If there is one thing Democrats and Republicans in Congress can agree upon, it’s ending the epidemic of rape against female soldiers now. Sadly and painfully, it took the rape and murder of female soldiers from Ohio to finally convince Congress to act. But whether the rapes – along with sexual harassment and mysterious deaths – of female soldiers actually end, is left to be seen.

For much of the past year Rep. Mike Turner (R-Dayton) has pressed for significant changes in how the Department of Defense handles and prosecutes what many are calling “Military Sexual Trauma” or MST. Turner, along with Massachusetts Congresswoman Niki Tsongas, co-founded the Military Sexual Assault Prevention Caucus. Among other changes, the caucus seeks to put the power of sexual assault prosecution in the hands of high-level commanding officers instead of a soldier’s immediate commanding officer.
This could be a game-changing law considering tens-of-thousands of female troops have reported that while the rape itself was terrible, the assault was made much worse after their immediate commanding officers either ignored their pleas for help or re-victimized them by intimidating them into silence.

Rep. Turner has said time and time again his drive to hold the military accountable for seeking justice was inspired by the brutal murder of U.S. Marine Lance Corporal Maria Lauterbach of Vandalia, Ohio, in December 2007 by a fellow Marine she named as her rapist.
 Maria’s story: Just one of many

Maria’s story became well known in Ohio and beyond after the Inspector General, in a report released in October 2011, blasted the military for essentially sweeping Maria’s rape case under the rug. If a true investigation had been undertaken, she may be alive today.

Besides Maria Lauterbach there are several other Ohio families whose military daughters died from “non-combat” circumstances. Just like Maria, their tragedies were amplified when the military tried to tarnish their reputations and even blame them for their own rapes and deaths.

“It’s like a broken record, the same thing keeps happening over and over again,” says Maria’s mother Mary Lauterbach about the growing number of female soldiers who are raped and in some cases soon suffer a “non-combat” death, which is usually followed by a “completely mishandled investigation,” she adds.
Mary Lauterbach remembers how she told her daughter, “You owe it to your sister Marines to report what happened [the rape].” The Dayton-area resident is dedicated to keeping Maria’s memory alive by speaking to whomever she can about the legacies of other female soldiers from Ohio, such as U.S. Marine Stacy Dryden of Canton and U.S. Marine Carrie Leigh Goodwin of Alliance.

Like Maria Lauterbach, Goodwin was sexually assaulted by another soldier, and when she tried to seek justice she was intimidated, ostracized and ignored by her commanding officers. Distraught and mentally besieged by military-prescribed anti-depressants, Goodwin drank herself to death.

Dryden was stationed in Afghanistan when the military says she died after “voluntarily” wrestling with a male sailor. Two years later, the military told Dryden’s persistent father, Scott Dryden, a different story: that his daughter — nicknamed the “Fiery Angel” — knocked the male sailor down first after he had insulted a group of marines Dryden was with. The sailor responded by body-slamming her. She retreated to her barracks, but was found dead a day later from a head contusion. The sailor was never court-martialed, and the military refuses to say if he was punished at all. To this day the military continues to delay the release of her autopsy report (including color photos) to Dryden’s father and this journalist.

Both Dryden and Goodwin weren’t perfect. Mary Lauterbach also readily admits her daughter had problems too, as she craved attention and respect, especially under stress, a major issue with many young soldiers. But just because a soldier’s character isn’t pristine doesn’t mean you sweep their brutal murder under a rug in total disregard for the person and their grieving family, says Lauterbach.

“They circle the wagons,” she says about how the military handled Maria’s murder and other female soldier deaths. “They are trying to protect their reputation.” And the military is protecting its reputation while struggling to recruit soldiers for an all-volunteer military.

Women in the military

These days, some of the best and brightest recruits – and those who are least likely to go on a civilian-killing rampage – are women. It’s no surprise that women are joining the military as never before, a trend that accelerated during this past decade of wars, which was also a decade that included high rates of joblessness.
In 1970, women accounted for 1.4 percent of all military personnel. Today, that number is nearly 15 percent, representing roughly 200,000 women.

Since 9/11, women have garnered two Silver Stars, the military’s third-highest decoration for extraordinary heroism while engaged in combat with the enemy, while 150 U.S. military women have died in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Indeed, the military increasingly relies on female soldiers, yet the Pentagon has been accused of fostering a culture of abuse as women in the ranks seek greater acceptance and respect.
Several lawsuits were filed during the last several years demanding reform on how sexual crimes are handled in the military.

The most significant was Cioca v. Rumsfeld, which charged former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld with failing to take action on MST, but the suit was dismissed by a federal judge. The lead plantiff was Kori Cioca, a resident of Wilmington, Ohio, about 50 miles north of Cincinnati. Cioca was a member of the Coast Guard when a commanding officer allegedly spit in her face for failing a knot-tying exercise, calling her a “stupid female.” Not long after that incident she was raped and threatened with a court-martial if she reported it.

Cioca has become the face of MST as her ordeal to earn VA medical benefits to treat a dislocated jaw suffered when her rapist struck her was documented in the 2012 Oscar-nominated documentary “The Invisible War.”

In a way, Lauterbach is helping to turn her daughter into a pioneer. Because Lauterbach and her daughter’s legacy — and the legacies of Dryden and Goodwin, along with tens of thousands of female soldiers — stand at a crossroads with the U.S. military as it decides whether it will continue to tolerate sexual discrimination and even rape within its ranks.

Sexual assault up 97%
Here are the Defense Department’s (DOD) own numbers: Sexual assaults in the military are up 97 percent since 2006. The military estimates that 19,000 incidents of sexual assault occurred within the armed services in 2010, but that only 13.5 percent of those were reported because victims in some cases either feared retaliation from commanding officers or believed nothing would come of a report. But even with increased effort by both the military and Congress to end MST, 26,000 service members reported unwanted sexual contact in 2012.

The DOD’s numbers also reveal that the military has been soft when prosecuting MST incidents. In 2007, only 600 out of 2,212 sexual assault cases reported, and investigated to some degree, resulted in suspects facing any sort of accountability. And out of those 600 cases, only 181 were recommended for court-martial, the military equivalent of a criminal trial. This means that in those sexual assaults reported and investigated to some degree, only 8 percent of suspects faced potential prosecution.
“The military is your family,” says Susan Avila-Smith, director of the Seattle-based Veteran Women Organizing Women (VETWOW), and good friends with the Lauterbachs. “When you go into battle, we’re like brothers and sisters. We would die for each other. But these same people will come into your room and rape you, and grope you, and think nothing of it. It’s like incest, it’s as if your brother sexually assaulted you. Then they act like it never happened. They flat out deny it and if the female were to pursue [charges], the military family says you should keep quiet, you shouldn’t pursue this, it was probably your fault anyway.”
Uncaring military commanders
To fully understand just how uncaring were Maria Lauterbach’s commanding officers and the military investigators at Camp Lejeune assigned to handle her daughter’s rape case, Mary Lauterbach tells people to read the entire Inspector General’s (IG) report regarding Maria’s rape complaint.
The report is a microcosm of how the military has treated female soldiers who report sexual assaults, she adds.
Following her rape, Maria remained in contact with her rapist, Marine Corporal Cesar Lauren, on a daily basis. She demanded a transfer but her commanding officers refused. The Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) agent who was assigned to handle Maria’s rape complaint against Lauren took months to interview soldiers in Maria’s platoon, and “never tested the validity of the suspect’s alibi,” according to the report.
Not long after Maria made the rape allegation, she was punched in the face in the parking lot of her barracks by an unknown assailant. Maria insisted the assault was in retaliation for the rape accusation and several witnesses reported Lauterbach had bruises on her face, but again, the NCIS agent, even though told of the incident, never reported it and never acted on it.
And after the NCIS agent completed just a handful of interviews, “Lauterbach’s rape complaint remained idle for almost seven months,” states the IG report.
Perhaps the greatest insult to Maria occurred long after she was laid to rest. IG investigators in 2011 tried to find out if the NCIS agent who essentially turned a cold shoulder to Maria was ever punished. “We were unable to verify if local NCIS leaders took any action,” stated the IG report.
In 2010 Lauren was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison after an extradition process that involved the FBI and Mexican authorities.
Maria’s family wants her to be remembered as the person they knew: at times outgoing, at times shy. Like many teenagers, she was a borderline misfit who loved sports, music and friendships, says her sister Anne Lauterbach.
Anne also wants to make it clear that Maria’s decision to join the U.S. military’s most feared and respected branch wasn’t some knee-jerk decision. In her first year of high school, Maria began pinning up military posters in her room.
Soon enough, says her sister, Maria was determined to take the greatest challenge and believed the Marines was the branch that offered it.
But there was another reason she enlisted.
“She wanted to make a difference. She wanted to make bad things good, and that’s was why she joined,” says Anne Lauterbach. “She wanted to go overseas [to Iraq or Afghanistan]. She told that to just about everybody she spoke to.”
John Lasker is a freelance journalist from Columbus. In 2010 he received a grant from the Knight Foundation to write about female soldiers and the issues they face such as Military Sexual Trauma. In 2012 he won a Project Censored award for his work into MST and the mysterious deaths of the female soldiers and the bungled investigations (or lack thereof) that followed by the Defense Department.