Virginia Messick knows the fear and confusion of having the person entrusted with your life become the person you can no longer trust. That’s how she felt when, at 19 years old, after just five weeks of basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Tx., her instructor raped her.
She joined PoliticsNation Tuesday to describe how this instructor, Staff Sgt. Luis Walker, seemed to be her friend– for example, by allowing her to break small rules like using Facebook. But one day while she was completing her duties, Walker told Messick to report to an empty dorm. He was waiting there, pulled her into the room, and raped her. Afterwards, Messick felt that he showed no remorse.
Her story may be upsetting, but it’s far from unique at Lackland, where 62 instructors have been investigated for the sexual assault and rape of 32 female Air Force recruits spanning a period from 2009 to 2011 in what’s become one of the largest sex scandals in military history. Seven of those instructors have been court martialed, including Messick’s attacker, who is now serving a 20-year sentence for rape and sexual assault crimes involving Messick and nine other women.
Although Messick still deals with the lingering effects of post traumatic stress disorder from the attack, she refuses to be afraid anymore.
“It’s my turn for him to be scared of me,” she told PoliticsNation, explaining how she angrily testified against her attacker. “I went ahead and did what I needed to do.”
According to a recent Pentagon survey, there were 3,192 reports of sexual assaults in the military in 2011. Of those, only 240 went to trial and only 191 resulted in a conviction. And thanks to under-reporting, Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says the real figure could be closer to 20,000. That means as few as 1% of victims will see their attackers face justice.
Messick knows why. If she had reported her attack, she would have been forced to follow chain of command, leading her directly back to her attacker. Instead, she tried to ignore what happened, which is part of why she downplayed the story when military investigators came asking her about the incident. After a friend confided in her that she had also been attacked by Walker, Messick decided it was time to come forward.
Her lawyer, Susan Burke, insists that the ultimate solution is Congressional action.
“What we have is a series of scandals….that every once in a while rise to public attention,” she said, pointing to the Tail Hook scandal of 1991 “But there’s a structural problem.”
“Most men and women do not report being raped because they know it will not be taken seriously,” she said. “And the way the structure is set up, a single person in the chain of command, a single individual, has the unfettered power to simply wipe away a conviction of a jury. This happens time and time again.”
“And so predators know that they’re able to get away with it, the victims know that there is no justice,” she continued, “and so we really as a nation need to ask ourselves why are we letting this problem go on decade after decade?’”
At least some members of Congress seem willing to do something. Just today, Senator Claire McCaskill criticized an Air Force general for overturning a sexual assault verdict.
“The military needs to understand that this could be a tipping point,” McCaskill said in a hearing Tuesday. “I question whether, after this incident, there’s any chance a woman assaulted in that unit would ever say a word. There’s a culture issue that’s going to have to be addressed here. And what this decision did—all it did was underline and put an exclamation point behind the notion that if you are sexually assaulted in the military—good luck.”