 129th Rescue Wing out of Moffett Field, is not alone. They contacted the Investigative Unit to tell their own stories of how they were raped and then forced out of the careers they loved, and to renew their call for greater accountability in the National Guard.
“I was one of many that had a career ended shortly because I simply reported a sexual assault,” Jennifer Norris said.
Norris retired as a technical sergeant from the United States Air Force in 2010 and also served in the Maine and Massachusetts National Guards. Norris testified before Congress that during her military career, she was sexually assaulted four times between 1996 and 1998. She says after she finally reported the attacks to her supervisor, she faced retaliation.
“I went back and was blown away at how much disdain and hatred I faced as a result of standing up for what was right and protecting other women,” Norris said. “That right in and of itself was the biggest betrayal I ever experienced in my life….When you have zero support and you are alone, it will push you to the place Jessica Brown has been. I have been there.”
In 2012, Brown told us about her memories of retaliation after she reported a sexual assault during a training mission in 2007.
“Leadership has been told and they don’t do anything about it,” she said. “They throw it under the rug.”
The California National Guard says it investigated Brown’s allegation of sexual assault but her claims were never substantiated. The conflict did not go away and in 2013 Brown says the retaliation she faced after reporting the sexual assault became so unbearable, she tried to end her own life. Hours after that attempt, the Guard confirmed, it hired a courier to serve termination papers to Brown in the hospital.
“My heart broke when I saw her story because I have been pushed to that point,” Norris said of Brown. “I have ended up in the hospital wanting to die based on how these folks treated me.”
Norris was medically retired from the Air Force for post-traumatic stress disorder due to the military sexual trauma. She said she took multiple prescription medications to help her feel less angry, depressed and anxious and that she came close to ending her life.
“I wanted to die because I basically feel I got fired for being raped,” Norris said.
Kate Weber, a retired Army veteran from Sonoma County and Panayiota Bertzikis, a retired Coast Guard veteran currently living in Phoenix also told the Investigative Unit about their experiences in the military. Weber says she was raped in Germany in 1993 when she was a new recruit. Bertzikis says she was raped in 2006 by a fellow shipmate in Burlington, Vermont. Both say they had their careers cut short after reporting their experiences to their supervisors.
“We have been there,” Weber said referring to Brown’s situation. “We have been pushed to the brink of death and it’s not her fault.”
Weber, Norris and Bertzikis work for the Military Rape Crisis Center, an organization that advocates for victims of military sexual trauma. Bertzikis started the organization from her barracks in 2007 several months after she was raped. She estimates that 1,900 military veterans and active duty personnel contact the organization yearly to report instances of sexual trauma.
“We definitely see a lot [from] the National Guard,” Bertzikis said. “The problem we are seeing in the National Guard is the lack of support within the command.”
Military sexual trauma has received a flurry of attention in recent years from members of Congress, such as Rep. Jackie Speier. In April, she reintroduced the Sexual Assault Oversight and Prevention (STOP) Act, which would take investigation of sexual assaults out of the hands of the military and place jurisdiction in an outside, independent entity.
According to Department of Defense reports, an estimated 26,000 military personnel experienced instances of unwanted sexual contact in 2012.
In an email to the Investigative Unit, a spokesperson for the Department of Defense wrote “the leadership of this department has no higher priority than the safety and welfare of our men and women in uniform…” and that since May, the DOD has directed 21 initiatives to enhance commander accountability, ensure appropriate command climate, improve victim support and enhance safety.
The department’s preliminary data shows that it has received 5,400 reports of sexual assault in fiscal year 2013, which is a 60 percent increase from the previous fiscal year. The department says the increase in reports indicates a growing level of confidence in its response system.
The NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit contacted the DOD for comments on our latest investigation but a spokesperson said that it does not comment on pending legislation.
In a recent interview, Brown said she is now improving and that if her message is resonating with victims, then speaking out was worth it. Since her suicide attempt last spring, the California Guard terminated Brown from her fulltime status, and she no longer serves as a member of the reserve.
When asked how she reacts to the push to make the military more accountable when it comes to sexual assault, Brown said, “I think it’s phenomenal because there is very little accountability.”
She also said she advocates for civilian prosecution of military sex crimes.
“We need extra eyes,” she said. “We need someone who is not going to be part of the chain of command.”
Advocates say that in many cases, federal legislation addressing the reporting and prosecution of sexual crimes does not apply to state military departments.
“A lot of people just assume that because the National Guard is part of the Department of Defense, they automatically have to adhere to the laws of the DOD,” Norris said. “Well they don’t, because they are a state entity.”
Lawmakers in Iowa are now addressing the issue. In January, state senator Steve Sodders introduced a bill requiring commanders in the Iowa National Guard to report incidents of sexual assault outside the chain of command to civilian authorities.
“The goal of the legislation is to have better reporting of sexual assault to law enforcement, but also for the legislature to understand how often this is happening so we have better track of it,” Sodders said.
Currently, California has no similar law.
“I would like to California and other states following Iowa’s footsteps,” Bertzikis said. “The whole system needs to change; the whole National Guard.”
A member of the 129th Rescue Wing who is familiar with Brown’s situation—and who also asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation—echoed that sentiment.
“The current sexual assault reporting system has failed many very successful career women and there needs to be a change,” the source said.
Calls to the California National Guard requesting an interview on the latest developments have not been returned.
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