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Military sex-assault survivors among those accusing San Diego mayor

Before San Diego Mayor Bob Filner made a pass at Eldonna Fernandez he listened to her give a speech about women’s empowerment, according to Fernandez, a retire
San Diego mayor Bob Filner looks down at the podium while speaking at a news conference in San Diego, California July 26, 2013. (Photo by Fred Greaves/Reuters)
San Diego mayor Bob Filner looks down at the podium while speaking at a news conference in San Diego, California July 26, 2013.

Before San Diego Mayor Bob Filner made a pass at Eldonna Fernandez he listened to her give a speech about women’s empowerment, according to Fernandez, a retired master sergeant in the Air Force. At the event for survivors of sexual violence in the military, “I said I was a victor over military sexual trauma,” she told msnbc, referring to three rapes she survived during her service.

After making a pass at her, Filner--then congressman and ranking member on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee--followed up with a flirtatious voice mail, Fernandez said. A fellow survivor of military sexual assault, Gerry Tindley, said he also groped her at the same event. Fernandez and Tindley are among “at least eight female veterans and members of the National Women's Veterans Association of America”--nearly all of them survivors of sexual violence--who have described inappropriate or harassing behavior from Filner, CNN reported today. That brings the tally to 13 women who have spoken out publicly.

Filner has refused to resign, but said he would enter a "behavior counseling clinic to undergo two weeks of intensive therapy," which began this week. Last month, he apologized in a video saying, "As someone who has spent a lifetime fighting for equality for all people, I am embarrassed to admit that I have failed to fully respect the women who work for me and with me, and that at times I have intimidated them."“We had him at our organization as someone we trusted,” said Fernandez. “For a female veteran who’s been violated by her country in the military--because that’s what it is--it’s hard enough to even trust men... He breached our trust.”

Treating an event for survivors of sexual assault as a chance for unwanted advances or uninvited touching is grotesque--but it fits a broader pattern for predators in general. Indeed, the same dynamic may have been at work with the series of military men tasked with preventing sexual violence who were accused of sexual offenses earlier this year.

“There is considerable research that documents that individuals who have been sexually assaulted early in life are considerably more likely to be re-victimized later in life,” says David Lisak, a clinical psychologist who studies interpersonal violence. “This is part due to the fact that predators key into some of the vulnerabilities that traumatized individuals are more likely to manifest.”

Fernandez agreed. “Most of us, me included, did not report any of what happened to us. We’ve already been victimized, we’re already living in secret, and we’ve all been beaten down by it,” she said. “Depending on what stage of recovery you’re in, you don’t have it in you to fight back.”The National Women's Veterans Association of America originally planned to honor Filner with a lifetime achievement award last month. On the group's Facebook page, Tara Jones, the president of NWVAA  responded to a commenter who asked why Filner was still on the agenda by saying, “Bob will speak on this at the event" and that "the jury is still out.”"We had to be careful because he is the mayor," Jones told msnbc. But she also said she was unaware of the extent of the harassment, or that any of it had been directed at her members, until she asked them to share any bad experiences they'd had with Filner. "When I got to nine," she said, "I stopped asking."Asked if Filner was ever inappropriate with her, Jones said, "Let me be clear. Bob Filner knows that I would knock the hell out of him. And you can print that. I don’t play that. He still got teeth." When it was pointed out to her that the women Filner had targeted hadn't exactly been known as shrinking violets, Jones said, "They were coming in for supportive services. These are people who are trying to transition from Iraq and Afghanistan and sexual trauma."

"He preyed on this organization like a sexual predator," she added. "He aligned himself with this group so he could have a playground."

In the most recent Workplace and Gender Relations Survey of Active Duty Members, 6.1% of women reported unwanted sexual contact in the past year, and 23% reported having experienced sexual harassment in the same period.

The reports of Filner's behavior have ranged from straightforward quid pro quo (the nurse who said Filner would help in the case of a wounded Marine only if she dated him) to groping, including at public events, to trying to turn professional meetings--where he exerted a considerable amount of power--into sexual opportunities.

Fernandez said she didn't say anything because she saw it as an isolated incident. "Here comes a guy, he hits on me, it’s a one-off thing," she said. "I’m not thinking that it’s happening to everyone around me." Now she sees what happened to her as part of a broader pattern of abuse of power. "This kind of thing has to stop," Fernandez said. "I’m a businesswoman. There has to be a time where I can feel safe in a business situation with a man."

Meanwhile, Filner is still technically contracted to appear at the event for female veterans. Jones, who is now calling for Filner's resignation, said she wants him to come. "He should show his face to rape survivors," said Jones. "I wonder if he has the guts."