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Rape in the U.S. military has been called an epidemic by commanders. The Pentagon claims progress in the fight against sexual assault. It points out that more victims are reporting such crimes, which could mean they trust the military justice system. But that system doesn't just affect the lives of troops. Every year, hundreds of civilians are sexually assaulted by troops. As NPR's Quil Lawrence reports, they can find themselves involved in a court-martial proceeding where civilian accusers aren't treated the same as accusers in uniform.
QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: In 2012, Brittany Bentz was 16 years old, living near Edwards Air Force Base in California. She went to the same martial arts studio as a family friend who was 25 and in the Air Force. We're not going to use the airman's name for reasons we'll explain later.
BRITTANY BENTZ: He was like a brother. So I felt comfortable talking to him, you know, hanging out with him.
LAWRENCE: It's NPR policy to name plaintiffs in sexual assault cases only if they want to tell their story. That's the case here. According to her testimony at trial, Bentz says she needed a ride to martial arts class on March 7, 2012, so she called the airman. She was home alone. He came to the house and, Bentz claims, pinned her against the door in the laundry room and raped her. It took her a long time to decide to press the case. When she did, even the Air Force prosecutors warned her it would be tough. They asked her more than once...
B. BENTZ: ...OK, what do you want to do? OK, you want to fight this? We're going to fight this then. Are you sure you want to go through with this? Yes, I want to go through with this. OK, then we're going to go in wholeheartedly.
LAWRENCE: But Bentz didn't realize what she'd face as the only one not in uniform at military court. Hundreds of times each year, civilians allege rape against members of the military. Even if it happened off-base, the military often gets jurisdiction. The military justice system has different rules, and Brittany Bentz's case highlighted those differences.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
B. BENTZ: I, Brittany Nicole Faith Bentz, do consent to a phone call between...
LAWRENCE: Air Force investigators arranged for Bentz to phone the airman so they could eavesdrop on the call.
(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE CALL)
B. BENTZ: Hey.
UNIDENTIFIED: What's up?
LAWRENCE: The call is almost 15 minutes long. It's ambiguous. The airman does not admit to raping Bentz.
(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE CALL)
UNIDENTIFIED: That's why I feel so bad about it.
B. BENTZ: So you feel bad that you forced me to have sex and almost completely ruined my relationship with my boyfriend, because me and him almost broke up after that.
UNIDENTIFIED: Yeah, I remember you telling me that. And I more than feel bad about it because it - I think about it all the time what, you know, on how much I screwed things up.
LAWRENCE: This is exactly how a civilian detective would have investigated this case. But after that, the two systems of justice diverge. For example, under California law, a 25-year-old having sex with a 16-year-old would be statutory rape. But under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the age of consent is 16. And there are plenty of other differences.
DON CHRISTENSEN: The court-martial process is unlike any other criminal process in this country.
LAWRENCE: Don Christensen is with a group called Protect Our Defenders. He used to be the chief prosecutor for the Air Force.
CHRISTENSEN: It's confusing enough for military members to go through the process, but for a civilian who has no ties to the military, it is like entering another world. They just really have no clue as to what is going to happen.
LAWRENCE: Christensen is a leading critic of the military's treatment of rape. There is one reform he applauds, though. It's called the Special Victims Counsel. Under pressure from Congress, the Pentagon created it to help support rape victims and protect their legal rights so it doesn't feel like it's the victim on trial. Dr. Nate Galbreath is with the Pentagon's Sexual Assault Prevention Office.
NATE GALBREATH: The Special Victims Counsel Program is something that we just don't see in the civilian system. You do have sexual assault response teams in selected civilian jurisdictions across the country. But in the military, we're the only ones that I know of that does this regularly, uniformly and with as many resources for victims.
LAWRENCE: The problem for Brittany Bentz and hundreds of other civilian victims each year is this - civilians are not entitled to a Special Victims Counsel. Throughout this process, Brittany's mom, Melinda Bentz, looked to the Air Force prosecutors for help. But, as in civilian court, prosecutors can't give legal advice to a victim.
MELINDA BENTZ: Our heads were spinning. There's all this legal jargon going on, all this military jargon. And we can't compel you to attend. It's like, what does that mean? We're supposed to be here, right? And anytime I would ask a question, they did what they had to do, which was say, I can't advise you. I can't advise you. I can't advise you. I can't advise you.
LAWRENCE: Without a military person to advise her, Bentz was essentially cross-examined three times. First, when the defense asked to question her, she didn't know she could have refused. She says that turned into a three-hour session. The second round of questioning came at the pretrial hearing. The military calls it an Article 32. Again, Bentz didn't understand the rules.
B. BENTZ: The defense was like, oh, we want access to your Facebook records. We want access to your cell phone and your texts and your call history. But Mom figured it out, that I didn't have to.
LAWRENCE: Her mom figured out she didn't have to turn over those records. Finally, there was the deposition. In California civilian courts, a judge can't force a person who says she was raped to be deposed. A deposition can be like being on trial, and it can intimidate victims enough to drop the case or never report it in the first place. Brian Condon is a civilian lawyer who started advising Brittany Bentz pro bono.
BRIAN CONDON: There's anecdotes from other cases where proceedings have gone on for hours and hours and days. And the victims are exposed to extensive questioning, and certainly you could see from the outside that they may be trying to harass the victim or to dissuade her from moving forward.
LAWRENCE: Equally intimidating for Bentz, defense lawyers demanded her therapist records. Condon says under California law that would have been nearly impossible. The military judge ordered Bentz's therapist to explain her confidential notes in front of the accused and his lawyers.
B. BENTZ: It was traumatic. You say things in your - to your therapist - I mean, there's some stuff in there that I may not have told my mom right away.
M. BENTZ: So basically, the defense had somebody listening to her therapy records, helping them form how to manipulate her on the stand. She didn't even want to go to therapy anymore.
LAWRENCE: The case concluded last October, after two-and-a-half years. The verdict - not guilty. NPR reached the airman by phone. He said he did not rape Brittany Bentz. He declined to answer whether they had sex, and he declined to be interviewed further. We aren't naming him because of the verdict. Brittany Bentz is 19 now. Her mom came to visit her at college in February. There was a while where it didn't look like Brittany would make it to college. The court-martial consumed her senior year in high school, and her grades suffered.
B. BENTZ: I did really bad with making friends. I didn't do really bad. I just didn't trust anybody to make friends.
M. BENTZ: My happiest day was - I called her up and she goes, Mom, I can't talk. We're having pizza and doing nails. It was, like, the first time that she had - she had friends.
LAWRENCE: Brittany Bentz says she's glad, though. Her case did help change things. It's now harder for a military court to order depositions or demand mental health records. But civilians who find themselves in military court still aren't assigned a Special Victims Counsel. Quil Lawrence, NPR News.
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