[Marxism] Attacked at 19 by an Air Force Trainer, and Speaking Out
lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Feb 27 07:18:42 MST 2013
NY Times February 26, 2013
Attacked at 19 by an Air Force Trainer, and Speaking Out
By JAMES RISEN
SAN ANTONIO — After her Air Force training instructor raped Virginia
Messick, a young recruit, he told her it was fun and they should do it
again, she remembers. Then he threw her clothes at her and ordered her
to take a shower.
Ms. Messick was unable to move, cry or scream. She was a 19-year-old
from rural Florida, in her fifth week of basic training at Lackland Air
Force Base, and she had just been assaulted by the man the Air Force had
entrusted with her life.
After the April 2011 attack, Ms. Messick completed basic training,
following orders from the instructor for nearly a month more. Afraid of
the consequences, she did not tell anyone what he had done. “How am I
supposed to go about reporting something,” asked Ms. Messick, “when the
person I’m supposed to report to is the person who raped me?”
Now, after leaving the Air Force, Ms. Messick is the first victim of a
still-unfolding sexual assault scandal at Lackland to speak publicly
about what she has endured. Since accounts of sexual violence at the
base began to surface in late 2011, it has emerged as the largest such
episode in Air Force history.
Ms. Messick, now 21, is one of 62 trainees identified as victims of
assault or other improper conduct by 32 training instructors between
2009 and 2012 at Lackland, a sprawling base outside San Antonio that
serves as the Air Force’s basic training center for enlisted personnel.
So far, seven Air Force instructors have been court-martialed, including
Staff Sgt. Luis Walker, now serving a 20-year sentence for crimes
involving 10 women, including Ms. Messick. Eight more court-martial
cases are pending. Fifteen other instructors are under investigation,
and two senior officers have been relieved of command.
While Air Force officials say they have taken steps to better protect
their most vulnerable personnel, including appointing a female commander
to oversee basic training and tightening supervision of instructors,
critics say they do not go far enough in addressing an issue across the
military: a high rate of sexual assaults that are often not reported
because women fear reprisals. None of the victims at Lackland told Air
Force officials of the attacks, and the episodes came to light only when
a female trainee who had not been assaulted disclosed what she knew.
The reforms undertaken by the Air Force do not alter a fundamental fact
of military life: commanders have final say over whether criminal
charges are brought in military courts, and victims are expected to
report crimes to those who oversee their careers.
In response to the growing outcry over sexual violence, the Pentagon
last year ordered that charging decisions in sexual assault cases be
determined by more senior commanders than in the past, but the directive
stopped short of taking the decision out of the chain of command. Some
other nations, including Britain, have taken steps to create a more
independent military judicial system, but experts on military justice
said that the United States has been unwilling to do so.
“The military justice system is not only to judge innocence or guilt,
but is also designed to help a commander ensure good order and
discipline,” said Dwight Sullivan, an appellate defense counsel for the
Air Force. “Those things sometimes come into conflict.”
While more than 3,000 sexual assault cases were reported in 2011
throughout the military services, Leon E. Panetta, the departing defense
secretary, has said the real figure could be as high as 19,000. The
Defense Department has found that about one in three military women has
been sexually assaulted, a rate twice as high as that among civilians.
“It’s no mystery why they don’t come forward,” said Laurie Leitch, a
psychologist who deals with assault cases in the military. “It is like
going to your boss to report that you have been sexually assaulted. How
realistic is that?”
Air Force commanders say they have taken preventive action at Lackland.
“There wasn’t much supervision,” said Maj. Gen. Leonard A. Patrick, who
is in charge of the Air Force’s enlisted training. “But now we want to
put more leadership into the equation, and more accountability.”
Several female recruits said in recent interviews that they feel safe
under the new system, in which instructors no longer have sole oversight
for a group of trainees and a buddy system has been instituted. “The
scandal was kind of in my mind when I signed up, but I haven’t had any
problems,” said Chanler May, a 19-year-old from Texas.
But Ms. Messick is skeptical. “It’s not like anything has really
changed,” she said in an interview.
Identified by the news media during her assailant’s court-martial only
as “Airman 7,” Ms. Messick suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.
She said she decided to speak out because she believes doing so will be
therapeutic, and she hopes to help change how the military deals with
victims of sex-related crimes. “I don’t want anyone else to go through
this,” she said.
When she joined the Air Force in March 2011, Ms. Messick was excited to
leave her hometown, Baker, Fla. She was assigned to an all-female
“flight” — a training group — overseen by Sergeant Walker. About 25
percent of those in basic training are women; the Air Force has the
highest proportion, 19 percent, of women on active duty in any of the
services, Pentagon statistics show.
Ms. Messick recalled that her group rarely saw any supervisor other than
Sergeant Walker. He quickly began to single her out for special treatment.
He repeatedly allowed her to use his office computer to check her
e-mail, a violation of basic training rules. On one office visit,
Sergeant Walker grabbed her and began to grope her, Ms. Messick said.
She demanded that he stop. “He said, ‘I swear it won’t happen again,’ ”
But not long after that, Sergeant Walker ordered Ms. Messick to deliver
towels to an empty floor in the trainee dorm. There, she said, he raped her.
Afterward, Ms. Messick tried to cope in silence. In May 2011, only a
month after the assault, she impulsively married a friend in the Air
Force. “I think I was trying to find some kind of protection,” she said.
They divorced just months later.
But later that year, while she was in an advanced training program in
Mississippi, a friend from basic training contacted her, reporting that
Sergeant Walker was sending explicit photos of himself and demanding
that she do the same. In the process, he had threatened to ruin Ms.
Messick’s military career. Ms. Messick said she told her friend that the
two had had sex, but did not describe it as rape. When Air Force
investigators looking into the instructor’s conduct tracked down the
friend, she told them about Ms. Messick.
After two and a half hours of questioning by the investigators, Ms.
Messick said she provided a “watered down” version of the episode with
Sergeant Walker — acknowledging they had sex but refusing to offer
details. “I was scared to death. And I kind of blocked out what
happened,” she said. “It took me a long time to say the word ‘rape.’ ”
But in testifying at Sergeant Walker’s court-martial in 2012, she
recalled, she faced the instructor and accused him of raping her. Lt.
Col. Mark Hoover, an Air Force lawyer involved with the Lackland
prosecutions, does not dispute Ms. Messick’s account. But because she
had not disclosed the rape in pretrial interviews, Sergeant Walker was
only charged in her case with a lesser count of engaging in an
unprofessional relationship involving sodomy and sexual intercourse.
In July 2012, he was convicted on 28 counts, including rape, sexual
assault and aggravated sexual contact involving 10 trainees. Joseph A.
Esparza, one of Sergeant Walker’s lawyers, declined to comment, saying
that his case is on appeal.
After the court-martial, Ms. Messick said she felt lost. Out of the Air
Force because of an injury, she went back home to Florida, but her PTSD
grew worse. One day she smashed a vase and used the broken shards to
slice her hands. “I just wanted to stop hurting,” she said.
Her mother, Marla Simmons, called the Air Force lawyer who had dealt
with her daughter. “I was really upset and I told him he had to get her
some help, right now, or somebody is going to pay for what they have
done to her,” she said.
The lawyer arranged for Ms. Messick to get into a therapy program at a
nearby Department of Veterans Affairs hospital, which she said helped.
Last December she remarried.
Still, she said that her PTSD often paralyzes her. She added that other
Lackland victims are also suffering from the disorder. “There are some
women who can’t say what happened to them,” she said. “They have
nightmares. It takes over your life.”
Today, she laments that the military experience she had dreamed would
change her life has turned out to be such a bitter one.
“They are not doing anything for the people who have been through it,”
she said of the Air Force’s treatment of the assault victims. “They
haven’t come to me or any of the other girls to ask them what to change.
They basically have left me to fend for myself.”
Thursday: Female veterans in limbo.
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