FORT LEONARD WOOD, MO. • Two days after she joined her military police unit, the 19-year-old private found herself drunk, sick and locked in a barracks bathroom where, she said, a soldier in her unit sexually assaulted her.
Less than three months before, on Christmas Day 2009, the same soldier used similar tactics to assault a 20-year-old woman new to the 988th Military Police Company, prosecutors alleged in a court-martial earlier this month.
Six years after the Pentagon committed to addressing sexual assault within the ranks, such cases remain a fixture in military courtrooms. Of 19 pending courts-martial at Fort Leonard Wood, eight involve sexual assaults by soldiers, most of them on other service members. In many cases, the circumstances are sadly familiar and often difficult to prosecute.
The victim and accused often know each other, and, in some cases, may have had a previous sexual relationship. Alcohol is usually involved.
"We have adults who are engaging up to a certain point in consensual behavior," said Lt. Col Jim Tripp, the fort's deputy staff judge advocate. "That's what makes it so difficult to prove. They go out, get drunk, they're alone and then the stories diverge."
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About 88,000 soldiers pass through Fort Leonard Wood every year, including about 55,000 undergoing their initial military training. Often, young soldiers fresh out of basic or advanced individual training rented hotel rooms in nearby towns and drank excessive amounts of liquor.
One weekend, the head of the fort's criminal investigation division visited several hotels and found passed-out drunk female soldiers in open rooms.
To combat the problem, about 18 months ago, unit commanders prohibited some soldiers from leaving the sprawling post about 140 miles southwest of St. Louis.
Since the new rule went into effect, officials say, reports of off-post assaults have dropped considerably.
But as this month's court-martial showed, they haven't disappeared.
"We keep seeing the same cases, over and over and over,'' said Col. Jim Agar, the fort's staff judge advocate.
In the most recent case, the attorney for the accused, a 22-year-old specialist, contended that the sex was consensual and that the matter represented overzealous prosecution.
"What you have are healthy young adults living on their own, serving their country ... and engaging in typical barracks behavior," said Capt. Stacee Blackburn, the specialist's attorney.
Neither woman reported an assault, despite a new Army policy that would have allowed them to seek treatment and counseling without triggering an investigation.
Commanders contacted the criminal investigation division after learning independently of the incidents. Prosecutors who have discretion over whether to pursue such cases said they felt compelled to bring charges against the specialist because of the similarities between the two alleged assaults. Neither victim, the prosecution contended, had been sober enough to give consent.
"Intoxicate, isolate, violate, that's the modus operandi of the accused," said Capt. Dan Larson, who helped prosecute.
From its service academies to the front lines, the military has long been plagued by sexual assault.
In 2004, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld ordered a review of how the military handled its cases after female soldiers said they were sexually assaulted by fellow soldiers while serving in Iraq and Kuwait. Since then, the military has beefed up its investigation and prosecution of the cases, and implemented a prevention training program for everyone from privates to generals.
Yet the number of reported cases continues to climb. Figures from 2009, the latest available, show 3,230 sexual assaults were reported in which service members were either victims or assailants, an 11 percent increase over 2008 and a 20 percent increase over 2007. The number of assaults happening in combat areas increased 16 percent.
Pentagon officials attributed the rise to increased reporting rather than an increase in the number of incidents.
Even so, the military estimates that as many as 80 percent of sexual assaults go unreported. In a 2003 survey, almost a third of female veterans reported being raped while in service.
In many ways military culture works against reporting, said Helen Benedict, a Columbia University professor who has written extensively on military sexual assault.
Those who report assaults face being retaliated against or ostracized by their unit.
"They're outcast if they report," Benedict said. "If they didn't defend themselves, they can't be real soldiers. There's a fear of being seen as a weak, no-good soldier and snitch."
The new anonymous reporting system offers little protection, she said.
"Platoons are enclosed, tight, gossipy units. The military's idea that you can report an assault anonymously is a fallacy. Everybody knows."
Finally, Benedict said, some who do report are met with threats from their command. Some victims have been isolated, demoted, threatened with counter charges and even jailed for refusing to deploy with their rapist, Benedict said.
Still, Natalie McCart, Fort Leonard Wood's victim advocate coordinator, said she had seen a vast improvement in how the Army handled such cases in recent years. "There was a time when sexual assaults weren't prosecuted at all," McCart said. "The fact that cases are going forward is a huge step for us on the installation."
Courts-martial that reach trial tend to be "he-said, she-saids," with no witnesses or wounds to corroborate allegations.
The specialist's case included reluctant witnesses, faulty memories, conflicting statements and tawdry testimony.
Both women acknowledged willingly playing drinking games to the point where each got sick. One victim said she was attracted to the alleged assailant and given the chance would still be friends with him. Her story varied on whether the sex at Christmas was consensual.
"You didn't report anything because you didn't feel there was anything to report, did you?" Blackburn asked her at one point.
"Yes, ma'am," she replied.
Blackburn also noted a text message the alleged assailant's wife sent to the victim asking whether her husband had forced her to do anything. The victim responded that the activity had been consensual.
Another soldier testified that the second victim had told her the sex in the bathroom had been consensual. Other testimony had the second victim and her assailant kissing and holding hands during the evening. The victim testified that she had never told him to stop during the alleged assault. After going to another barracks room to change clothes, the second victim returned to the party in the alleged assailant's barracks room where she then participated in a game of truth or dare with several other soldiers that involved her being touched sexually.
After listening over parts of two days, the military judge, Col. Charles Hayes, found the specialist guilty of two misdemeanor charges of providing alcohol to minors, but cleared him of the more serious felony charges of forcible sodomy and aggravated sexual assault. He ordered that the specialist, a combat veteran, be reduced in rank to private and serve 60 days' confinement. If convicted of the felonies he could have faced up to life in prison without parole.
Despite the high stakes for soldiers, the problem isn't going away. Another court-martial was held last week at Fort Leonard Wood for a soldier charged with sexual assault, and two cases already are on the docket for February.