U.S. soldier goes AWOL -- alleges sexual harassment; Enemy lines: She deserted the Army just before her 2nd tour in Iraq, not because of the war, she says, but because her superiors preyed on her
(By Carol Burke, originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle, September 16 2006)
Car keys in hand, Army Spc. Suzanne Swift was about to leave her home in Eugene, Ore., for a second tour of duty in Iraq in January when she turned to her mother and said she couldn't do it. With 2 1/2 years to go on her commitment, she opted out.
Swift hadn't wanted to go to Iraq when she signed papers while still in high school, but she was no conscientious objector. She believed in what her president told her about the war on terror, and in Iraq she endured discomfort and danger with her unit. She had already shipped her personal belongings to Iraq for her next tour.
But Swift said she had also been singled out for repeated sexual abuse. In the eyes of some with whom she served, she said, she was never a comrade in arms; she was a target for their sexual advances. And despite her complaints, she said, the Army hadn't protected her.
To go back, she believed, would be to suffer this all over again. So for the next five months, Swift spent time with her boyfriend on the Oregon coast, stayed in month-to-month apartments, even hunkered down at home while a lawyer tried to start negotiations with the Army.
When the Army finally responded, it took the highly unusual step with an AWOL soldier of having her arrested. Now Swift and her mother, with the help of supporters, are making her case a test of the military's treatment of victims of sexual harassment.
This comes at a time when the U.S. military has been facing heightened scrutiny about sexual harassment and sexual assault. Recent reports have found that the problems are widespread in the armed forces, the service academies and recruiters' offices. 'Had she been a boy...'
Suzanne Swift joined the Army to get money for college.
She had grown up in Eugene, home of the University of Oregon and the haunt of Ken Kesey and thousands of counterculture types who migrated up the coast from Northern California in the 1970s to settle and raise families. Her mother, Sara Rich, a family therapist who divorced when her daughter was 4, is on the board of the Oregon Country Fair, a free-spirited summer festival.
Described by family and friends as intelligent, independent and aggressive, Swift was a rebellious teenager. "She had an extra dose of testosterone," according to her grandfather, Jim Rich. "Had she been a boy, nobody would have questioned her behavior."
She had a difficult time in high school but ultimately found her way to the Opportunity Center, an alternative school. After morning classes, she spent afternoons working at the center's day care facility and then went off to an after-school job. Things were falling into place for her.
In 2002, during Swift's junior year, her local Army recruiting office called. On Aug. 2, 2002, at age 18, she signed a contract to enlist when she turned 19. She chose the military police and signed up for five years, rather than the usual three, she says, because she was told she would avoid deployment to Iraq that way.
Her recruiter, 1st Sgt. Billy Stripling, said in an interview that he didn't promise Swift she could avoid Iraq. All recruits, he said, sign a contract that states they may be "required upon order to serve in combat or other hazardous situations." Swift said she remembers that language but thought it didn't apply because she was signing up for the military police.
In August 2003, two months after graduating from high school, Swift went for basic training to Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri.
In February 2004, her unit, the 66th Military Police, shipped to Iraq and arrived at Camp Babylon in Karbala, about 60 miles from Baghdad.
One of few women
Women make up 14 percent of the active-duty Army today and nearly 30 percent of the Army Reserve. In Iraq, one in every seven members of the U.S. military is female.
But the proportion of women in Camp Babylon, the headquarters of a multinational force, was much smaller. Swift was one of four American women.
At Camp Babylon, she performed a demanding job training Iraqi police. Like others there, she endured the anxiety of enemy fire and even had to dodge rounds fired by coalition forces. She says she was also subjected to constant sexist banter and frequent solicitations for sex. Two superiors, she says, singled her out for harassment.
One, Swift says, was the platoon sergeant who told her mother not to worry when the unit was about to deploy, that he would take good care of her daughter.
In Karbala, he would check to see that no one was within earshot and then make comments like, "Why are you looking at me like you want to f -- ?" she recalled later in Eugene. When she spurned his advances, he retaliated by dressing her down in front of her unit and assigning her extra duty.
After two weeks, Swift says she went to her company's equal opportunity representative, Staff Sgt. William Cox. Under the Army's Equal Opportunity Program, each company has an officer who handles complaints.
"He asked what happened and told me that he would look into it," Swift said. "He said my commander, Capt. Cranford, would probably want to ask me a few questions."
No one ever got back to her, she said. 'A bad decision'
Later in Swift's year in Iraq, she says, another sergeant, her squad leader, came drunk to her sleeping quarters and insisted she have sex with him. She gave in -- "a bad decision" she says.
He later wrote her up for minor infractions, she said, and threatened that if she told anyone about that night, he would say she was complaining only because he had disciplined her.
According to Swift, he would change meeting times and inform everyone but her. Once he claimed that she was 30 seconds late for a formation and forced her to wear a wall clock around her neck for two weeks.
Swift did complain, to her team leader, Sgt. Zachary Thompson.
In a phone interview, Thompson confirmed the clock incident and said Swift had complained to him about unwanted sexual advances from both the squad leader and the platoon sergeant -- his superiors as well as hers.
The Chronicle is not naming the platoon sergeant and squad leader because Swift's allegations are still being investigated at her home base, Fort Lewis in Tacoma, Wash.
Thompson said he spoke to the platoon sergeant and told him that "if he was doing anything unprofessional, he should stop." He said he told the squad leader "to stop messing with her."
"She had no reason to lie to me," Thompson said. "I tried to shield her. She was my soldier and my friend; she was the best soldier I had."
The squad leader's retaliation continued, according to Swift, until he rotated out.
Military officials wouldn't discuss the specifics of Swift's case but defended their system for addressing sexual harassment.
Sgt. 1st Class James Currier, a spokesman for the Equal Opportunity Program at Fort Lewis, said the program conducts twice-a-year classes aimed at preventing sexual harassment, and its representatives outline formal and informal complaint processes and invite soldiers to come to them.
"Every soldier has a right to come talk to us," Currier said. 'A really good system'
Regulations require that even when soldiers make informal complaints, the complaint handler must get back to the soldier reporting the harassment, he said. In addition, he said, it is not enough for the person who hears a complaint to speak to the accused; he must go up the chain of command.
After an accusation is made, the representative or commanding officer must counsel everyone involved to prevent retaliation. "After 30 to 45 days, the E.O. must speak with the individual to make sure there is no retaliation," Currier said.
"The system is a really good system," he said. "Leaders are being informed; action is being taken."
Swift, however, said she never heard back from the Equal Opportunity officer. And Thompson, despite trying to help, did not go up the chain of command.
Swift says she was ashamed and didn't tell anyone else in Iraq. She did confide in her mother, however, and in November 2004, an angry Sara Rich contacted her congressman, Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore. A staff member offered to help.
But "Suzanne begged me not to" pursue it, Rich said. "She said, 'He'll hurt me, Mom.' "
When Swift returned to the United States in February 2005, Thompson was replaced by a new team leader. He also harassed her, she said. He would call late at night and ask what underwear she was wearing. Once, when she asked him where she should report, he replied, "On my bed naked."
Swift complained to Cox, the same Equal Opportunity rep whose help she had sought in Iraq. This time, he investigated with the help of a female soldier -- standard procedure when a soldier makes a formal complaint of sexual harassment.
The investigators found enough merit in her claims to transfer the team leader. But she says they also admonished her for not taking her complaint up her chain of command.
At the conclusion of Swift's interview with the investigators, the female investigator required her to participate in a role-playing exercise to help her verbally fend off unwanted attention in the future. In an interview, Swift said that whatever its official purpose, the exercise seemed to lay the blame on her: If only she had been more forceful in telling a superior to get lost, the role-playing seemed to imply, none of this would have happened.
James Klimaski, a civilian lawyer in Washington, D.C., who represents military personnel in military courts, said, "In the civilian world, it's all about relief for the victim. In the military, it's all about punishing the transgressor.
"Victims receive no relief whatsoever. Nothing is done to make them whole again."
A spokesman for Fort Lewis, Lt. Col. Dan Williams, would report only that no action had been taken against Swift or anyone else, but that her charges were being investigated. He praised the services available to victims through the Army's medical program and the chaplain's office.
In an e-mail, a spokesman for U.S. Army Headquarters, Maj. Nathan Banks, said the system exists to "ensure sensitive and comprehensive treatment to restore victims' health and well-being."
How many military personnel are subjected to sexual harassment and sexual assault is difficult to tell. Statistics are collected, according to Banks, but it is Defense Department policy not to release them.
In 2005, according to figures obtained by the Miles Foundation, a nonprofit organization that aids victims of violence associated with the military, the Defense Department reported 374 sexual assaults across all branches of the military but released no data on the number of reports of sexual harassment.
In January 2006, Swift shipped her personal belongings to Iraq in preparation for a second deployment. She didn't think about going AWOL until the day she was due to leave, she said. But as she walked toward the door on the evening of Jan. 15, she decided to break her promise to the Army.
"I wasn't scared of the IEDs or getting shot at," she recalled. "I was so scared of being with those people.
"I couldn't move or think. I just knew if I went back, it would be the same thing all over again. I just couldn't go back."
That week she retained Larry Hildes, a lawyer with a background in civil rights cases. He called and wrote to her command at Fort Lewis, seeking to discuss her return and a possible discharge, but received no reply.
On May 24, Hildes managed to speak with a major. By then, a private doctor had concluded that Swift had post-traumatic stress disorder, and Hildes was hoping to negotiate a medical discharge. The major promised to call back the next day. The call never came.
Impatient, Swift's mother began talking to the local news media, including a National Public Radio affiliate. She attracted the support of several groups, including Women for Peace, STAAMP (Survivors Take Action Against Abuse by Military Personnel), Women Organizing Women, Military Families Speak Out, Iraq Veterans Against the War and Veterans for Peace.
On June 11, the Army faxed the Eugene Police Department, asking that it pick up fugitive Suzanne Swift. It was a highly unusual request -- one that her mother saw as retaliation.
"The U.S. Army does not make an effort to search for deserters," according to Gini Sinclair, spokeswoman for the U.S. Army Deserter Information Point at Fort Knox in Kentucky, one of two centers that process deserters. "They wait for these soldiers to turn themselves in or for them to be picked up when stopped for a routine traffic violation."
Sinclair said she couldn't comment on the Swift case.
Two days after the Eugene police took her into custody, Swift was returned to Fort Lewis and put under the same platoon sergeant who she claimed harassed her in Iraq. After her mother and lawyer complained, she was transferred to another unit, where she is awaiting the results of the investigation.
So far, the Army's psychological evaluation of Swift has not confirmed the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder. The Army has issued no charges against Swift or those she accuses of mistreatment.