What is sexual assault? (Ashley Balcerzak/Medill)

What is sexual assault? (Ashley Balcerzak/Medill)

WASHINGTON — After Jennifer Norris was drugged and raped by her Air Force recruiter, she stayed silent. She also did not file a report after her technical school instructor at Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi sexually assaulted her out of fear of losing her job.

But after the non-commissioned officer and a fourth attacker at Maine Air National Guard forced themselves on her, Norris, then a technical sergeant, reported the assaults to her commander, becoming one of only 13.5 percent of victims who report their sexual assaults, according to 2011 estimates by the Department of Defense.

Norris’s commander was only able to press charges against two of her four attackers, and although the two men pleaded guilty to sexual assault, they were allowed to retire honorably and receive their full military benefits.

“My attempt at trying to protect others from these vicious animals was futile,” Norris said in an interview.

Combating the epidemic of sexual assault in the armed forces — and changing the way victims like Norris are treated — requires an arsenal of legislative, systemic and cultural changes, experts and legislators say.

Scandals such as the recent sexual assaults at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas garner national attention, but the stories like Norris’s go uncovered — and often unreported. More than 50 members of the armed forces were sexually assaulted every day during fiscal year 2011, according to Department of Defense estimates. However, only 3,192 incidences of sexual assault were reported during the same period.

More than 50 servicemembers were sexually assaulted every day in 2011. (Ashley Balcerzak/Medill)

More than 50 servicemembers were sexually assaulted every day in 2011. (Ashley Balcerzak/Medill)

Sexual assault in the military hugely outpaces the rate of civilian assaults. One in three servicewomen will be assaulted in her lifetime, while one in six civilian women will become a victim. And the problem doesn’t just affect women — 56 percent of reported cases of sexual assault in 2010 came from men.

Curtailing the number of sexual assaults while simultaneously encouraging victims to come forward requires a few key systemic changes, according to Jenny Werwa, communications director for Rep. Jackie Speier. California Democrat Speier introduced a bill earlier this month that would strip military commanders of their power to overturn convictions of officers.

Especially for victims of military sexual trauma, or MST, the sway that military commanders hold in judicial proceedings has potential to benefit the accused at the expense of the accuser, Werwa said. The military judicial system provides more protections for assailants at the expense of the victims, she said.

Jennifer Norris emphasized the conflict of interest a commander can face because of his personal connection to both the perpetrator and the victim.

“You shouldn’t have to report a crime to your boss; you should report it to the legal authorities and have a fair and just process,” she said. “Commanders are not specialized in interviewing trauma victims. They make it worse.”

Beyond helping to secure just outcomes for victims, successfully prosecuting more assailants will encourage other MST victims to come forward with their stories, according to Werwa.

“The bottom line is this problem doesn’t go away until there are more prosecutions and more convictions,” Werwa said. “That will show that the problem is taken seriously and it will give victims the sense that they can actually get justice afterward. They will get a fair outcome from a trial.”

And the path from reporting a rape or sexual assault to securing a conviction is littered with dishonorable discharges, and also questions about the victim’s judgment or sanity. In 2011, only 8 percent of reported sexual assaults were taken to court.

This is in large part because unlike in the civilian sector, service members report sexual assaults to their commanders, who are given the discretion to decide whether to prosecute the accused.

For this reason during the 112th Congress, Speier introduced the Sexual Assault Training Oversight and Prevention (STOP) Act. The legislation would take the reporting and treatment of sexual assault “out of the hands of the military’s normal chain of command and place jurisdiction in the newly created, autonomous Sexual Assault Oversight and Response Office comprised of civilian and military experts,” according to Speier’s website. She plans to reintroduce the bill, which garnered 133 co-sponsors in the House during its last session.

“I think the STOP Act is hugely important,” said Patricia Lee Stotter, an advisory board member of Protect Our Defenders, an advocacy group for military assault victims. “It is impossible for someone within the chain of command to handle this without a conflict of interest.”

General Edward Rice, commander of Air Education and Training Command, acknowledged at the Lackland hearing in January that understanding the individual characters of the military’s leaders plays a role in stemming the problem.

“Some individuals will not be changed with training as they have different views of good and bad decisions,” Rice said. “I also need to focus on detecting, deterring and holding [leaders] accountable.”

Brian Lewis, a former petty officer 3rd class in the Navy, knows this all too well. After his superior non-commissioned officer raped him, Lewis said he was ordered by his command not to report the crime, and was later misdiagnosed and discharged with a personality disorder.

After petitioning to change the discharge to medical retirement for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the Board for Correction of Naval Records denied his request.

“Once the board has defined it, that’s it,” Lewis said. “Now I have to worry about how badly that discharge will stigmatize me when I try to get admitted to the bar, or apply for jobs.”

Norris compared her experience in the military, after her assault, to an inescapable abusive relationship.

“It’s like living in a relationship with domestic violence that you can’t get a divorce from,” Norris said. Victims of sexual assault “can’t just quit, or else we would get a dishonorable discharge and lose any benefits we might have. We’re stuck with our predators. We’re forced to comply.”

This dynamic prevents victims from getting the help they need before the impact of military sexual trauma becomes PTSD, she said. Norris was forced to pay for counseling and medication out of pocket until a 2006 law allowed her to get the necessary treatment for her trauma. Norris was medically retired from the Air Force in 2010 due to her PTSD and later testified in front of Congress at the Lackland hearing about her experiences.

Although the Department of Veterans Affairs offers a range of treatment options to anyone who screens positive for MST, Lewis says male survivors are not being accommodated. Due to lack of options in Maryland, Lewis had to go to a co-ed facility for intensive therapy.

“We have to be more inclusive of male survivors in their preventative measures,” Lewis said. “It’s as if men are not considered real survivors.”

But despite the dire circumstances for MST victims now, Patricia Stotter said she has faith in the ability of smart reforms to improve the culture and system. These efforts don’t need to be limited to Congress either: The Defense Department has an opportunity to make good on its promises to protect survivors.

“Having had some experience with social media, it’s almost unbelievable to me that the DOD hasn’t instituted some sort of online check-in where everyone in basic training could report twice a week and it could be outside the chain of command,” Stotter said. “If we can have cyber warfare, there can be cyber healthcare.”

Brian Lewis stressed the need for stricter sanctions against sexual predators.

“The culture needs to be changed in such a way that once these crimes are committed and gone through the adjudication process, there is no tolerance for it,” Lewis said. “I don’t want to serve next to a person who has done this crime before.”