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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Each day this week, we've been following along as NPR's Quil Lawrence listens to women in the military. We're hearing of women who've served in combat, who came home with the scars of combat and who, in some cases, did not come home.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

They also face a threat from inside the ranks. Pentagon research says more than 1 in 4 women who join the military will be sexually assaulted during their careers.

INSKEEP: Today, women describe what happened to them, and what they tried to do about it. Here's NPR's Quil Lawrence again.

(SOUNDBITE OF SUPPORT GROUP MEETING

NICHELLE GAUTIER: So y'all come in and sit, so we can go ahead and get started. Now, if you need to get up or anything, and get food, so...

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Nichelle Gautier is calling a support group to order. Nine women, all of them veterans, gather at one of their homes outside El Paso, Texas.

GAUTIER: Hi. Good evening. I'd like to take this time to welcome everybody to the session for...

LAWRENCE: This is a new group, and the women introduce themselves - what branch of service they were in, when they go out.

GAUTIER: We may not have the same trauma that you have, but know that you are not alone. You are not in this by yourself.

LAWRENCE: They aren't alone. About 19,000 sex crimes take place in the military a year, according to the Pentagon's most recent estimate. A lot of the victims are male, but men in the service face the same risk of sexual assault as civilian men do. It's a different story for women. Women who join the military face a much higher risk of sexual assault than civilian women.

GEN. GARY PATTON: It's a complex problem because it involves a culture change.

LAWRENCE: Gen. Gary Patton heads the Pentagon's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office.

PATTON: We have to see a culture change where those victims of this crime are taken seriously at their unit level, by every member of their unit; so that you don't see the divisiveness and the lack of support, and maybe the feeling of isolation that these victims feel.

LAWRENCE: Lack of support - that's what Dora Hernandez, one of the women at the group in El Paso, feels. She says sexual assault is the betrayal of everything military culture is supposed to mean.

DORA SANCHEZ: I'd say the worst thing, to me, is that you don't have to worry about the enemy. You have to worry about your own soldiers around you. And that's the worse part about it.

LAWRENCE: Sabina Rangel, who hosted the group in her home, signed up after high school to serve her country, and to earn money for college.

SABINA RANGEL: I was assaulted while in Army boot camp. This particular drill sergeant, I thought he was trying to mentor me. But that wasn't the case. It was, how close can I get?

LAWRENCE: Rangel didn't enlist in the Army after boot camp. She didn't talk about the attack, almost to convince herself it never happened. The Pentagon estimates that only 14 percent of sexual assaults get reported. Many victims say their rapists outranked them. Sometimes, the perpetrator was the same official they'd have to report the crime to.

Sabina Rangel was young. She moved on with her life, got married, had a daughter. She later divorced and in June of 2000, she tried the military again; this time, in the Navy Reserves. She was assigned to an Army joint command in El Paso. She wasn't getting paid on time. She thought her supervisor was going to going to help.

RANGEL: The command sergeant major at the time, he called me to his office. And he let me know that if I would meet up with him in a hotel, he would give me money. And I was like, no, I just need my paycheck.

LAWRENCE: But the propositions didn't stop.

RANGEL: I finally asked his secretary that when he called me, if he ever closed the door, to please knock on the door. And she said, Sabina, it happens to everybody.

LAWRENCE: Dozens of women interviewed for this story spoke about a culture where men act entitled to sex with female troops. One joked that rape is part of the job description. Rangel says she tried to avoid ever being alone with the command sergeant major, but he outranked her.

RANGEL: Then I had a mission that I had to go on. This command sergeant major was there. He and another sergeant major straight out told me, we were going to have sex.

LAWRENCE: Rangel reported the rape to her superiors, including a female officer, and they told her to keep quiet. But other officers started hinting they knew about the rape. Another sergeant major asked her for sex.

RANGEL: I was really at a breaking point. I was becoming very depressed. I contemplated suicide.

LAWRENCE: Women in the military face a higher risk of being raped multiple times. Rangel had planned to make the military a career. She'd earned medals and citations for her work. Instead, she left in 2006, angry and feeling like she'd never be able to trust anyone. Rangel says serial sexual predators move up through the service, while women like her are driven out.

RANGEL: They target the ones that are professional, that care about their job, care about their performance. You know, and then the ones that come from broken families, ran away from whatever atmosphere to join the military and boot camp - those are the people that are targeted.

JAMIE LIVINGSTON: My name is Jamie. I was in the Navy for almost six years. I served on the USS Abraham Lincoln while we deployed to the waters outside of Iraq, the Gulf.

LAWRENCE: Jamie Livingston grew up all over. Her stepdad was running from something, she thinks, because they moved from state to state suddenly and without explanation. She was home-schooled, so no teachers or friends to reach out to. Like many people, she saw enlisting as an escape to a better life.

LIVINGSTON: I wanted to join the military from the time I was as old as I knew there was a military. Let me grab this blanket. I always get cold when I start...

LAWRENCE: She grabs a comforter, though it's plenty warm.

LIVINGSTON: I wanted to get out of my house, 'cause there was physical, emotional and sexual abuse from as young as I can remember.

LAWRENCE: Livingston says her stepdad raped her through her teenage years. As soon as her mom got away from him, Livingston joined the Navy. She thrived, working on the flight line of an aircraft carrier. A cruise log - sort of a yearbook - shows pictures of her deployment.

LIVINGSTON: This piece is used to bring back the wire...

LAWRENCE: The log brings back some good memories - she loved the work - but her chief, her direct supervisor, had a combination lock on the inside of his door.

LIVINGSTON: There was no reason to have a cipher lock on the inside of the door. You know, obviously, you would have to have the combination to open it. So any time I would go in there for my qualifications, he would lock that. And every time that I would get a qualification signed off, he would ask for a sexual favor.

LAWRENCE: Livingston was later able to join in a successful prosecution against that chief - a rarity among the women we spoke with. But her troubles didn't end. Livingston was raped by a group of sailors in a dark storage berth. She decided to join the military police, in part to help other victims.

LIVINGSTON: I went to become a military police, and I was raped then too, so - (crying) - but I didn't report that one. I knew the command's attitude towards rape, so I didn't say anything 'cause this guy was my superior, and I had to work with him every day.

LAWRENCE: The command's attitude toward rape is why most victims don't report. They're afraid that speaking out can only bring more trouble, and almost never put the rapist behind bars.

Quil Lawrence, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Quil continues his reporting tomorrow. We'll hear what rape victims can expect from the military justice system.

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