Connecticut Veterans Legal Center part of lawsuit over military sexual assault records

Service members who report sexual assault often face retaliation and are at increased risk for getting discharged from the military, two veterans groups said in suing the departments of Defense and Homeland Security over access to sexual assault records.

The Connecticut Veterans Legal Center and Protect our Defenders, nonprofit groups that have worked to address sexual assault and harassment in the military, say the various service branches have delayed, and in some cases denied, their public records requests seeking information on the military's treatment of victims of sexual assault, harassment and rape. The lawsuit filed Wednesday morning seeks to compel the departments of Defense and Homeland Security to conduct a "reasonable" search and immediately produce records.

Spokesmen for both DHS and DOD declined to comment on pending litigation.

"Perhaps some of the changes in the military to make sure that gender discrimination is under control and that victims of sexual assault are taken seriously are working. What we're asking for in this lawsuit is proof of that," said Margaret Kuzma, a staff attorney with the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center. "We want to ensure service member survivors are taken care of, not shamed or retailed against."

Adrian Perry, a Marine spouse based in North Carolina, said she had to "fight like a lion" to take her child's abuser, a decorated Marine colonel, to court martial. Col. Daniel Wilson was sentenced in September to five-and-a-half years in prison for sexually abusing Perry's 6-year-old daughter.

"If my husband was not a major (in the Marine Corps), if my husband was a young enlisted Marine ... this case would never have made it to general court martial. It would've been silenced," Perry said by phone Wednesday.

She said she and her husband were largely silenced during the trial, there were no women on the jury, and the judge in the case, before asking the jury to determine a sentence for Wilson, read a bio "glorifying" Wilson's military career. Additionally, she and her husband were never informed that they could have pursued the case through the civilian justice system.

Perry has spoken out about what happened to her family in hopes it "can make a difference so that other survivors don't have to deal with the treatment we dealt with or the battle we dealt with."

In 2015, only 4 percent of sexual assault reports led to convictions, according to the Pentagon's annual report on military sexual assaults. In its most recent report, female service members reported sexual assault at two-and-a-half times the rate of their male peers. Those that did report often faced retaliation within their chain of command, such as negative performance evaluations and being denied training opportunities.

Victims of sexual assault are more likely to become involved with the military justice system "as the effects of sexual trauma can manifest in misconduct and subsequent discharge from the armed forces," the lawsuit says. While these service members can try to upgrade their discharge status, that process is opaque, said Kuzma, the attorney with Connecticut Veterans Legal Center.

Military review boards have been ordered to grant "liberal consideration" to applications from vets who've experienced military sexual trauma, but only about half of those veterans have received upgrades, according to the lawsuit.

"The military has resisted efforts to end the epidemic of sexual assault and retaliation within its ranks, despite years of Congressional attention and reform," retired Air Force Col. Don Christensen, president of Protect Our Defenders, said in a news release announcing the lawsuit. "Service members, Members of Congress, and the public deserve to know if the military unlawfully discriminates against female service members and survivors of sexual assault."

j.bergman@theday.com

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