For Samantha Jarrett, being called a bitch and a whore by fellow sailors she had counted as friends and brothers in arms was the least of her problems, after she reported being raped while serving in the US navy.
She also lost a career in the military that she had assumed, when she fulfilled her dream by joining at 19, would last a lifetime. It was over by the time she was 22.
Now she is speaking out.
Jarrett appears under a pseudonym in a report released on Monday by the campaign group Human Rights Watch (HRW). The report details what the federal government has already admitted is a high level of retaliation against those who report being sexually assaulted by fellow service members.
But while HRW pursued a policy of anonymity for those featured in the report, Jarrett decided to put her name “out there”, she told the Guardian, to show she was not ashamed.
“I’ve been quiet about this long enough,” she said. And, she added, her identity had quickly emerged after she reported to her superiors – confidentially, she had thought – her recollection of what had happened.
“I never had anonymity from the beginning,” she said.
The US armed forces have finally begun a concerted effort to tackle the entrenched and widespread problem of sexual assault in the military, Human Rights Watch said. But the new study warns that with 62% of those who report “unwanted sexual contact” facing a backlash such as bullying or demotion, recent gains could be wiped out. HRW is urging action.
I had trusted the military. I dedicated my life to them at 19. The military is supposed to become like your family.
“The goal of this report is to make sure that service members can come forward and seek justice for rape without jeopardizing their safety or their career,” said Meghan Rhoad, co-author of the report. “There is a very high risk that the retaliation problem could reverse the progress that’s been made.”
Jarrett, who was confident and ambitious when she signed up for the navy in the footsteps of both her grandfathers, was medically discharged in August 2014, suffering from depression and chronic insomnia.
She says the military did not take what could have been relatively simple steps to protect her after she reported being raped. Instead, she says, she was exposed and humiliated.
There is no drama to what allegedly happened on the night in question. It was mundane and, experts say, also typical.
Jarrett had too much to drink after a navy ball in California in October 2011. She remembers waking up on the floor of her hotel room, where four navy seamen were also crashing. One of the men – with whom she had had sex on one previous occasion – was on top of her, she says, in the midst of having sex with her. He was thrusting. The room was spinning.
“I was paralyzed,” she said. “I couldn’t move my arms.”
She passed out again, she recalls. By the morning, the man had left.
“There was semen all over the place,” she says.
One of the other guys in the room, who she later married but from whom she is now separated, told her he had been aware of movement on the floor, Jarrett says, and knew “something was off” but had assumed it was a hook-up.
At first, Jarrett didn’t say anything to the navy. Still only 19, she had watched people get in huge trouble for underage drinking. She also did not think her superiors would take her account of what happened on the floor seriously, she said.
So she decided to ignore it and carry on. The man was on base and she told him that what had happened was not OK, she says. While they avoided direct contact, they worked in close proximity.
She was a talented linguist, good at Spanish and German, and was now training in Arabic in order to go into top-secret navy intelligence gathering.
But her mind wouldn’t let the events of that night go. A few months later she began jolting awake, shaking, imagining the man on top of her. She found herself constantly looking over her shoulder.
She got through her linguistic training and, in November 2012, she and her peers filled out online surveys, which appeared to be anonymous, in answer to questions ranging from the quality of the chow hall to sexual harassment. Jarrett answered honestly that the food was lousy. She also wrote: I was raped.
The navy swiftly traced the statement to her and launched an investigation. Word leaked and she was ostracised.
“I would walk past his friends and people I had thought of as my friends and they would call out ‘bitch’ and ‘whore’ and accuse me of trying to ruin his career,” she says.
A female peer told her just to “suck it up”. But the trust she had placed in her uniform and the navy was shattered.
“He was my friend and I had trusted him,” she said. “And I had trusted the military, and they were supposed to have my back. I dedicated my life to them at 19 to serve my country; the military is supposed to become like your family.”
The navy separated Jarrett and the man at work, but then they were back in the same space, working alongside National Security Agency experts in a top-secret office, intercepting signals from the Middle East.
In 2013, the man was court martialed. He argued that the sex was consensual. He was acquitted.
In an email to the Guardian, the man, who did not want to be named, said: “Going through what I went though was difficult. I agree that sexual assault is a huge issue in the United States military.”
The man also said he felt he had been “painted as a predator” and said: “After my court martial, I returned back to my command. No counseling, no mention of the hardships – emotionally, personally, or occupationally – that I went through, and was expected to get on with it.”
He added: “The system is broken … for the victims who don’t speak out, and for the innocently accused.”
Jarrett asked for a different shift at work, to help with her now chronic insomnia, but nothing happened and instead she was sidelined with nothing to do. Last summer, she was given a diagnosis of anxiety disorder and dysthymia, a form of depression, and medically discharged.
‘Find her, tag her, haze her, make her life a living hell’
The Department of Defense annual report for 2014 estimated that 20,300 US service members were sexually assaulted last year. While a growing number are reporting the problem, almost two-thirds of those who do suffer further as a result, the government report revealed.
HRW examined the trend in more depth. Its researchers found that victims were, variously, “spat on, deprived of food, assailed with obscenities – whore, cum-dumpster, slut, faggot – threatened with ‘friendly fire’ during deployment …demoted, disciplined [or] discharged for misconduct”.
Only 5% of US military sexual assault cases end in conviction, while “virtually no-one is held accountable” for retaliating against those reporting attacks, HRW said.
The report, called “Embattled: Retaliation against sexual assault survivors in the US military”, is based on interviews with 150 service members across all branches of the armed services. It cites many being physically attacked and belittled after reporting an assault, and routinely ostracised.
Professionally, many saw stellar performance reports suddenly marked down and tiny infractions severely punished – potentially career-sinking developments – or their tasks switched without explanation from high-level work to picking up garbage or other menial tasks, sometimes for months.
They would call out ‘bitch’ and ‘whore’ and accuse me of trying to ruin his career.
A US marine who reported sexual assault had her car vandalised and her picture posted on a Facebook page frequented by other marines, with her name and threats that this “cum-dumpster” needed to be silenced “before she lied about another rape”, the report says.
Someone posted: “Find her, tag her, haze her, make her life a living hell.”
A male victim was told by a sergeant in his platoon that he would kill him if they ever served in Afghanistan, because “friendly fire is a tragic accident that happens”, and a peer tried to knife him in a bar, the report says.
An air force sergeant had a poor professional evaluation added to her file for “questionable handling of personnel matters”, after she reported an assault.
Such admonishments on file often lead to members being held back from deployment or promotion.
After reporting an assault, one service member who had previously been given commendations and recommended for promotion was herself court martialed for assault and drunk and disorderly conduct. She was acquitted but her commanding officer officially recommended she be discharged from the military anyway.
A military sexual assault response coordinator later told her “that’s typical”. HRW cites many other examples of service members forced out or left feeling there was no choice but to quit.
‘We had a lot more clients than we thought we’d have’
Maribel Jarzabek, 35, who is featured anonymously in the report, also chose to identify herself to the Guardian. She spoke from Germany, where she was stationed until she was severed from the forces in December 2014 as part of a wave of troop reductions.
A trained lawyer, she joined the US air force in 2009 and made captain in six months. In June 2013 she became a special victims’ counsel, or SVC, allotted to represent airmen and women reporting sexual assault across Europe, the Middle East and Africa, as part of the government’s initiative to address rape in the military.
She admits she had been skeptical about reports of a widespread problem of rape in the military.
“But we had a lot more clients that we thought we were going to have – we were surprised,” she said.
In 15 months, she represented 42 air force personnel who had reported being assaulted. She was not impressed with how some of her clients and others were treated.
“A lot of them chose to leave. I saw some given poor performance reviews, denied deployment, had their guns taken away. Some dropped out of the investigation under pressure or were discharged,” she said.
Then Jarzabek herself was told by those higher up that she was “too victim-centered” and was “burning bridges” with officers through her vigorous defence of her clients. She was then given a poor performance rating, which she believes contributed to the demise of her career.
Since she left the military, with no severance pay, she has become a vociferous supporter of the political campaign to take the sexual assault investigative procedure out of the chain of command, to be handled instead by the civilian criminal justice system.
Human Rights Watch has not taken a position on that question in its report.
It wants the armed forces to crack down on retaliation, and it calls for a comprehensive strengthening and expansion of the Military Whistleblower Protection Act, which was designed to protect those reporting violations but is deemed to be hopelessly weak.
“It’s not benefiting survivors and that’s a piece that has to be addressed,” said Meghan Rhoad, the co-author of the HRW report.
On Tuesday, experts from Human Rights Watch and service members featured in the report will testify at a hearing in Washington of the judicial proceedings panel on sexual assault in the military, an independent panel created by Congress in 2013 to review how the military deals with the problem across its ranks.
In response to a request for comment, Department of Defense spokeswoman Laura M Seal said in an email: “The Department of Defense appreciates the research and insight provided by Human Rights Watch concerning retaliation against those who report military sexual assault. We concur that ending retaliation is critical to effectively addressing sexual assault in the military.
“We are very concerned whenever we hear about retaliation associated with reports of sexual assault, and we are open to any information, analysis, insight and partnerships that will help us craft and improve our way forward.
“Over the past year, we have intensified our attention to this issue and are taking a number of steps directed by the Secretary to better understand the problem and to address it.”
A request for comment from the US navy was not immediately returned.