By O'Ryan Johnson
Sexual assault in the military hits thousands of service members, male and female alike every year, but activists say the crime is grossly under-reported and they are urging lawmakers to do something about it.
Judy Atwood Bell, of Hudson, N.H., served in the U.S. Army for 20 years until 1998. She worked in intelligence monitoring radios as a voice interceptor, and learned Russian at the military's language school in Monterey, Calif.
"When I joined I was 17. I was just like, well I'm joining, this is a great thing, of course they're going to treat me with respect because I'm serving the country, they have rules to follow, and then when I was in basic training, my senior drill sergeant made a pass at me," she said. "That was just the start of it. When I was 19, I was raped. By that time, I already knew not to talk about it, so I didn't."
Bell joined other survivors and U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas (D-Lowell) at a special screening of "The Invisible War," a documentary that delves into sexual assaults in the military last night at Tufts University. Tsongas fought for the STRONG Act, which became law last year and gives expanded rights to military victims of sexual assault including the right to transfer away from their attackers. It also mandates sexual assault prevention and education training at all levels of the military.
What angers Bell is that women are still being attacked and are still being ignored. Former Coast Guard petty officer Emily Mears, who organized last night's exhibition at the school, said it took her four years, and a transfer to work up the courage to tell her superiors about what happened. She said when she did, her accuser turned the tables, accusing her of being a lesbian in the age of "Don't Ask Don't Tell."
"I had no one there to tell me what my rights are," she said. "No one to tell me what sort of questions they could ask me."
Bell and Mears say the military needs to reinvent how it handles sexual assault.
"A lot of their training is ridiculous," Bell said. "They say "If you're a woman you need to make sure you're not in the wrong place, that you're not drunk, that you go around with a buddy.' Wait a second here. Why don't you tell the perpetrator not to rape? ... I would like to see the people who are in charge take responsibility for the people they're in charge of."