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US Military Sexual Assault Victims Heal, Discuss Policy

Women and men from all branches of the US military spoke out in Washington Tuesday about sexual assault in the ranks.  They were all military sexual assault survivors - appearing at a summit held to call attention to the issue.  The U.S. military has announced new efforts to combat these crimes.  

Jennifer Rivera can relax when she's with her parrot Janie.  The flashbacks lessen.  The panic attacks subside. She says her nightmare began when she was raped while on military duty in South Korea. She got an abortion - but was afraid to report the crime to her commanding officer.  

“This guy made me go to work after getting a process done where I’m bleeding through my clothes.  There’s no way he would have done anything about that rape,” Rivera said.

Elizabeth Lyman says she was 11 weeks pregnant when she was raped.

"There was blood on my bed.  I thought, ‘My God I’m having a miscarriage.  He killed my baby.’  So I froze,” Lyman said.

Her baby was fine. This week, Lyman joined Rivera and other rape survivors to discuss reforms to the military's sexual assault procedures.

The military says reports of sexual assault were up slightly last year with nearly 3,200 cases.  And, it estimates 86 per cent go unreported.  

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta is beginning new policies to combat those numbers. “We will continue to devote our energy and our intention to enforcing our department’s zero tolerance policy on sexual assault,” he said.  Panetta says higher-ranked officers will now review allegations.  He also wants tougher penalties and specially-trained victim units.  The US military relies on a tight trust between members of individual units.  

Accusations against fellow service members sever that loyalty bond.  Now that women make up 14 per cent of the military, rape has become a larger issue. Lyman's alleged assailant was found not guilty at a military trial. Lyman calls it "a sham."  

"They don’t want to put servicemembers behind bars for alleged sexual assaults.  They don’t want that stain on their record," Lyman said.

The military told VOA it would be inappropriate to comment on either woman's case.  Rivera's charge is still pending.  By coming forward now, she hopes to inspire others.   

"I don’t want another person to go through what I went through and hold it in for years, because as years go by, you think it’s going to go away.  But, it’s not going to go away.  It gets worse,” Rivera said.

She rescued her parrot several years ago.  Her parrot, like Rivera, had been abused.  Rivera now hopes they can teach each other how to trust again.

Carolyn Presutti

Carolyn Presutti is an Emmy and Silver World Medal award winning television correspondent who works out of VOA’s Washington headquarters. She has also won numerous Associated Press TV, Radio, and Multimedia awards, as well as a Clarion for her TV coverage of The Syrian Medical Crisis, Haiti, The Boston Marathon Bombing, Presidential Politics, The Southern Economy, Google Glass & Other Wearables, and the 9/11 Anniversary.

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