HAVERHILL — Mary Gallagher said no one would help her.
She said she had been raped, but calling the police was not an option. She was serving in the U.S. military in Iraq, and told her supervisor about the assault. Nothing was done, she said.
To make matters worse, her attacker was a fellow serviceman. That scenario, according to Haverhill native Gallagher and other military veterans who say they are victims of rape, is far too common.
They have filed a class-action suit in federal court demanding the Pentagon change how it handles such cases.
The veterans are receiving support from 5th District Congresswoman Niki Tsongas and Ohio 3rd District Congressman Mike Turner, who introduced a bill to address the problem of sexual assault in the military.
The legislation would provide victims with the right to legal counsel and transfer to another base, maintain confidentiality when speaking with victim advocates, and provide greater training for sexual assault prevention and response at every level of the armed services.
Gallagher is a 12-year member of the Air National Guard who lives in Norwood. She told The Eagle-Tribune yesterday that she supports the legislation and hopes it will result in more victims coming forward.
"Congresswoman Tsongas is really taking the lead in making some necessary changes," Gallagher said. "She's really serious about this and I applaud that."
The current and former service members involved in the lawsuit — 15 women and two men — described circumstances in which fellow servicemen allegedly got away with rape and other sexual abuse while their victims were ordered to continue to serve with them. The plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed in February have publicly discussed the cases.
Gallagher, 38, said she lived in Haverhill until she was 10, when her family moved to the Boston area. She said the legislation Tsongas filed provides victims with options, such as having someone to consult with in a confidential way.
"You'd feel more comfortable about discussing a situation without having to worry about everyone on base finding out about it," Gallagher said. "I loved being in the military, but everything changed in my life after the assault happened."
Gallagher, a technical sergeant, said she was deployed to Iraq in September 2009 and was a member of the security staff on an air base in Baghdad.
She said that in November 2009, she was raped by a coworker after he had harassed her for a month. She said he had asked her for dates, made passes at her and even tried to break into her room one night.
"It was scary," Gallagher said. "When the rape happened, I thought he'd kill me and that fear has stayed with me."
She said she made her female supervisor aware of the assault immediately after it happened, but that the supervisor did nothing about it.
"They sent me back home that December, and when I got back the Guard said there was nothing they could do about it as it happened in Iraq," she said. "They offered me counseling, and that was it. I'm still in counseling for it, and I'm being discharged on post traumatic stress due to that incident.
"I think a lot of it is a lack of leadership on this issue," Gallagher said. "In my case, the message I got was to get over it and move on. They (the military) didn't really want to deal with it."
According to Tsongas, the Pentagon estimates as few as 13.5 percent of people sexually assaulted while in the military come forward.
Gallagher said that in her case, no one in the military wanted to listen to what she had to say.
"I would have had more resources and guidance, which I never got," she said about what the legislation would bring. "I think it would have made a big difference. I felt very alone though this whole thing, and I still do."
Tsongas said that while 40 percent of sexual assault allegations in the civilian world are prosecuted, the number is a staggeringly low 8 percent in the military.
"We ask our men and women in uniform who serve in the military to put their lives on the line for our country, and they shouldn't fear or experience harm from their fellow soldiers," Tsongas said.
The legislation is called the Defense Sexual Trauma Response, Oversight and Good Governance Act (the Defense STRONG Act).
"While the military has made strides to address sexual assault in the ranks, victims still report a lack of confidentiality, protection, support, and access to legal counsel once an incident is reported,'' Tsongas said. "The Defense STRONG Act addresses many of these shortcomings.''
Recent studies have revealed that as many as one in three women leaving military service report that they have experienced some form of sexually related trauma while in the military.
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