Serving in Silence: Sex Assault Retaliation Complaints Investigated

The Department of Defense Inspector General announced Thursday it has launched a “sex assault reprisal unit,” which will now investigate complaints of retaliation within the military following a report of sexual assault.

DODIG is supposed to be the agency to investigate any whistleblower report, including any type of retaliation. But a 2015 report by Human Rights Watch the agency had never substantiated a case brought to its attention.

That finally changed this year, when it released a report substantiating a complaint made by retired Lt. Col. Teresa James of the West Virginia National Guard.

James first came to the News4 I-Team in 2014 after spending years trying to stop retaliation that followed her 2010 report of rape by a superior officer.

As the I-Team reported at the time, James is the highest ranking officer to come forward with a substantiated rape report in the National Guard. “It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” she said at the time. “I lost everything and did nothing wrong. I know I lost my opportunity to continue to serve and be a full colonel.”

The new report from the DODIG found that her superior should not have made an “unfavorable evaluation report,” which investigators found cost James her promotion, a service award and other related pay increases.

"If they can learn one thing from my story and apply it, then it's worthwhile to me," James said following the DODIG’s announcement.

But James said the military’s system to prove you were first raped, and then retaliated against, is too complicated for the average soldier. “I do believe that people should be able to substantiate and support what they're saying,” she explained. “But it's just an overwhelming amount of resources. I think that one of the things that worked to my advantage was my time in the military. I had 35 years, so I had some knowledge and experience just going into the process. I knew it was going to be a very grueling process."

It’s now been six years since James first reported her rape. As the I-Team first reported in 2015, investigators also substantiated that report but her assailant was allowed to allowed to retire after receiving two letters of reprimand.

The I-Team found this is not an unusual punishment. When the I-Team sent a survey to every National Guard unit in the country, we discovered there had been only one dishonorable discharge and just three incarcerations for sexual assault within the last five years. 

A Human Rights Watch report previously found service members are 12 times more likely to face retaliation than see their offender punished for the crime. DODIG said it’s received 40 reprisal complaints related to sexual assault already this year.

James said after six years, her journey is still not over. She said she now has to navigate yet another military inquiry that will determine if she will, in fact, receive her promotion to colonel and related back pay.

She emphasized it is critical for investigators to never forget the men and women who make these types of complaints are also grappling with the physical and emotional damage of being a rape survivor.

"I struggle,” she explained before tearing up. “I do.” Taking a deep breathe, she then whispered. “But you know, I've got to keep going. I've got to keep going for the others."

Reported by Tisha Thompson, produced by Rick Yarborough, shot and edited by Steve Jones and Jeff Piper.

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