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2006-07-11

Mother of Sexually Harassed Soldier Recounts Ordeal as Daughter Remains Confined to Base

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We speak with Sara Rich, the mother of Army Specialist Suzanne Swift. Swift has been arrested and confined to base for going AWOL after her charges of sexual harassment and assault went un-addressed by the military. She turns 22 years old on Saturday. [includes rush transcript]

We move now from a case of U.S soldiers raping and killing an Iraqi teenager and her family to a case of U.S officers preying on their own. Last month, Army Specialist Suzanne Swift was arrested in Eugene, Oregon for refusing to return to fight in Iraq. Swift served in Iraq for a year but decided she could not return and went AWOL. Swift said her superiors repeatedly sexually harassed her while serving in Iraq.

Suzanne Swift remained AWOL until early June. Then on June 11th, the Eugene police knocked on her mother’s front door and Suzanne was arrested and taken to the county jail. She has since been transferred to Fort Lewis Washington where she is confined to her base. So far, no charges have been filed against Suzanne for deserting and Fort Lewis officials have said they will assign an independent investigator to look into her charges of sexual harassment. Suzanne Swift turns twenty-two this weekend.

Last weekend I was at the Oregon Country Fair in Veneta and I sat down with Suzanne Swift’s mother, Sara Rich. I asked her to go back to the beginning and tell us the story about how her daughter Suzanne was recruited, how she went to Iraq and what happened. This is her story.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This past weekend I went to the Oregon Country Fair in Veneta, Oregon and sat down with Suzanne Swift’s mother Sara Rich. I asked her to go back through her daughter’s whole case and to talk about how her daughter Suzanne was recruited, how she went to Iraq, and what happened. This is Sara Rich, her mother.

SARA RICH: Suzanne was 18 and graduated from high school. And then, she went and worked at Safeway. So she was working at Safeway. And she was bored. She was bored. She didn’t know what to do. And a telephone call came to our home, and it was a military recruiter. And he invited her out to lunch, and the courtship began from there. He started taking her out to lunch weekly and calling all the time, checking in with her and started to woo her, in a way, to get her to join the military.

He promised her travel and promised her college training, things that, you know, she really wanted to do. She wanted to get out of Eugene and start exploring her life. And he said that if she wanted to be a military police officer, she wouldn’t be deployed to Iraq. But in order for her to be a military police officer, she would have to sign up for five years, instead of four. So, she took the bait, and she joined.

And first thing they told her — can I cuss? No, I better not. Okay, first thing they said to her when she got off the bus at basic training was that all of them had been lied to, and all of them were going to Iraq, and all of them were going to die. It’s the first thing they said to her when she got off the bus at Fort Leonard Wood, which is where she did her basic training. She did her basic training. And then, when she was done with basic training, she was told she was going immediately to Iraq. And she went up to Fort Lewis, where she joined the 66th MP Company.

She — during the month between — she had a month between basic training and the deployment. She was coming home frequently. And one of her sergeants kept calling her just to kind of keep track of her, keep tabs on her. And I thought, Wow, this guy really cares about her; he’s going to make sure she’s safe. I felt like, you know, it was kind of like this big brother thing, where they were really going to watch out for my girl.

And so, we go up there to say goodbye to her. She’s leaving. It’s February, Valentine’s Day. And we’re in the hotel room, and I’ve got all my kids in the same bed, sleeping together. And I’m just remembering what it feels like to have all my kids in one space. And she left. We were sitting in her bunk the next day right before she was leaving, and another sergeant stopped by, and he said, "Don’t worry, ma’am. We’re going to take really good care of your daughter." And I thought, Wow, these guys are really going to watch out for her, and they’re going to make sure she’s safe.

What I didn’t know was the first thing that happened when she set foot on foreign soil is, these two sergeants, especially, began hunting her in a way, kind of predatory. The platoon sergeant asked her to go for a ride in his jeep. And she got in the jeep, and he turned to her and said, "You want to have sex with me, don’t you, Swift?" except he said it in a very rude, derogatory, nasty way. And she said she was so scared that she just froze and didn’t know what to do.

So she went to her equal opportunity officer and tried to tell him what happened. And he basically dismissed her and told her he didn’t believe her, and it was — you know, nothing was going to happen from it. So, from then on, she didn’t feel safe. She — kind of what it did is it was like a green light for other people to start stalking and proposing sex, harassing, doing all of those things, because they knew she wasn’t going to be protected by the platoon sergeant or the equal opportunity officer.

So this other sergeant started pursuing her and finally coerced her into having a sexual relationship with her. And I’ve learned now what that’s called is "command rape," when the person that has a direct life-or-death decision over you in a combat zone coerces you into having sex, it’s called "command rape." And he would sabotage her and do really mean things to her. He would show up in her room, in her bunk, in the middle of the night, drunk. And just horrible, you know.

And she would call me, crying. Throughout this whole thing, I knew what was going on. And I said, I can call the congressman. I can help you. What can I do? And she said, "No, Mom. He’s psychotic. He’ll really hurt me or something will happen," if I do, if I tell. And I said, "Okay, you just let me know, and I’ll do something."

He went on R&R. I call him the molester. The molester went on R&R. And when he got back, she ended things. She said, "I’m done. I’m not going to see you anymore. You need to leave me alone." And she really stood up for herself. He stopped the sexual stuff, but he started a different kind of harassment, to where he was — you know, because he had direct supervision over her. So if she showed up for formation late — she showed up once — sorry, the parade’s in the background — she was 30 seconds late, and he made her wear a wall clock around her neck for two weeks.

AMY GOODMAN: A wall clock?

SARA RICH: A wall clock. You know, those big round wall clocks, for a week, just to humiliate her in front of everybody and discredit her. And that’s what he told her. He said, "If you tell anybody, I’m making a paper trail on you. You are — you know, as a lazy soldier." And she finally stood up to him right before they came home and said, "If you do a single thing to me more, if you do anything else to me, I am going to tell." And he immediately backed off and stopped.

They get back to the States, and she is with a different sergeant now. And she goes to him, and she asks him where she’s supposed to report to in the morning. And they were in a group of people, and he turned to her, and he said, "In my bed, naked." She was so upset that she skipped all the sergeants, and she skipped the equal opportunity person, and she went straight to command and told on him.

What happened from there was, they were both interrogated. They were both basically found guilty, and he was moved to a different unit, and she was treated like a traitor for months.

I kept asking her, "You know, you’re back from Iraq. Do you want to deal with your trauma?" She said, "No, I have to go back to Iraq in 18 months. I can’t open up. I can’t do that. I can’t do the work that I need to do, because I won’t be able to be redeployed if I do that. It will jus tbreak down all the barriers that I have built up to protect myself."

So, we think we have until November of '06, before she has to redeploy. And about October of ’05, she came home one day, and we were all kind of hanging out. I was out doing yard work. And her sister came, she said, "Are you going to take care of Suzanne's dog when she goes back." I said, "Well, that’s for not another year. Why are you asking me that?" And she goes, [gasp], and she turned away. She goes, "I’m not going to tell you." And I said, "Tell me what?" So I had to go find Suzanne. I said, "What’s going on?" She goes, "They’re redeploying me in January of ’06, Mom." I said, "They can’t do that." I said, "You had 18 months." She said, "Well, they forced me to sign a waiver, waiving my rights to stabilization time." I said, "What do you mean, they forced you?" "They got in my face and screamed at me until I signed."

So, she signed the waiver. We started preparing for her to go back to Iraq in January of '06. We started packing, started getting everything together, celebrated our Christmas. I tried to make it, you know, the best Christmas ever, because I knew she was going back again right after. So she — it's about three days before her redeployment date. We’ve got the hotel reservations to go up and say goodbye, and she has all her stuff, and she’s brought it back and packed, you know. She’s packed and ready to go. And she’s got her keys in her hand.

She turned to me. She says, "Mom, I just can’t go back. I can’t do it." And I looked at her, said, "Are you serious?" And she goes, "I can’t do it, Mom." I said, "Okay."

So we made plans. She went into hiding. We got her a psychologist, and we got her an attorney. And for six months, she went AWOL. And we were getting — she was seeing her counselor. She got diagnosed with PTSD, which we knew was going to happen because she was — you know, she had symptoms of PTSD. I could see it. And she was just trying to prepare herself for going back, because she knew she had to return to her unit and face the charges, or face it and get — you know, do something to get herself so she was separated from the Army legally.

And on Sunday night, June the 11th, she — I guess she came over to the house — I was sleeping, and she and her sister were watching a movie — because she wasn’t staying with me. She had just come over to visit. And there was a knock on the door. And I was in my pajamas, and I came out. And it was the Eugene Police Department. And they told me — they asked me if Suzanne was here? And I said, "No." And he told me that he had a warrant. I said, "Can I see your warrant?" And he said, "No, I don’t have to show you a copy of the warrant."

AMY GOODMAN: This is Eugene police?

SARA RICH: Eugene police. And I said, "Well, you need to show me something." And at that point, Suzanne and Sonia come into the room, and he looks at Sonia. He says, "Are you Suzanne?" She said, "No." He said to Suzanne, "Are you Suzanne?" She said, "No." And then he said, "Show me your left hand." And she has a little tattoo on her left hand.

And he walked in the house, and I put my hand up. I said, "I didn’t invite you into my home." And he took my hand and twisted it and pushed me out of the way and put the handcuffs on Suzanne. Well, she turned around and put — you know, he put the handcuffs on her. She knows the drill. She was a military police officer.

So I looked at her, and I said, "Here we go." And she says, "Yep." And I say, "Are you ready?" She says, "Yep." And I said, "Okay, let’s do it," because I knew that if they took her before she was going to turn herself in, that I was going to make some noise. And they took her and took her to Lane County jail and processed her. They fingerprinted her and mugshot and put her in jail. And she sat there for two days.

We did a vigil for her that Monday, because she was taken Sunday night. We did a vigil, and she was watching us. I didn’t know she could see us. There was like 70 people outside, and we were all saying how much we love Suzanne. "Suzanne, we support you." She’s like, "I was banging on the window." I couldn’t see her. So —- sorry, I don’t know why I’m crying so hard. So, she said that was the first night she had cried really hard for a long time. She said she cried all night in her cell. And she was all by herself. So she -—

AMY GOODMAN: She’s 21?

SARA RICH: Yeah, she’s 21 right now. It’s the point where, you know, the frontal lobes connect. This is a real delicate time for people, and by the way she’s having to grow up. So they transported her to Fort Lewis, and they returned her to her unit under the supervision of the first — the sergeant, platoon sergeant, that, you know, said, "Do you want to have sex with me?" in the jeep. And she called me. She said, "Guess who’s supervising me." And I said, "Who?" She said Sergeant — this sergeant. And I said, "Oh, hell no!"

And I called the attorney. I called the senator’s office. I said, "She cannot be under this man’s care, because this is one of the perpetrators." So they had to fight to get her out of that unit, but they did and got a no-contact order for this sergeant. And first, they were making a buddy system, where she couldn’t be alone. And then it was confined to barracks, then confined to base. And then, I went up a couple weeks ago and got to see her. And I’ve seen her twice since then. And then, now we’re just waiting for charges to be filed against her — nothing has been filed so far — and pressing charges against the three sergeants.

AMY GOODMAN: Sara, can you talk about when she was first brought for psychological tests? This is when she’s still confined to base.

SARA RICH: Oh, sure. Monday, June 26, I get a call from her at 8:00 in the morning, and she’s crying. And I said, "What’s going on, babe? What’s going on?" She said, "Mom, they have me at the hospital, and they’re trying to give me a psych eval." And I said, "Wait a minute. They can’t do that unless your attorney or I are there. Somebody needs to be there with you." Because, you know, I didn’t want her to be re-traumatized or have her go through this whole psych eval, which she’s already had to go through, you know? Sexual assault victims aren’t supposed to be interviewed and dealt with in this way for mental health reasons. I said, "They can’t do that if your attorney is not there and I’m not there." And she said, "Well, they’re making me do it, and they’re telling me I have to be here." So I said, "Well, don’t say anything and don’t sign anything." I said, "I’m calling your attorney."

I couldn’t get a hold of the attorney, so I called Senator Wyden, Senator Murray and Congressman DeFazio’s office and told all three of them that it was an emergency and they needed to intervene on Suzanne’s behalf. And they eventually did, and Suzanne was taken back to her barracks.

And after that, a colonel called me to check in and tell me that it was mandatory that she have this done. I said, "That’s fine if it’s mandatory, but it needs to be scheduled, and her attorney or I need to be present, so if this re-traumatizes her, somebody is there that can help her." And she understood that. And she said, "Well, I hope you let me know if something happens and if she feels like she’s going to commit suicide or something. I want to know." And I said, "Well, thank you for your concern. And I will let you know." And she assured me that she had placed her under the care of one of her finest captains, which actually he is a really very responsive and caring person. And that was —

AMY GOODMAN: And what was your response when she said, "commit suicide."

SARA RICH: I said, "Thank you for your concern."

AMY GOODMAN: And then, can you talk about happened really just a few days after, right before the July 4 weekend?

SARA RICH: Sure. Suzanne called me, crying, telling me that they had just been done with formation, where they all gather together outside, you know, in the lines and talk about what’s going on with the unit. And since it was right before the 4th of July, the sergeant was kind of giving them the, you know, the instructions and the guidelines for the 4th of July. No drinking, no domestic violence. So he would have them step forward. He said, "If you’re under 21, step forward. You know, you’re all minors. You aren’t to be drinking. If you’re over 25, step forward. If you are having issues at home, step forward." He had these people stepping forward and talking to them.

And then he said, "If you’ve gone AWOL in the last six months, step forward." And Suzanne was the only one to step forward, and nobody said anything. And she just sat there by herself. And she said that she was so humiliated that she went back up to her room and called me and was just crying. So I called this captain. I said, "Let me tell you what your sergeant just did to my daughter." And I told him, and he apologized and said he was so sorry. But, you know, at that point, I mean, I was having a hard time feeling like she was safe up there as it was, but when I know that people are going to start sabotaging and doing nasty little subtle things to her like that, it makes me just furious.

AMY GOODMAN: So, she’s confined to base. One of the officers calls you and says, "Are you concerned about your daughter wanting to commit suicide?" And a few days later, in front of hundreds of people, they say, "We want the person, if anyone has gone AWOL," knowing well it was only Suzanne, "to stand in front of the group."

SARA RICH: Little subtle manipulations to mess with her. And I told her, I said, "Suzanne, they’re going to mess with you. They want you to break down." They want to get her out of the Army on — without the honorable discharge. They want to have her separate from the Army, and they want to make her look like she’s crazy. So by doing subtle manipulations, that’s — you know, I want so badly to trust the integrity of people, and it’s really hard to, when I see these little subtle manipulations happen around my daughter.

AMY GOODMAN: Are they investigating these sergeants that have gone after her, both at Fort Lewis and in Iraq?

SARA RICH: They say they are. And Suzanne has gone in front of the investigating officer and told him what she experienced. And that’s as far as I know, if they’ve done anything else.

AMY GOODMAN: So why, if they’re doing this investigation of those who she has accused of perpetrating this harassment, why is she first arrested, then confined to base?

SARA RICH: Well, I guess it’s because they thought she was a flight risk, because she went AWOL and didn’t deploy with her unit.

AMY GOODMAN: And as she’s going through all this, you’re continuing your counter-recruitment work?

SARA RICH: I am. I am. I always do, though. That’s just part of who I am, is making sure that young people know all of their options. And one of the things that we do is go into the high schools. You know, it’s summertime now, so we don’t have the access to them, like we do. But you plant seeds in youth, and they are some of the best counter-military recruiters, is the youth around you. So, you know, and everybody I come in contact with that are under the age of 18 or close to that age, I check in with them about what they think and help them be the advocates and the peer teachers for other people that they come in contact with.

AMY GOODMAN: Why haven’t your congress member and senators demanded her release?

SARA RICH: I think that there is a — there’s just this national fear. I think people are scared. I think people are scared to step up and scared to say no. Why aren’t our Congress demanding our soldiers come home?

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, on Saturday, it’s Suzanne’s 22nd birthday. How are you preparing for that?

SARA RICH: We are going to do something called "Meet Me in Fort Lewis," and we’re all going up to rally and do a vigil for her, showing our support for her and for all the women that have been abused in the military, and hopefully creating some change for the young girls that are joining the military, the 18-year-olds and 19-year-olds that are being deployed to Iraq today, and helping them learn how to stand up and say no for themselves.

AMY GOODMAN: And the people who have responded to this situation as it unfolds, what kind of response are you getting?

SARA RICH: You know, out of the hundreds of emails, we’ve only gotten three negative emails, which is really amazing, I think. But most — we’ve had a huge number of people saying, "This happened to me, and it was swept under the carpet," is the common phrase I hear. "He was promoted and moved. It was swept under the carpet. My needs were not met, and I was treated like a piranha." That’s what I hear, mostly.

AMY GOODMAN: And what do you tell people who say, "I want to get out, too"? Or people who have gone AWOL?

SARA RICH: I tell them to get a good attorney, to get a good attorney, and to stay strong, because they’re saving their own lives.

AMY GOODMAN: Sara Rich, the mother of Army Specialist Suzanne Swift, who went AWOL after alleging that her sergeants, both in Iraq as well as on base at Fort Lewis, had harassed her. The military says they’re investigating right now. The website for Suzanne Swift is suzanneswift.org. The email address for her mother, Sara Rich, is formydaughtersuzanne@yahoo.com. Tomorrow, we’ll bring you Suzanne Swift’s grandfather, Jim Rich, and his comments about the ordeal that Suzanne Swift, his granddaughter, has gone through.

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