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an agonizing choice

Military sex assault victims can speak up or keep it quiet

The war veteran wakes up at 11 a.m. and spends the afternoon alone studying, and so it is not until early evening, during her shift at the restaurant where she works as a waitress, that the first lie of the day is required.

"Everything okay?" a colleague asks.

"It's fine," she says, and the lying is under way.

Lie after lie: This has been her life since coming home last year from Afghanistan — the daily maintenance of a thousand little fictions to keep everyone from finding out what happened over there.

The 27-year-old Navy veteran, who wants to be identified by only her middle name, Diana, lies to people from her unit, saying she came home early because she had a lump in her breast.

She lies to her parents, her friends and her boyfriend, who knows some of the story but not all of it.

She lies because she thinks she has to, because of the legal document she signed during her fourth month at Bagram air base, after she sneaked over to the hospital and asked to see the person who handles sexual assaults, after a nurse took Polaroid photos of bruises on her neck and scratches on her back, collected swabs and hair samples and put them in a brown paper bag.

After that, she was handed Defense Department Form 2910 and told she had two choices for reporting rape.

She could file an unrestricted report, in which both she and the alleged offender, who Diana said was her boss, would be named and that would launch an investigation.

Or she could file what is called a restricted report to preserve her anonymity. No names. No investigation, either. No one would know except doctors and a few specified others who did not include family, friends or colleagues. The evidence would be destroyed after one year.

As Diana understood it in the moment, it was a promise that the U.S. military was making to her and she was making to the U.S. military: This will be our secret.

The problem of sexual assault in the military is well known. What is less well understood is the extent to which the Pentagon has officially embraced secrecy and anonymity as a means of dealing with the problem, which has been especially rampant during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A recent Department of Veterans Affairs survey found that one in four women deployed to those wars said they experienced sexual assault, defined as any unwanted contact from groping to rape.

At the same time, at least 5,274 restricted reports of sexual assault have been filed since Congress first established the option in 2005, according to Pentagon figures. Restricted reports have also made up an ever-larger percentage of the total sexual assault reports filed each year, increasing from 14 percent of the total in 2005 to nearly 25 percent in 2012.

Pentagon officials cite those rising numbers as a success, saying that victims might not have filed reports at all or sought medical help without the option of complete anonymity.

Officials also note that victims can change their restricted report to an unrestricted one at any time, although that option has been limited because of the provision that any evidence that might have been collected with restricted reports, such as from a rape kit exam, would be destroyed after one year.

In May 2013, the Pentagon changed that to five years and began requiring that the restricted reports be kept for the same duration. The reports were also being destroyed after one year because of what Pentagon officials said was a concern for victims' privacy, which is the rationale behind the restricted reporting option.

"We knew there were people not reporting because they did not want an investigation, who wanted to remain a little bit hidden, wanted to keep it personal, but also wanted access to medical care," said Catherine Wilkinson, a spokeswoman for the Pentagon's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office. "So restricted reporting opens the door for them to start healing while maintaining their privacy."

That is how the Pentagon sees it.

But Diana sees it differently. In the 15 months since she chose the restricted reporting option, she has come to see how the decision has defined her life in ways that she never imagined, a life she can now divide by two dates.

July 5, 2012: "Ready to go," she had written on her Pre-deployment Psych Survey.

Dec. 19, 2012: "I elect Restricted Reporting and have decided to confidentially report that I am a victim of sexual assault," read the box she initialed on the form.

Diana was never a nervous person, never one to avoid people. She had what she considered a solid middle-class upbringing in a family she loved. She traveled abroad alone. She enlisted in the Navy for the college money and what she imagined would be adventure. She moved up in rank relatively quickly and began aiming for an elite job with a Special Operations unit, doing 13-mile training runs. When her support unit got orders to deploy to Afghanistan, she was thrilled.

At Bagram, she honed her tactics for dealing with the testosterone-driven world of the military at war.

She got the interview for the Special Operations job. Except as all that was happening, she was running out of ways to handle her boss.

It had started with what she thought was a normal concern for her well-being. Soon her 6-foot-tall, slightly paunchy middle-aged boss was following her around so constantly that she became anxious. He started asking her why she was ignoring him, she said, and why she didn't seem to like him.

Then one night she was alone in her workshop. It had a coded cipher lock on the door, but now someone was coming in. She cursed herself. Of course her boss had the code.

She remembers him hitting the back of her head first. She tried to scream, but then a hand was on her throat. Then a hand was crushing the left side of her face, her jaw and her mouth. Then she was staring at hammers and drills hanging on the wall, out of reach.

He left. She stayed awhile because maybe he was still by the door. Then she went back to her room. It was December, cold and snowing, and she remembers how quiet everything was outside. Fresh snow covered her path. She remembers the sound of her own steps and trying not to slip. She had to be careful.

Every morning, she had to face her boss at muster, where he called her name like normal and she tried to answer like normal even though she hadn't slept or eaten and people were starting to go out of their way to tell her she looked horrible.

After a few days, she became terrified about diseases and sneaked over to the emergency room at Bagram's main hospital during her lunch break. She asked to see the person who handled sexual assaults. It was the first time she said the phrase out loud. She felt the people in the emergency room staring. An attendant quickly ushered her into a special exam room to have a rape kit performed.

The nurse seemed nervous to Diana, saying "I'm so sorry" over and over and handed her Form 2910 and a pen. She explained that there were two choices for reporting rape.

Diana was still sitting on the gurney. Nearly two hours had passed, and she knew she had to get back to work. Her boss would be looking for her.

Option one was unrestricted reporting.

Option two was restricted reporting.

There was a blur of nine provisions sprawled across two pages. The last provision was that if she didn't choose a reporting option "at this time," her commander and investigators would be notified.

Diana stared at those words. The nurse was filling out forms, and Diana watched her put the rape kit in a brown paper bag, staple it and drop it into a desk drawer next to some Tootsie Pops. She remembers a rush of thoughts: No one would believe her. The possibility of a trial, much less a conviction, was remote. Her family would be dragged into it. Her career in the military, the elite job — all of that would be over. She had to get out of there.

So she started signing. She was so nervous that at first she signed the wrong box, then scratched it out and signed her initials next to the words "Restricted Reporting." Yes to anonymity, yes to secrecy, yes to whatever else it said.

She left the hospital with a copy of the form and went straight back to her room. She hides it now in the black file box in the spare closet of the spare bedroom where she also keeps her old uniforms, medals, certificates, promotion papers and every other reminder of who she was, all of it in closed boxes behind closed doors.

On a sunny afternoon in March, Diana is describing herself as a young woman who says she feels old; a veteran who allows herself two medications, one for vertigo and a muscle relaxer for the pain on the left side of her jaw, shoulder and hip; a person who wakes up sweating and terrified from nightmares she can't remember.

She is also a person who felt compelled one day to write a letter to the wife of her boss. The letter said that your husband is a monster and it is not your fault for marrying a monster.

She is also the person who never sent the letter, because she can't.

She is sitting in the corner of the cafe, baseball cap pulled down, logging onto Facebook, where she and the women from the therapy group in California have a confidential page they call "the sisterhood."

The idea is to have one place where they can express themselves. But what they mostly do is write posts about anything other than what happened.

She wonders whether her boss has assaulted other women and whether those women filed restricted reports. She thinks about what circumstances might have led her to come forward publicly with an unrestricted report.

There is another train of thought, one that begins with who she was before any of this happened: an adventurous young woman excited for a career in the Navy and on the cusp of a job that would have taken her into Afghan villages and maybe around the world.

It ends with who she is now: a young woman nobody really knows, including, at times, herself.

"I don't plan for the future as much as I used to, which is weird …," she says. "It's almost like you're no longer flourishing, you're just surviving."

But now it is time for work.

It is Friday, and the restaurant is crowded with middle-aged men, paunchy and drinking, a number of whom resemble her old boss. She is trying to avoid eye contact and to remember to breathe when an elderly man and woman arrive who always ask for Diana, ever since the chef told them that she was in the Navy, which she wishes he hadn't.

They had asked her where she was stationed, and she had told them California, and they had asked if she was on a ship, and she had said no, and then they had gotten around to asking if she had gone to Afghanistan, and she had said yes and left it at that.

Now they are back, and she walks over to the hostess and begs her not to seat the couple in her section. She doesn't want to have to answer any more questions. For the rest of the night, she wants to avoid conversations, to be as quiet as possible, which for her is like telling the truth.

Military sex assault victims can speak up or keep it quiet 04/14/14 [Last modified: Monday, April 14, 2014 7:10pm]
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