Sexual Assault in the Military: Looking for a Few Good Changes

Merle Wilberding

The military already has manuals and PowerPoints on preventing and addressing sexual assault within its ranks. What it needs now is to transform these into lifestyle changes in the everyday treatment of women who report sexual assaults.

More than six months have passed since the charred bodies of Lance
Corporal Maria Lauterbach and her unborn child were found buried in a
shallow fire pit in the backyard of fellow Marine Corporal Cesar
Laurean. Maria had been missing for four weeks from Camp Lejeune, North
Carolina, where she was stationed.

Throughout that period Marine officials had insisted to Maria’s
increasingly frantic family that the pregnant Marine had probably run
away and there was no basis for a formal investigation. Shortly before
the bodies were recovered by civilian authorities, Laurean fled to
Mexico. He has since been captured and awaits extradition to North
Carolina to face first degree murder charges.

The horrific facts surrounding the murder have overshadowed
underlying allegations of sexual assault and the Marines’ responses to
those allegations. I believe that Maria Lauterbach would be alive today
if the Marines had provided a more effective system to protect victims
of sexual assault, a more effective support program, and a more
expeditious investigation and prosecution system.

Six months before her murder, Maria Lauterbach filed a rape claim
against Laurean, a superior in her unit at Camp Lejeune. The period
while the claim was pending was a nightmare for Maria. She was
subjected to intimidation and harassment. She was sucker-punched in the
face one evening. Another evening, her brand new car was keyed – or
rather screw-drivered – from bumper to bumper.

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Her real concerns were that her superiors and the NCIS investigators
did not believe her. Worse yet, she was compelled to be in meetings and
formations with her assailant, and she was unsuccessful in getting a
base transfer. Finally, she told her mother, Mary Lauterbach, that she
just wanted it to go away. She was sorry she had ever reported the
rape. Maria’s final telephone call to her mother was about an official
Christmas party where she feared she might see Laurean.

As a family, the Marines have been extraordinary in their outpouring
of sympathy and support to Maria’s family following the murders. I
watched present and former Marines pour out their hearts in person and
in their cards and letters. In late February I accompanied the
Lauterbach family to a Memorial Service at Camp Lejeune that was simply
extraordinary in its compassion and inspirational patriotism.

As an institution, the Marines have failed – failed in their
obligations to the Lauterbach family, and, more importantly, and failed
in their obligations to women in the military who report sexual
assaults. As legal counsel to the Lauterbach family I have had the
opportunity to listen to the Marines’ public explanations of the rape
claim, their efforts to protect her, and their efforts to investigate
and prosecute the claim. Their public statements have all been
self-serving efforts to insulate themselves from criticism. Not once
did they suggest that they have considered whether they could have done
things differently in the past or would do things differently in the
future. Instead of mea culpa, it has been Maria culpa.

In the last six months I have been contacted by more than a dozen
families and support groups, all seeking specific help for women in the
military who have been sexually assaulted. The stories have been
virtually identical – the complaining victim becomes isolated, taunted,
and tormented. She is not guided or directed to appropriate support
programs, she does not feel protected from her assailant, and she finds
herself treated as the guilty party, not the victim.

The security and safety of all of these victims, including Maria
Lauterbach, was punctured by the hard realities of being a victim of
sexual assault in the military. They all report that the military does
not believe them, that they live in fear of harm from the perpetrator,
and that they are in fear of harassment and intimidation from the rest
of the unit.

After NBC Dateline aired a program on the Maria Lauterbach case, I
received a telephone call from a mother who had watched the program.
Her 20-year-old daughter was a member of the military and had just made
a sexual assault claim. Now she feared for her life. When she asked for
a Military Protective Order, her first sergeant told her that it would
be of no value, because, in her view, if her assailant wanted to kill
her, the MPO would not stop him. She was threatened with her own
court-martial if her story did not hold up. She was obligated to stay
in the same unit with the alleged attacker and was haunted by his
presence. She did have a Military Victim Advocate assigned to her, but
the victim advocate told her that there was not really anything she
could do.

When I talked to the victim, I was immediately struck by how
frightened she was. She did not want to ask for any protection, for
fear that the intimidation and harassment would be worse. Like Maria
Lauterbach, this victim just wanted it to go away. It was clear that
she too wished she had not reported the rape.

All of these families have spoken out of desperation and fear,
desperation because no one could help them and fear that their
daughters would be physically harmed or emotionally traumatized. Like
Maria Lauterbach, these victims had been threatened with court-martial,
administrative reprimands, or in some cases being drummed out of the
service. One mother said that the only difference between her daughter
and Maria Lauterbach was that her daughter was still alive.

The Marines are not alone in their failures. All of the military
services need to address this problem. I don’t mean that they should
write a manual on Military Protective Orders or prepare a Power Point
presentation on the Victim Advocate Program. They already have these
materials. They need to transform the Power Point presentations into
life-style changes in the everyday treatment of our women in the
military who report sexual assaults.

All too often the “Military Victim Advocate” is only a “Military
Victim Listener.” These military victim advocates need to have the
authority and the freedom to guide and direct these victims to enter
appropriate support programs, to insist on proper Military Protective
Orders, and to stand up for their rights. Often these victims have been
traumatized by the sexual assault, and they desperately need guidance
and direction to struggle through the inherent emotional trauma that is
besetting them.

Victim advocates in the civilian world are far more proactive, far
more protective, and far more effective than victim advocates in the
military. This can be explained – but not justified – by understanding
that military victim advocates are in the military themselves and have
to survive within the same chain of command. If they challenge the
system too much, they run the risk that their own positions may be in

Some steps have already been taken. In May Congressman Mike Turner
(3rd Ohio) successfully added two sections to HR 5658, the DOD
Authorization Bill for FY 2009. Both of these sections strengthen
military protective orders by adding automatic renewal provisions and
by requiring the military to put the civilian authorities on notice of
these military protective orders.

More needs to be done. The Marines, indeed all military services,
need an outside assessment of this problem for they have shown neither
the ability nor the inclination to evaluate their own failings.
Congress needs to hold hearings on sexual assault in the military,
especially the victim advocate program. It needs to study how the
military victim advocate system compares to the civilian victim
advocate system and what changes can be made to provide more effective
support. This is critical because the victims live in such a controlled
environment. They need help from victim advocates who have the
authority to direct and guide them to the appropriate resources and

The goal of these programs should be to help the victims recover
from their emotionally wrenching trauma and restore them as productive
members of the military workforce. This would literally save the lives
of the victims and at the same time would improve and enhance the
performance of the military.

Our country is committed to an all-volunteer military. To continue
to attract women to the military, the military must demonstrate that it
can protect them when they have been victims of sexual assault, that it
can rehabilitate victims and return them as productive members of the
military work force, and that the investigations provide the respect
for victims that they already provide for the alleged perpetrators. 

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