By Jennifer Zahn Spieler
Sunday, December 3, 2006
Suzanne Swift, who refused to redeploy to Iraq after she was sexually harassed by her superiors, has refused a plea bargain. Now she faces a court martial in a case that spotlights problems of sexual impropriety and abuse in the military.
FORT LEWIS, Wash. (WOMENSENEWS)--One month after her case was referred to a Special Court Martial, 22-year-old Army Spec. Suzanne Swift was prepared to strike a plea bargain with military authorities.
According to Swift's mother, Sara Rich, in early November the Army offered Swift an honorable discharge in exchange for an additional 19 months of active-duty service.
Rich says her daughter was on the verge of agreeing to the deal in order to avoid a trial, but balked when the Army asked her to sign a statement claiming she was never sexually harassed. The military now has set a tentative date of Jan. 8 for a special type of court martial that, among other things, restricts punishment to 12 months.
Swift is in trouble with the military for refusing a second deployment to Iraq six months ago. The reason, she claims, is that she was sexually harassed by her superiors while in Iraq and she couldn't stand the thought of going through it again. She is charged with being absent without leave and missing movement.
Swift was arrested last June at her mother's home in Eugene, Ore., after being AWOL from her unit for six months. Swift alleges that she experienced ongoing sexual harassment--such as solicitations for sex and constant sexual banter from her superiors--and was coerced into a sexual relationship with her squad leader. A therapist later diagnosed her with post-traumatic stress disorder brought on by the experience after she went AWOL.
The Army disagrees with the therapist's diagnosis. Its own evaluation, conducted at Fort Lewis last July, determined that while she showed signs of stress, it wasn't enough to be full-blown stress disorder.
While in Iraq, Swift says she reported the sexual harassment to her team leader and her equal opportunity representative, but she says nothing was done and one of the perpetrators eventually rotated out to a different assignment.
When Swift returned to Fort Lewis after her deployment, she says her new team leader also sexually harassed her. She complained to her equal opportunity representative again, and an investigation was launched which culminated in the team leader's transfer. He eventually left the military with an honorable discharge.
Tammy Reed, a public affairs specialist at Fort Lewis, says there are proper channels for reporting sexual abuse or harassment within the Army and that Swift's case shows these work properly.
"One allegation was substantiated, and that person was reprimanded, transferred to another unit, and has since left the Army," Reed said. "As to the other two allegations . . . we couldn't find any evidence to substantiate them."
Since her daughter's arrest, Rich has been publicly speaking out and traveling across the country to raise awareness about Swift as well as what she calls the larger problem of sexual abuse within the military.
One group of activists staged a 10-day vigil in September outside the gates of Fort Lewis. Calling themselves the Swift Action Network, they demanded an honorable discharge for Swift and called on the military to take action to curb sexual abuse within its ranks.
Calling their vigil Camp Suzanne, the number of activists fluctuated between a handful and several dozen, depending on the time of day.
Wally Cuddeford, a 28-year-old U.S. Navy veteran and one of the founders of the Swift Action Network, said the idea for Camp Suzanne came during a Veterans for Peace conference in Seattle last summer, where Rich spoke.
In September, Rich traveled to Washington, D.C., to try to meet with some members of Congress. She came away disappointed in her congressman, Rep. Pete DeFazio of Oregon.
"His office gave us a lot of red tape," Rich said. "And he basically laughed at our petition. I walked away feeling rather humiliated by him."
The petition, which has nearly 6,500 online signatures so far, calls for an honorable discharge for Swift.
A spokesperson for Rep. DeFazio's office said the congressman and Rich had "talked about options available, but we haven't heard back from Ms. Rich about any of those options." Because the office did not have a signed release from Swift, the office made no further information available.
Swift's experience in the military, as she describes it, may not be uncommon. A survey released in August by the Citadel, a public military college in South Carolina, found that almost 20 percent of female cadets reported that they had been sexually assaulted since enrolling at the college.
The same month, the Associated Press released the results of its investigation of sexual misconduct by military recruiters, finding that more than 100 young women were sexually preyed upon by military recruiters in 2005.
And a report from the U.S. Department of Defense indicates that in calendar year 2005 the U.S. Armed Services received 2,374 reports of cases of sexual assault involving members of the Armed Forces. The report notes that not all of these allegations could be substantiated.
These incidents reflect a lack of acceptance on the part of many that women have now more than ever part of their ranks. There are plenty of people who still think women don't belong in the military, said Ret. Col. Ann Wright, an outspoken supporter of Swift who served in the Army for 29 years. "They think sexual harassment will drive women back out, rather than saying that national service is an obligation of everyone, male and female."
Retired Brig. Gen. Pat Foote was recalled to active duty in 1996 to be vice-chairman of a senior review panel of sexual harassment in the Army created after at least a dozen female trainees were sexually harassed and raped at the Aberdeen proving ground, a U.S. Army facility in Maryland.
"It was an eye-opener. We found that not only was sexual harassment a problem, but sexual discrimination was too," Foote said. "This is a historic problem in any organization in which women are not a critical mass."
About 200,000 women are in active duty in the U.S. military, which translates to about 14 percent of the force, according to the Department of Defense.
Foote is currently president of the Alliance for National Defense, an organization based in Alexandria, Va., that advocates for women in the military. She says in the current Iraq war, more women are serving than have at any time since World War II.
"Despite the fact that women perform magnificently in the military, it is still a man's world. For every woman, you have six men out there. The occasional woman in that environment does not have a fair shot," said Foote.
Jennifer Zahn Spieler is public affairs editor for the Sitting Duck, an independent newspaper in Washington state.
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