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Victims of sexual assault in military say brass often ignore pleas for justice

By Meghan Frank, Jamie Farnsworth, Sabrina Esposito and Jessica Hopper
Rock Center

From the time she was a little girl, Claire Russo knew she wanted to be a Marine.

“When I was 10 and when I was 18 and when I was 23, the reason never changed.  They were the toughest,” said Russo in an interview with Natalie Morales broadcast Thursday on NBC’s Rock Center with Brian Williams. 

The native of Washington, D.C., stuck to her dream, graduating No. 4 in her class from officer candidate school in 2003.  Her father, Ken Wilkinsen, watched her commissioning with pride.

“This colonel came up,” Wilkinsen recalled.  “He said, ‘If we had more of her type here... my job would be a lot easier.’”

Russo began what she thought would be a long career in the military, but her work as an intelligence officer was upended when she was sexually assaulted by a fellow Marine in November 2004. 

“I love this country,” said the 32-year-old Russo. “But, you know, there’s a wound that will never heal. I gave the Marine Corps everything and it took from me something that I’m never going to get back.”

Russo is one of the thousands of members of the Armed Forces who have been sexually assaulted while serving their country.  Last year, 3,192 service members across all branches of the military reported sexual assaults. Based on anonymous surveys of active-duty service members conducted in 2010, the Department of Defense says the number of incidents was closer to 19,000. Of the cases that are reported, only a fraction are prosecuted in the military justice system. 

Attorney Susan Burke has filed several lawsuits against the top brass at the Department of Defense on behalf of sexual assault victims, charging they’ve been deprived of their due process.

“What all of us expect as Americans is an impartial system of justice.  We don’t know the judge.  We don’t know the jurors,” Burke said.  “That’s not what is happening in the military.  In the military, the commanders get to decide based on their own impressions of the two people coming forward who to believe. ”

Courtesy of Claire Russo

Claire Russo

Russo’s case was shut down by the Marine Corps, but since her assault happened off base, she was able to seek justice in the civilian court system. Recalling the November 2004 night she was assaulted is still upsetting to Russo.  She attended the Marine Corps Ball at a San Diego, Calif., hotel with her cousin, Tom, a Navy F-18 aviator.  Tom introduced her to a fellow marine, Doug Dowson.  Dowson bought her a drink and said he’d take her to a room party.

Russo said that after accepting the drink from Dowson, things started “to get a little hazy.” Russo said that she felt like she’d been drugged. A drug test taken over 24 hours after the assault was inconclusive.

“The next thing I remember is being on the ground in the bathroom.  He was holding me down and sodomizing me and at that point, I was just crying and begging him to stop,” said Russo through tears.

The day after the assault, she told her cousin. He reported it to his command and was ordered to take Russo to the naval hospital for a rape exam. As Russo was about to undergo the exam, her cousin received a phone call from the military criminal investigator assigned to the case, NCIS Special Agent Zach Paton.

“I told him to leave and come to me,” Paton said. Though Paton was the naval criminal investigator assigned to Russo’s case, he didn’t trust the military to handle it well. “The Naval Medical Center, they didn’t have appropriate personnel, training and material for doing rape kits," he said.

Paton took Russo to a civilian hospital for a sexual assault exam, waiting outside the hospital room as Russo was examined. 

“You could hear her crying out in pain,” Paton recalled.

Since the assault had taken place off base, Paton could run a joint investigation with the local police. This proved pivotal in Russo’s pursuit of justice because although Paton would present the military with forensic evidence, testimony and photos, the Marine Corps ultimately decided not to charge Russo’s accused rapist.

“As the investigation progressed, as the command briefings and evidence and investigative reports were presented to the command of the accused, it was very apparent that they were going to take no action,” Paton said.

Paton broke the news to Russo, but neither of them was prepared to give up.

“Fortunately it was a joint investigation with the police department. So we explored that avenue of letting the D.A.’s office take a look at it,” Paton said.

The San Diego district attorney’s office wanted to prosecute, but Russo said she  felt pressure from her command not to work with civilian authorities.

“They did say, you know, ‘This is a bad idea,’” Russo said.  “Once this case goes to the district attorney’s office, Claire, we can’t help you.  You know, we can’t protect you.”

“It felt as though there was a desire to sort of intimidate both me and the district attorney out of actually prosecuting this case,” Russo said.

Russo said the Marines also ignored her pleas for a transfer which meant that she had to endure an on base encounter with the man she knew had raped her.

“I broke down physically, emotionally and I actually like, I urinated on myself,” said Russo of one encounter with Dowson.  “I was terrified.”

The district attorney obtained a search warrant for Dowson’s house.  There, Paton said he and the police found hidden cameras and hundreds of hours of video of Dowson having sex with seemingly incapacitated women.  Paton also discovered that just seven months prior to Russo’s assault, a female aviator had a similar incident with Dowson. She told her command but said she felt pressure not to file a formal report.

Prosecutors charged Dowson with raping Russo.  He pleaded guilty to sodomy before his civilian trial began and was sentenced to three years in prison. He was released after serving 18 months.  

Courtesy of Darchelle Mitchell

Darchelle Mitchell

When asked if her case is an exception within the military, Russo said, “The only thing that makes my story extraordinary is that I got justice.”

Rock Center interviewed several women who claim they were raped by fellow military members. Unlike Russo, many of them never received justice. Some didn’t report their assaults because they feared it would destroy their careers.

In Darchelle Mitchell’s case, the petty officer she says raped her was acquitted and her Navy career suffered. When Mitchell tried to re-enlist as active duty in the Navy her request was denied. She has since joined the Navy reserves.

“I knew joining the military was going to be a sacrifice.  This wasn’t the intended sacrifice that I was willing to make,” she said.

Former Air Force Sgt. Laura Sellinger said that she attempted suicide after her command announced to her squadron that she had been raped while at a training exercise in South Korea.

“Everybody  knew at work,” Sellinger said.  “And they’re calling me all kinds of things and I’m sitting here and I just went to Iraq and through hell and now I’m dealing with this, ‘I’m a slut, I’m a whore. I deserved it,’ and all this kind of stuff.  I give up.  I absolutely give up. I’ve never been so hollow.”

Courtesy of Laura Sellinger

Laura Sellinger

Another veteran told Rock Center she was threatened with adultery charges from her commander after she pushed for her rapists to be prosecuted. Victims say this culture of blaming them and not punishing their rapists leads to more assaults. 

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said the military is trying to do a better job of prosecuting these crimes.

“I think we owe all of those who’ve been impacted not just an apology, but we owe them the effort to make sure that this doesn’t happen again,” Panetta said. 

Since taking over as secretary of defense in 2011, Panetta said that tackling the issue has been a top priority. 

“It’s an outrage that we aren’t prosecuting the people involved here,” Panetta said. 

Panetta pointed to a number of changes including moving victims away from their assailants, new special victims units and pushing reporting higher up the chain of command. Still, he admitted that for decades this has been a problem the military has been sweeping under the rug.  

“We need to improve the investigations.  We need to make sure we have these special victims units that do the investigations and we need to ensure that we have prosecutors who are willing to bring these cases to court and make sure that these people don’t get away,” Panetta said.

Editor’s Note: Natalie Morales’ full report aired Thursday, Sept. 27 on NBC’s Rock Center with Brian Williams.

Additional Resources:

DOD Safe Helpline

Service Women's Action's Network

Protect Our Defenders