Iraq Veteran Says Harassment Prompted Desertion

Army specialist Suzanne Swift left her Washington-state-based unit six months ago without permission. She was arrested last week at her home in Oregon. She says she deserted because of the sexual harassment she suffered during a year-long deployment to Iraq. The Army says it's investigating her claims.

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An American soldier says she doesn't want to go back to Iraq. Suzanne Swift went AWOL from her Army unit in January, as it prepared for another tour overseas. What is capturing attention here is the reason she gives for staying behind.

NPR's Martin Kaste reports from Seattle.

MARTIN KASTE reporting:

Swift says while she was serving in Iraq, her squad leader coerced her into having sex with him repeatedly. Her lawyer, Larry Hildes, says Swift did not report the sergeant, and for good reason.

Mr. LARRY HILDES (Attorney for Suzanne Swift): He was the one with the power.

KASTE: Hildes says Swift was afraid the sergeant would retaliate by singling her out for dangerous duty.

Mr. HILDES: It was very clear from his actions and from the implications, that he would, if she had said no.

KASTE: She didn't report him when she got back to the U.S. either. Her mother, Sara Rich, says Swift wanted to put it all behind her.

But in January, when Swift was about to report to base for her second deployment to Iraq, Rich says her daughter broke down.

Ms. SARA RICH (Mother of Suzanne Swift): She turns to me in the kitchen, she has her keys in her hand, she looks at me and she goes, I just can't do it mom. I can't go back.

KASTE: Swift went underground and her unit left without her. Finally, earlier this month, the police arrested her in her mother's house in Oregon. She's being held at Fort Lewis, in Washington State, but base spokesman Joe Peek(ph) says she has not been charged with desertion - at least not yet.

Mr. JOE PEEK (Spokesman for the U.S. Army Base at Fort Lewis): We are taking her allegations very seriously. Fort Lewis command has now assigned a senior investigating officer to look into and investigate all of the allegations that she has made.

KASTE: Sexual harassment is a problem, the Pentagon acknowledges. The official rate of reported sexual assaults runs at about 70 per 100,000 people in uniform. But what about the frequency of unreported sexual assaults?

General JANIS KARPINSKI (Brigadier General, United States Army): It's much higher than that.

KASTE: Brigadier General Janis Karpinski was the highest-ranking women officer in Iraq until she was demoted in the wake of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. But before Abu Ghraib she was already known for criticizing the Army's attitude toward women who try to report sexual harassment.

Gen. KARPINSKI: The response is, are you sure you want to make a complaint?

KASTE: Karpinski says women who join the military have to factor in, not the possibility, but the probability of being sexually harassed. And she says, it's worse in a war zone.

She recalls how, in Iraq, she was often approached by nervous enlisted women.

Gen. KARPINSKI: A couple of times a female would say, oh, I'm sorry ma'am, I didn't realize you were a general, or... And I said, no, no, what were you going to ask me? And a female would say, would you just... Well, I was going, I was looking for a female to walk to the latrine with me, because, you know, it's dark over there and I don't want anybody to cause a problem. I said what kind of a problem? Well, you know, they've talked about women being attacked, and I just don't want to have a problem. This is at the headquarters!

KASTE: Army spokesman Sheldon Smith says the service is trying to become more responsive to complaints about sexual harassment and assault. He points to the presence of what's called equal opportunity officers on most bases, and frequent sexual harassment training. But having served in Iraq himself, Smith acknowledges that there are soldiers who forget that training when they arrive in a combat zone.

Mr. SHELDON SMITH (U.S. Army Spokesman): You know, a lot of people will try to use stress as an excuse, but there's no excuse for violating a person's personal rights. There's no excuse for violating law.

KASTE: The Army says it won't comment on the details of the Suzanne Swift case until it has completed its investigation.

Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.

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