Female troops serving in the Iraq war are reporting an insidious enemy in their own camps: fellow American soldiers who sexually assault them.
At least 37 female service members have sought sexual-trauma counseling and other assistance from civilian rape-crisis organizations after returning from war duty in Iraq, Kuwait and other overseas stations, The Denver Post has learned.
The women, ranging from enlisted soldiers to officers, have reported poor medical treatment, lack of counseling and incomplete criminal investigations by military officials. Some say they were threatened with punishment after reporting assaults.
The Pentagon did not respond to repeated requests for information about the number of sexual assault reports during the conflict. Defense officials would say only that they will not tolerate sexual assault in their ranks.
Members of Congress said they are alarmed by the assault reports, confirming that they have learned of incidents as well.
Colorado Sen. Wayne Allard, a key figure in the investigation of the Air Force Academy rape scandal, said he intends to raise the issue with colleagues on the Senate Armed Services Committee. And two Pennsylvania congressmen -- Rep. Joseph Pitts and Sen. Arlen Specter -- intervened last month on one rape victim's behalf to bring her home.
"Congressman Pitts is extremely concerned," spokesman Derek Karchner said. "We have heard that there were cases that hadn't been reported or were not being investigated."
Women have served greater combat support roles in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts than ever before, flying fighter jets, serving on patrols and analyzing intelligence data. According to a Department of Defense estimate, women represent 10.4 percent of the total forces who were "in theater" between October 2002 and November 2003. A total of 59,742 women have been or are currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As women have returned from duty overseas in recent months, they have sought help from civilian trauma centers and advocates.
"We have significant concerns about the military's response to sexual assault in the combat zone," said Christine Hansen, executive director of the Connecticut-based Miles Foundation, which has assisted 31 women.
"We have concerns that victims are not getting forensic exams. Evidence is not being collected in some cases, and they are not getting medical care and other services."
To protect the soldiers' privacy, the foundation and other victim advocacy organizations contacted by The Post declined to release details of individual cases -- such as locations of the attacks or a breakdown of which military branch was involved -- and revealed only general trends.
Many of the victims are women of high rank. Several are officers. Most were stationed in Kuwait, a common launching point for troops occupying Iraq.
Among the most disturbing trends, say the victim advocates, is a disregard for the women's safety and medical treatment following an assault. Women are being left in the same units as their accused attackers and are not receiving counseling, they say.
"If you don't even get the victim to a level of medical accessibility, how do you get to anything else, such as evidence collection through forensic exams?" Hansen said. "There appears to be a shortage of criminal justice personnel to help them, too."
The military environment magnifies intense stress for victims, Hansen said.
"Just by virtue of the fact that they have to salute the individual who attacked them adds tremendous emotional trauma."
It could take months or years before a more definitive picture of the prevalence of sexual assault during the war takes shape. The Defense Department has not disclosed such statistics in the past.
But some surveys have shown high rates of sexual abuse and harassment among servicewomen in past military conflicts.
--Nearly 30 percent of 202 female Vietnam veterans surveyed in 1990 said they experienced a sexual encounter "accompanied by force or threat of force," according to the Congressional Record.
--A study of troops in the 1991 Persian Gulf War by Department of Veterans Affairs researchers found that 7 percent of surveyed women reported sexual assaults, while 33 percent reported sexual harassment.
Susan Avila-Smith, a Washington state-based civilian advocate, assisted Danielle, the rape victim who received congressional help to return home. A military intelligence officer who asked that her full name not be used, Danielle said she was assaulted Nov. 28 while in Kuwait.
She was stationed with her Fort Lewis, Wash., unit at Camp Udairi, 15 miles from the Iraqi border, for training before deployment to Iraq. She had finished guard duty at 2:30 a.m. and was stepping into the latrine on the edge of camp when she was hit on the back of the head and knocked unconscious, she said.
She recalled waking to a man raping her. She said the man cut her with a knife and hit her with an object between the eyes, again knocking her unconscious.
When she awoke, the man, who remains unidentified, had left. Danielle said she ran into camp, and a fellow soldier alerted her commanders.
She was driven to an aid station, where a rape examination was performed. She received no other treatment for the injuries to her head, back and knees, she says. She was interviewed for about three hours, she said.
After a few days, she said an investigator scheduled a polygraph exam for her but never followed through.
"I was hysterical," she recalled. "There I am, all bruised up and beaten, and somebody in my chain of command wanted me to take a test."
A Fort Lewis spokesman, Jeff Young, said her case is being investigated and that she has received proper health care.