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Amid debate over sexual assault in the military, Fort Leonard Wood investigator stays focused on victims

Dec. 23, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
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WASHINGTON — Special agent Lori Jones is on the front-lines of the battle against sexual assault in the military. As the team chief of Fort Leonard Wood’s special victims unit, Jones spends her days interviewing victims, gathering evidence of their assault, and reassuring them about the military’s criminal justice system.

She also works closely with Army commanders at the Missouri base as each investigation progresses — an element of her job that’s now at the center of a fierce debate in Congress over how to stem sexual attacks in the armed services.

Earlier this month, Congress passed a sweeping set of reforms, crafted in part by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., that would strip commanders of their power to overturn jury convictions. It would also make it a crime to retaliate against victims who report a sexual assault and it would give victims their own lawyer.

But McCaskill’s measure — included in a broader defense policy bill that the president is expected to sign — would preserve commanders’ role in overseeing sexual assault cases and deciding which cases go forward after reviewing a prosecutor’s recommendation. Their decisions would be subject to civilian review under McCaskill’s legislation, but critics, led by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., say commanders should not be involved in such decisions at all because they’re not objective.

Gillibrand is pushing for a vote as early January on legislation that would nix commanders’ authority to decide whether to prosecute sexual assault cases and other serious crimes.

Jones, who is a civilian, demurred when asked her opinion on the debate in Washington. But she said she has not seen commanders interfere in cases or reject prosecutors’ decisions.

“Those of us who are dealing with this all the time, we’re getting the opportunity to educate the commanders before they would make a mistake like that,” Jones said.

She said assaults at Fort Leonard Wood are reported to high-level brigade commanders who act as “a neutral party for the most part.”

But many victims say that’s not their experience.

“Predators in the military are unafraid because they know an unwritten code shields them,” Nancy Parrish, president of Protect our Defenders, said at a news conference last year. “Young women who sign up to serve in the armed forces are more likely to be raped or sexual assaulted than killed by enemy fire.”

Protect Our Defenders, an advocacy group for military rape survivors, has spearheaded a lawsuit against the Pentagon on behalf of eight victims. The suit charges Department of Defense officials with having a “high tolerance for sexual predators in their ranks.”

One of the plaintiffs in that case is Elle Helmer, a former Marine Corps officer who was raped by her superior, a major. When she reported the attack, her colonel discouraged her from asking for a rape kit exam and investigators initially refused to conduct an inquiry, according to the lawsuit. Her perpetrator was eventually removed from his command, but never prosecuted. Helmer, meanwhile, was forced out of the Marine Corps.

At the 2012 news conference, Helmer said she and other sexual assault victims are “fed to the wolves” if they try to seek justice.

The lawsuit seeks compensation for injuries and punitive damages, as well as other relief that court might deem proper.

There’s no question that sexual assault cases proceed much differently under the military’s criminal system -- known as the Uniform Code of Military Justice — than in the civilian system.

“The most difficult part for victims is that being in the military ... the victim can’t just quit her job and move,” Jones said. “They’re assigned here and they don’t have that option just to up and leave. If they did, then they would be in AWOL status.”

When a new report is made, Jones says her first job is to help the victim cope with the trauma, connecting the soldier with counseling services and other resources. She also starts the interview process, asking for a forensic exam if it’s not too late and securing evidence and finding witnesses.

Jones said she rarely gets a “fresh” case. “Most victims report days, weeks, months, years” after the attack has occurred, she said. “We just got a report from 1977. That’s not abnormal.”

Male soldiers are particularly reluctant to report an attack because there’s such a “heavy stigma” associated with the crime, she said.

Another reason not to come forward: victims know they will see the person they have accused, perhaps on a daily basis. Like other military installations, Fort Leonard Wood is a tight-knit, closed community.

“More often than not, (the victim and the alleged attacker are) assigned to the same company or unit,” said Jones. Even if they are in different units, “anywhere the victim goes” — the gym, the library, the store — she could run into her accused (AT)attacker, Jones noted.

Policymakers in Washington are more focused on another difference: Within 24 hours of a reported attack, Jones notifies the accused soldier’s commander. If the victim and suspect are not in the same unit, the victim’s commander is also notified, although at a later stage.

As the investigation unfolds, Jones and the prosecutor keep the commanders apprised of developments. And when they have established “probable cause” that the attack occurred, she and the prosecutor present the case to the brigade commander for a decision on whether to proceed with charges.

Brigade commanders are high up enough to be “really removed from any influence,” Jones said. The commander makes decisions based on prosecutors’ recommendations and “his own analysis.”

Russell Strand, a sexual assault expert with Fort Leonard Wood’s Military Police School, said commanders play a vital role in dealing with sexual assaults and their powers should not be curbed.

“Commanders are the ones that make things happen in the military,” Strand said. If they’re removed from this process, he said, they can’t help change military attitudes toward sexual assault.

Strand said commanders also have a built-in incentive to punish offenders because it’s their duty to preserve “good order and discipline” in their unit.

But victims’ advocates are not convinced. Brian Purchia, a spokesman for Protect Our Defenders, notes that of the estimated 26,000 cases of unwanted sexual contact in the armed services last year, more than 90 percent victims never reported their assault.

“We have a system where one conflicted and often biased individual, the accused’s commander, has the authority to exercise their unilateral opinion, regardless of the evidence, on whether a case is objectively investigated and tried, and whether the perpetrator receives just punishment,” Purchia said.

For her part, Jones said she has tried to concentrate on her job of helping victims and not on the fight in Washington. “My focus is the cases and the investigations,” she said.

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