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2006-07-13

'Meet Me in Fort Lewis'–Protests Planned for Army Specialist Who Went AWOL After Charging Sexual Harassment

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Army Specialist Suzanne Swift remains confined to base. She went AWOL when the military did not address her charges of sexual harassment and abuse. We take a look at sexual harassment in the military. [includes rush transcript]

We take a look at the case of Suzanne Swift. She is the Army Specialist who has been arrested and confined to base for going AWOL after her charges of sexual harassment and assault went un-addressed by the military.

Swift served in Iraq for a year but decided she could not return and went AWOL. She said her superiors repeatedly sexually harassed her while serving in Iraq. 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 her 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 on Saturday. Her family and supporters are urging a national day of action on her behalf. A "Meet Me in Fort Lewis" rally and vigil are planned for noon outside Fort Lewis. Another in her hometown of Eugene, is planned for noon at the Federal Building.

A few days ago, we brought you Suzanne Swift’s mother, Sara Rich. Today we bring you Suzanne Swift’s grandfather, Jim Rich. I spoke with him at the Oregon Country Fair near Eugene.

  • Jim Rich, Suzanne Swift’s grandfather.

For more on the issue of sexual harassment in the military we are joined by:

  • Susan Avila-Smith, a Military Sexual Trauma Specialist and founder and director of Women Organizing Women, an advocacy group for survivors of rape in the military.

More information at * SuzanneSwift.org. Email Suzanne Swift’s mother, Sara Rich, at * formydaughtersuzanne@yahoo.com

We invited a representative from Fort Lewis military base to be on our program but they declined our request.

Transcript

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

AMY GOODMAN: Today, we bring you Suzanne Swift’s grandfather, Jim Rich. I spoke with him at the Country Fair. I asked him how he felt when Suzanne first joined the Army.

JIM RICH: I was very sorry when she succumbed to the blandishments of a very smooth-tongued recruiter. And I thought when she decided not go back, she had made the best possible decision, considering the things that she had gone through, things that no male soldier would ever, ever, ever in his wildest dreams have to endure.

I hope that justice is served. I hope that light is shown on this aspect of the Army that makes women recruits the prey of sexual predators, and that Suzanne is honorably discharged. I also hope that the rest of our soldiers get to come home soon, and no more sent.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Jim Rich, Suzanne Swift’s grandfather. He’s also a blacksmith, and he was at the Oregon Country Fair, made the iron tools for the new film Pirates of the Caribbean.

Well, we’re joined on the phone right now by Susan Avila-Smith. She’s a Military Sexual Trauma Specialist, founder and director of Women Organizing Women, an advocacy group for survivors of rape in the military. We invited a representative from Fort Lewis military base, where Suzanne is confined, to be on our program, but they declined our request.

Susan Avila-Smith, thanks so much for being with us. I realize it’s tough for you to come out of your recovering from cancer, and yet you have chosen to take the time to stand up for Suzanne. Why?

SUSAN AVILA-SMITH: Good morning. Well, I think it’s an extremely important problem going on in the military right now, and they continue to keep sweeping this under the rug. Congress has done multiple investigations, but they have made no changes to any of the accountability within the military. And it’s really time that somebody stands up, and the fact that Suzanne stood up and went AWOL is showing how bad the problem is.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And you had an opportunity to meet with her. In terms of her experiences, how they compare to others that your organization has dealt with in recent years?

SUSAN AVILA-SMITH: The experience that she’s had has been similar to the 600 other cases that I’ve had. It’s usually a command rape. It’s usually covered up. It’s usually that they try to persecute the victim, rather than persecute the perpetrators.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And have there been any instances where actual rapes or assaults have been prosecuted by the military?

SUSAN AVILA-SMITH: Yeah, there’s been a few, usually the high-profile cases, and sometimes, you know, justice is done. There’s been a 30-year sentence. But generally speaking, of the hundreds and thousands — there’s probably a hundred thousand women who have been raped over the lifetime of women in the service — generally speaking, no, the perpetrator usually is running free, and the victim is usually kicked out of the military.

AMY GOODMAN: Susan, can you tell us your own story, how you got involved with helping women in the military?

SUSAN AVILA-SMITH: When I was in, I experienced some domestic violence and sexual assault, and both times it was dismissed by the military. When I finally got out, I was in a women’s support group at the Seattle V.A. and found out that so many women had been raped in the military, and nobody really knew what to do. And the paperwork to file claims with the V.A. was impossible for anybody with post-traumatic stress disorder. And so we got together and started helping other women with the paperwork, and it evolved into helping other women nationwide with claims as old as from World War II. And now I’m doing a lot of active duty cases.

JUAN GONZALEZ: In Suzanne Swift’s case, apparently she was asked to fill out a 700-question psychological questionnaire. It seems to me quite extreme in the situation that she was under. Do you have similar instances where those who have come forth, the target then has been on them and on their psychological situation?

SUSAN AVILA-SMITH: Yeah. That was also the same with the Sergeant Audra Wood. I think it’s very typical of the military to do an MMPI on the soldiers. Unfortunately, they’re doing it on the victims, rather than the perpetrators. But it also — it does help to find a baseline to see if there is damage to the victim and to see if there’s mental health counseling that needs to be taken care of and addressed.

AMY GOODMAN: In the case of Suzanne Swift, and we’ve talked to her mother several times, she says that when she was in Iraq and she got into a vehicle with a sergeant, he immediately talked about having sex with her. Even back at Fort Lewis at the base, when she showed up and asked where she should report for duty, she said another sergeant said, "In my bed, naked." Right before July 4th weekend, at the big formation where hundreds of soldiers are there, the person in charge said he wanted 21-year-olds to step forward to tell them, you know, they shouldn’t be drinking on July 4th weekend. And then he said, "Anyone who has gone AWOL in the last six months I want to step forward." And, of course, Suzanne was the only one to step forward. Then, she was also that week earlier taken for this psych evaluation without telling her mother, without telling her attorney, taken alone until her mother raised such a fuss she was taken back from the psych testing area, though she had to take it the next week.

What about the response of the military in all of these cases, and her saying she even went to her E.O. officer in Iraq, equal opportunity, to complain about harassment, and the message that was sent when he did nothing about it?

SUSAN AVILA-SMITH: Well, she has followed the chain of command or attempted to follow the chain of command, which has failed her. And they have reprimanded the first sergeant who singled her out at formation. And I don’t believe that that’s going to be happening again. She’s currently with a new command, who has been sensitive to her needs and is acting, what I believe, above and beyond what a normal military command would do. They recognize that this is a high-profile case, and they seem to be now doing the right things for her.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And also, the issue of the impact of war itself on these situations, are you finding that the number of victims is greater in war situations, like in Iraq or Afghanistan, than it is in peacetime efforts of the military?

SUSAN AVILA-SMITH: It’s a little bit more during the war, but I think maybe perhaps people are reporting a little bit more. It continues to go on stateside, continues to go on overseas at other bases. Generally speaking, the concept of sexual assault in the military is handled the same and is the same on every single base.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Susan Avila-Smith, you’re well known in the Puget Sound area as an advocate for sexually assaulted military veterans, have been working very hard on this. Again, you’ve been going through radiation. And you’re quoted in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer saying, "Cancer is curable. PTSD is not."

SUSAN AVILA-SMITH: Well, coming to terms with having my own PTSD has taken about a decade to learn to manage my symptoms, rather than my symptoms managing me. I’m lucky that I’m a highly functional person with PTSD, because I sought treatment very early on, after I was diagnosed. And as a result, my level of functioning is good, and that’s my hope for Suzanne, is that she gets out and she’s able to get the treatment that she needs so that she can deal with this. As far as my cancer goes, it’s a bump in the road. It’s kind of unfortunate, because I’m not able to help the number of women that need help, but I’m not looking at this as, you know, a life-threatening illness or something that’s going to be continuing to linger like my PTSD.

AMY GOODMAN: Susan Avila-Smith, we thank you very much for joining us, founder and director of Women Organizing Women, an advocacy group for survivors of rape in the military. Again, protests are planned for Eugene and outside Fort Lewis, "Meet Me in Fort Lewis," in Washington state, for Suzanne on her birthday on Saturday and, her mother says, for all women in the military to protect them. The website, suzanneswift.org. The email address is formydaughtersuzanne@yahoo.com.

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