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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

You may have heard about a U.S. Air Force pilot who was convicted of sexual assault last November. He was sentenced to be discharged from the service and spend a year in jail. Then last month, an Air Force general overturned that verdict.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Members of Congress demanded an explanation, and here is the explanation they got. Under the Uniform Military Code of Justice, a general's decision to overturn a court-martial verdict cannot be challenged. That's part of the same legal system that gets convictions in fewer than 10 percent of rape cases. Much more often, the victims wind up paying a price in damage to their careers.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Quil Lawrence has been reporting this week on women combat veterans. Today, the story of one woman who knows the process from the inside.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Myla Haider took a roundabout route to becoming an agent in the Army's Criminal Investigation Command, CID. War kept interrupting her training.

MYLA HAIDER: My commander wanted to take me to Iraq as the intelligence analyst for the battalion, so I gave up my seat in CID school.

LAWRENCE: Haider eventually became an agent. It shows in her steady, just-the-facts-ma'am tone. Once a cop, always a cop, she says. Her commander from the 101st Airborne told us her even-keeled competence made her stand out in a battalion of hundreds. Haider went with the 101st to Kandahar in 2002, and then to Iraq in 2003.

HAIDER: On the invasion, it was me and three other guys living in a vehicle for days at a time.

LAWRENCE: Haider says under fire, those soldiers from the 101st became her brothers.

HAIDER: There was no privacy; it was just sand as far as you could see. I mean, I didn't change clothes because we were in chemical suits for two weeks straight.

LAWRENCE: She never felt sidelined by her gender, never felt the least bit threatened living among the men. There was no privacy, no secrets - except Haider was carrying one. Before she ever deployed, during CID training, she had been raped.

SUSAN BURKE: Myla Haider is a very, very strong woman.

LAWRENCE: Susan Burke is an attorney who has sued the Pentagon on behalf of many rape plaintiffs, including Haider.

BURKE: What happened next, I think, is very revealing about the reality of military service. Myla, a trained investigator, knowledgeable about the way the Army treated rape victims - she decided not to report the rape because she did not believe she would get justice.

HAIDER: I have never met one victim who was able to report the crime and still retain their military career. Not one. I have never met one person who has reported a sexual assault offense, and kept their career.

LAWRENCE: The thing is, she was OK with her decision. Haider says she left that one, terrible incident in the past. In many ways, the camaraderie forged in Iraq and Afghanistan helped her heal; helped her convince herself that not all men, not all soldiers, are sexual predators. But the past wouldn't stay buried. Haider's lawyer, Susan Burke.

BURKE: A couple years later, the same predator - has raped several other law enforcement women.

HAIDER: I was contacted by an investigator who was investigating the offender as a serial rapist.

BURKE: She thought, all right, they'll have to take it seriously. You've got all these - multiple rapes. And so she reported it.

HAIDER: All of the women who were involved in the case had been attacked after I had been attacked. So I felt that the only right thing for me to do was to be involved.

BURKE: The man did not get convicted. He did not get convicted, despite the fact that he had raped multiple women in law enforcement. This is a very telling story about a broken system.

LAWRENCE: A broken system. Burke pulls up the latest numbers from the Department of Defense, on her laptop...

BURKE: It's still loading here.

LAWRENCE: ...to explain what she means. Three numbers tell the story: 19,000 - that's the estimated number of sexual assaults in the military; 575 - that's the number of cases processed in 2011, dismissed or moved to the next stage; finally, 96 - the number of those that go to court-martial.

BURKE: They were only willing to go forward on a small fraction. And then of those, only a portion - only 96 of them - get court-martialed.

LAWRENCE: Then, at a court-martial, the officer who convened the trial can change the charge, reduce the sentence, or even overturn the verdict. That's what happened last month in a case at the U.S. Air Base in Aviano, Italy. A military jury had convicted an officer of sexually assaulting a houseguest while she was asleep. The general presiding over the Aviano case threw out the verdict without explanation.

SEN. KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND: Let's talk about the Aviano case.

LAWRENCE: That's Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat from New York. She questioned the Air Force judge advocate general, Richard Harding, last week.

GILLIBRAND: Do you think justice was done in that case?

RICHARD HARDING: I think that the convening authority reviewed the facts and made an independent determination, and he did so with integrity.

LAWRENCE: So, that's the debate now. Should one officer - the convening authority - have the power to switch a jury verdict? Victims' advocates say no, but there's resistance. Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, who's also a lawyer in the Air Force Reserve, says Aviano is an extremely rare case - and the system shouldn't change.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: We have generally held the view that the one person that has the power to determine good order and discipline, is the military commander.

LAWRENCE: The secretary of defense is reviewing the Aviano case. The Pentagon is making some changes. A pilot program gives legal counsel to victims. Major Gen. Gary Patton leads the Pentagon's efforts on sexual assault.

MAJ. GEN. GARY PATTON: Sexual assault has no place in my Army, and no place in my military. It is an affront to the values that we defend, and it erodes the cohesion that our units demand.

LAWRENCE: Patton says a highly critical documentary film, called "The Invisible War," is now part of the military's curriculum on sexual assault. That film features lawyer Susan Burke and former CID agent Myla Haider. They both insist that military police and lawyers, not commanding officer, should oversee rape investigations. Until that happens, Myla Haider says, the victim pays the price.

HAIDER: That's essentially what happened when I reported it. It was a very small part of my life, but by making that choice - my reporting of it took over my life, ruined my career and wound up, ultimately, getting me kicked out of the Army.

LAWRENCE: The defendant in her case was charged with a lesser offense, and stayed in the service. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The defendant in Haider's case was discharged from the military. Also, the lesser charges he was convicted of related to other plaintiffs in the case, not to Haider.] As for Haider, the next time she was investigating a rape case for CID, she realized her career was done.

HAIDER: While I was testifying, the defense attorney asked me, isn't it true that you're a rape victim yourself? And I was appalled because as an investigator, that had nothing to do with my investigation of the crime.

LAWRENCE: From that point on, colleagues at CID treated her differently. For years, she had heard CID agents doubt the stories of rape victims and now, they doubted her work. Her whole career, she'd gotten praise from commanders; now, she got reprimands. Haider had endured war. She'd endured rape. It was reporting the crime that drove her out of the Army. She's now getting a degree in counseling and has been helping rape survivors - a new career, a good one. But, she says, not the one she chose.

Quil Lawrence, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Tomorrow in our series, women and the masculine world of the military.

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