The current and former service members - 15 women and two men - describe circumstances in which servicemen allegedly got away with rape and other sexual abuse while their victims were ordered to continue to serve with them.
The suit names Defense Secretary Robert Gates and his predecessor, Donald H. Rumsfeld. The plaintiffs say individual commanders have too much say in how allegations are handled and that they want reforms in the system.
The alleged attackers in the lawsuit include an Army criminal investigator and an Army National Guard commander. The abuse alleged ranges from obscene verbal abuse to gang rape.
In one incident, an Army Reservist says two male colleagues raped her in Iraq and videotaped the attack. She complained to authorities after the men circulated the video to colleagues. Despite being bruised from her shoulders to elbows from being held down, she says charges weren't filed because the commander determined she "did not act like a rape victim" and "did not struggle enough" and authorities said they didn't want to delay the scheduled return of the alleged attackers to the United States.
"The problem of rape in the military is not only service members getting raped, but it's the entire way that the military as a whole is dealing with it," said Panayiota Bertzikis, who is a plaintiff in the lawsuit and claims she was raped in 2006. "From survivors having to be involuntarily discharged from service, the constant verbal abuse, once a survivor does come forward your entire unit is known to turn their back on you. The entire culture needs to be changed."
Although The Associated Press normally does not identify the victims of sexual assault, the plaintiffs in the lawsuit have publicly discussed the cases.
Bertzikis, 29, of Somerville, Mass., now is executive director of the Military Rape Crisis Center. She says she was raped by a Coast Guard shipmate while out on a social hike with him in Burlington, Vt. Bertzikis complained to her commanding officer, but she said authorities did not take substantial steps to investigate the matter. Instead, she said, they forced her to live on the same floor as the man she had accused and tolerated others calling her a "liar" and "whore."
Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said in a statement that sexual assault is a wider societal problem and that Gates has been working to ensure the military is doing all it can to prevent and respond to it.
"That means providing more money, personnel, training and expertise, including reaching out to other large institutions such as universities to learn best practices," Morrell said. "This is now a command priority, but we clearly still have more work to do in order to ensure all of our service members are safe from abuse."
The military had already planned to roll out a new hotline victims can call in April, said Pentagon spokeswoman Cynthia O. Smith. It has another initiative that encourages service members to help those who are assaulted or raped. In 2005, the military created an office charged with preventing sexual assault. Victims can opt to file a "restricted" or confidential report that allows them to get medical attention without an investigation being triggered.
Smith said in a statement that when commanders learn of accusations of misconduct they are responsible for investigating it and taking appropriate action. She said commanders have demonstrated "time and time again" in sexual assault cases and in others that they "take seriously the trust that comes with leadership and the need for good order and discipline."
Sarah Albertson, a former Marine corporal who is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said that one of the hurdles in getting improvements in the system is that military commanders do not want any marks on their record such as a rape in their unit. Albertson alleges she reported she was raped in 2006 by a fellow Marine, but instead of helping her, she was forced to live one floor below the alleged perpetrator for two years.
"People who did believe me and had my back and were supportive of me were still telling me, 'Don't tell anybody about this, don't go to the public, don't let this get out because it will make the military look bad,'" Albertson said.
In many of the described cases, no charges were filed. In other cases, the alleged attackers faced lesser charges and were allowed to remain in the military, according to the lawsuit.
Kori Cioca, 25, of Wilmington, Ohio, described being hit in the face by a superior in one incident in 2005 and being raped by the same man in a second incident soon after while serving in the Coast Guard in Bay City, Mich.
Even though the man confessed to having sex with her, Cioca said in the lawsuit she was told if she pressed forward with reporting the sex as a rape, she would be court-martialed for lying. She said the man pleaded guilty only to hitting her and his punishment was a minor loss of pay and being forced to stay on the base for 30 days. She said she was discharged from the military for a "history of inappropriate relationships."
"You think of a Coast Guardsman, you think of somebody in the military holding themselves at a certain level," Cioca said. "When somebody walks up to you and shakes your hand and says, 'Thank you for your service,' little do they know they're shaking the hand of a man who rapes and beats women in the military."
She said she continues to suffer from numbness in her jaw and has nightmares.
"My body hurts every day. My face hurts. I get the most horrible headaches. My body has been trespassed. The honor that I had was stripped from me. I'm no longer proud of myself. People tell me thank you for your service, but my service wasn't what it was supposed to be," Cioca said.
Anuradha Bhagwati, 35, executive director of the Service Women's Action Network, said the Defense Department's own statistics show that fewer than one in five of these cases are even referred for court martial. She said unit commanders are the judge and the jury in these types of cases. Too often, she said, perpetrators are given non-judicial punishments.
"A lawsuit like this is needed because change cannot happen on the inside. DoD has had literally decades, perhaps more, to change the culture within the military. They've proven that they can't, and even the minor changes they've made the last few years are so superficial," Bhagwati said.
Service Women's Action Network: http://servicewomen.org/
Defense Department's site on sexual assault prevention: http://myduty.mil/