Sgt. Audra Wood
Dateline NBC
updated 3/14/2004 3:52:00 PM ET 2004-03-14T20:52:00

At home and overseas, Americans are relying more and more on women in uniform, from police forces to the armed forces. But while these women help defend our country and keep us safe, is enough being done to keep them safe? In two very disturbing stories, women soldiers say they were attacked, not by the enemy, but by fellow U.S. troops. When they reported what happened and asked for help from the Army they serve -- they say that's when the real battle began.

As a high school dairy princess in Lancaster County, Pa., Audra Wood once traveled to schools, touting the virtues of milk. After graduation, she joined the army and traveled to the Persian Gulf with the Stryker Brigade, a highly mobile, readily deployable, 4,000-strong reconnaissance unit based in Fort Lewis, Washington.

Her specialty is tactical intelligence. She is trained to question anyone with information about the enemy.

Sgt. Wood: “We can debrief them, we can interrogate them, we can search them.”

Stone Phillips: “Challenge.”

Sgt. Wood: “Challenge, yeah.”

But when the Strykers shipped out last November, this 23-year-old sergeant never imagined that the biggest danger she would face could be a soldier wearing a uniform just like hers.

Sgt. Wood: “I thought of every scenario possible. If I got captured, if I was tortured, all of those things. But I never even thought of this.”

Phillips: “Coming back from the shower one night?”

Sgt. Wood: “Yes.”

Phillips: “Attacked by somebody in your own Army? “

Sgt. Wood: “Yes.”

Sgt. Wood is one of more than 100 female soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines who've come forward in the past 18 months to say they were sexually assaulted by a fellow serviceman while serving in the Persian Gulf. And just this week the Air Force confirmed that it's investigating 92 allegations of sexual assault in the Pacific theater, most of those cases also filed by servicewomen.

Victims often report the same problems with the military's response: a lack of immediate medical care and counseling, less-than-thorough investigations and above all, insensitivity.

Sgt. Wood: “Rape isn't a word in the Army's vocabulary. If they don't see it, it didn't happen.”

Sgt. Wood's story begins at Camp Udairi, Kuwait, a sprawling tent city and supply depot that serves as a staging ground for U.S. forces heading into Iraq. She says from the moment she arrived, she could feel tension in the air -- sexual tension.

Sgt. Wood: “Some of the guys would just look at you, up and down. It seems like everybody just had sexual thoughts on their mind.”

Phillips: “So you felt like you were constantly a target?”

Sgt. Wood: “There was a lot of sexual harassment that went on there. Guys would come on to you there.”

Phillips: “You had your wedding ring on?”

Sgt. Wood: “It didn't matter.”

Phillips: “Did the commanders know this stuff was going on?”

Sgt. Wood: “They knew.”

But she says the chain of command seemed more concerned about a rash of thefts and burglaries by soldiers throughout the camp. In fact, discipline was such a problem that commanders posted around-the-clock guards to stop the crime. Sgt. Wood was just coming off a midnight watch when she says she was attacked.

Sgt. Wood: “At two o'clock I got off guard duty. I went to the female trailers. I changed into my PTs, which is the physical training uniform. And I walked over to porta-potties. And I took a flashlight with me in my bag, and I was fiddling around in my bag for toilet paper. As I was doing that, then I was hit over the back of my head with something very hard and very sharp.”

Phillips: “You say something hard, something sharp.”

Sgt. Wood: “Felt like a rock.”

Phillips: “Did you lose consciousness?”

Sgt. Wood: “Yes. When I woke up, there was somebody on top of me and I felt these burning pains all over my body. Which later turned out to be-- the soldier was cutting off my clothing with a knife.”

Phillips: “This was another American soldier.”

Sgt. Wood: “Yes. He was wearing a PT uniform just like me. But he had a mask on and he had gloves on.”

Phillips: “So you couldn't see his face.”

Sgt. Wood: “No.”

And she says no one could see them in the dark maze of piled-up equipment. She says she tried to resist, but her hands were tied with cord.

Sgt. Wood: “The reason why I woke up is because there was some type of cloth-- I was being gagged. I couldn't breathe. And it was my underwear. He put my underwear in my mouth and he said that if I wasn't quiet that he was going to cut me.”

Phillips: “He threatened to kill you.”

Sgt. Wood: “Yes. So I started trying to scream, but I was gagged and he hit me with a rock right between my eyes on my forehead and I lost consciousness again.”

Phillips: “At what point did you realize that you'd been sexually assaulted?”

Sgt. Wood: “I knew that I was being penetrated with something. The next thing I knew, I woke up, he was gone.”

Bound, gagged and nearly naked, Sgt. Wood says she ran toward the tent area, where she finally saw another soldier.

Sgt. Wood: “I kind of fell to the ground, I was crying and couldn't breathe. I was dirty and I was bloody. And he didn't know what to do.”

Phillips: “This other soldier.”

Sgt. Wood: “Yes. He thought -- he pushed me away at first. He thought it was like a joke or something. I just said, ‘Help me.’”

Phillips: “He ungagged you?”

Sgt. Wood: “Yes. He cut the gag off my mouth.”

Phillips: “And freed your hands?”

Sgt. Wood: “Yes.”

After wrapping his jacket around her, the soldier escorted her back to her unit.

Sgt. Wood: “My commander was like, oh my God. My first sergeant was holding me and crying.”

She was driven to an Army medical station for a rape exam and treatment for her cuts. Later, she was taken to another camp an hour away to meet with army criminal investigators.

Phillips: “Did you describe the assailant as best you could?”

Sgt. Wood: “Um-hm. I knew his height and his build, his ethnicity.”

Phillips: “No question in your mind, American soldier?”

Sgt. Wood: “Right.”

But after that initial round of questions, Sgt. Wood says things began to change. With her training in military intelligence, she says she recognized what they were doing to her.

Sgt. Wood: “It felt like an interrogation. Like I did something wrong. They showed no sympathy whatsoever.”

Phillips: “What kind of questions were they asking you?”

Sgt. Wood: “Extremely personal questions. And I answered all of them.”

Phillips: “Did the investigators offer any reassurance that they were going to be aggressively pursuing this case?”

Sgt. Wood: “They had gone through and combed the area, they told me. But since it had been dark and it had rained that night, you know, things just kind of wash away.”

But if potential evidence washed away, Sgt. Wood says so did the Army's resolve to find her attacker. She says the investigators seemed to doubt her story after questioning a soldier who was supposed to be on guard duty that night. He said he hadn't seen or heard anything. 

Sgt. Wood: “Because of that they decided to give me a polygraph test.”

Phillips: “The Army wanted to give you a polygraph test?”

Sgt. Wood: “Right.”

Phillips: “To make sure you were telling the truth.”

Sgt. Wood: “Right.”

Phillips: “So what, you bound your own hands and hit yourself in the head with a rock. What do they think you're lying about?”

Sgt. Wood: “They-- the investigators said they wanted to use it as a verification.”

Phillips: “Did you wind up taking a polygraph?”

Sgt. Wood: “No. I wrote an email to my brigade commander and I told him how disappointed I was in how this is being handled.”

Sgt. Wood: “I never felt more low in my entire life. I felt abandoned. They acted like they didn't even care.”

Phillips: “The Army did perform the rape kit, took you to a doctor, a rape exam was performed, and an investigation was undertaken. What should the Army be doing that it hasn't done?”

Sgt. Wood: “They should evacuate the victim immediately.”

Phillips: “Provide counseling immediately?”

Sgt. Wood: “Mm-hm.”

Sgt. Wood says her request for medical evacuation to Germany was denied. And while in Kuwait, the Army offered her no rape counseling. She says one of the few moments of comfort came when her platoon leader took the time to bring her some of her personal belongings, even though his commander told him not to.

Sgt. Wood: “That commander had said you need to focus on the mission and not worry about her. When my platoon leader was told that, he said, ‘Well, sir, I have a man down, I have a soldier down that I need to take care of.’”

Phillips: “Made it happen on his own.”

Sgt. Wood: “Yes.”

But still, she felt isolated. She couldn't sleep and says she was having panic attacks. And nothing -- not even an overdose of anti-depressants -- could ease the pain.

Sgt. Wood: “I was alone in this room. Things were just spinning out of control. And I overdosed on some medication.”

Phillips: “Were you trying to take your life?”

Sgt. Wood: “No, I just wanted to disappear.”

Back at Fort Lewis, her husband, Army Private Will Finley, was frantic to get her home. So was her mother in Pennsylvania, who complained to her congressmen. They intervened and soon her daughter was on a plane heading home. 

Being back on her home base, Sgt. Wood was hopeful that the Army would give her the support and care she needed. She did receive medical attention, counseling and an Army advocate. But she told us she's had to fight for most of the help she's gotten. And that her Fort Lewis commander informed her immediately that the Army's plan was to get her back on the job and back to the Middle East -- oblivious, she says, to the very real possibility that reuniting her with her unit in Iraq could put her right back with her assailant.

Phillips: “So recover from this rape, get over it, get back in line, do your job?”

Sgt. Wood: “They told me to drive on. They acted like I had a cold. I took some medicine and I'm all better. They can't even fathom what this does to a person emotionally.”

With no broken bones or lost limbs, she says investigators insinuated that her injuries weren't serious, and that she might even be making the whole thing up.

Phillips: “Did you get the sense that they felt that you were somehow using this as an excuse to come home?”

Sgt. Wood: “Yes and that made me feel very guilty. Guilty about leaving my company who I've been with for three and a half years.”

Nearly four months have passed since Sgt. Wood says she was attacked. Yet neither she nor her husband has a clue where the investigation stands.

Phillips: “Did you receive any word about the rape exam whether they were able to retrieve any DNA, any samples that would have been helpful?”

Sgt. Wood: “It hasn't been processed yet.”

Phillips: “To this day.”

Sgt. Wood: “Right.”

Phillips: “As far as you know.”

Sgt. Wood: “Right.”

Will Finley: “We don't even know if there's anybody working on the case, if there's someone assigned to it, no idea.”

Civilian prosecutors who specialize in sex crimes told us they can think of no reason to keep victims and their families in the dark about the status of an investigation. Often victims of sexual assaults need to know what evidence was, or was not recovered, for both medical and psychological reasons. And how long should it take to process a rape evidence kit? Civilian experts say they do it in days, and the military should be able to, as well.

Will Finley: “We were told we should expect this in four-to-eight weeks. And this was in November.”

Phillips: “They processed the sample of DNA on Saddam Hussein in about 24 hours.”

Will Finley: “It's all about priorities and mission goals.”

Capt. Heather Arlinghaus
The mission in the Persian Gulf isn't the only place where soldier-on-soldier sexual assaults are happening. They're also taking place here at home, even at military bases with the highest levels of security, like Fort Knox, Ky. On the night of October 17, 2003, the gold was safe. Army Captain Heather Arlinghaus was not.   

At 29, Capt. Arlinghaus is aseven-year veteran who planned to make the Army her career, the way her father and grandfather did before her. Her uncles and brother served, as well. In fact, she is the first in three generations of her family to be commissioned an officer, and that made her father very proud.

Phillips: “Tell me about that first salute he gave you.”

Capt. Arlinghaus: “That was pretty cool. [Laughter] People would ask him, you know, ‘So what's it like to call your daughter, ma'am?’”

Phillips: “But your Dad snapped to.”

Capt. Arlinghaus: “Oh yeah.”

She's a military Mom. She and her husband Brian had their first two children while stationed in Germany.  Last year, she was balancing family life with weekend service in the Ohio National Guard when she was called up for active duty at nearby Fort Knox. Could she have been posted anywhere more secure? That's what she and her family thought until that night last October, when a man came into her room in the barracks, as Captain Arlinghaus -- four months pregnant with her third child -- was sleeping.

Capt. Arlinghaus: “I just thought that it was -- someone made a mistake and walked into my room. I thought maybe a lot of us captains there, we were really good friends. I thought someone was playing a joke on me.”

But the intruder was deadly serious. Wearing a mask and wielding a knife, he had slipped past a guard station just 25 feet from her room.

Capt. Arlinghaus: “I asked him to please not hurt me. Because I was pregnant. I don't know if he heard me or he ignored it. He didn't acknowledge what I said. He told me to take off my clothes and -- he climbed on top of me, um, and proceeded to rape me.”

Phillips: “While holding a knife at your throat?”

Capt. Arlinghaus: “Right. I just, I mean I was in no position to struggle really. I just thought if I did whatever he asked me to do, he would hopefully not kill me and just, I just wanted him to get out and to leave.”

Phillips: “Did he talk much through all of this?”

Capt. Arlinghaus: “He talked, yes. He was speaking in like a Middle Eastern accent. But it sounded phony, like he was covering up, you know, who he really was.”

Phillips: “So kind of a put-on Middle Eastern accent?”

Capt. Arlinghaus: “Uh-huh. He kept telling me not to look at him. Not that I could tell what he looked like anyway, because of the mask.”

Phillips: “And the rest of his clothes?”

Capt. Arlinghaus:: “He was wearing a brown t-shirt that you wear under BDUs and some black shorts.”

Phillips: “So military issue.”

Capt. Arlinghaus: Right. Uh-huh.”

Phillips: “What did he say before he left?”

Capt. Arlinghaus: “I will kill you if you tell. And I know where you live.”

Capt. Arlinghaus: “I could see my life just flashing before me. And thought how are my kids going to go on without me?”

Phillips: “You took him seriously.”

Capt. Arlinghaus: “Oh yes.”

In spite of the rapist's threats, Captain Arlinghaus had the courage to report the attack immediately. But she says she had no idea the ordeal that lay ahead -- starting at the hospital on post and the rape exam aimed at recovering any DNA left by her attacker.

Capt. Arlinghaus: “It was really chaotic. They were kind of fumbling around trying to figure out what they needed to do next.”

Phillips: “When you say chaotic…”

Capt. Arlinghaus: “I could hear them arguing back and forth as to what they needed to do, what procedures they needed to follow.”

Phillips: “And this is critically important.”

Capt. Arlinghaus:: “Right.”

Phillips: “I mean, if you have any hope of catching this guy, this rape kit has to be done properly. Somebody's got to know how to do this.”

Capt. Arlinghaus: “Right. They were just kind of like, ‘Oh gosh, I can't believe we've got to do this.’”

Captain Arlinghaus and her husband say investigators assured them that catching the rapist was high priority. But, five months after the attack, the couple says they still have no idea what evidence, if any, was gathered at the scene, how many people have been questioned, and whether charges will ever be filed.

Phillips: “What's happened to the investigation?”

Capt. Arlinghaus: “Quite frankly, I don't know. Nobody tells you what's going on or if they've even processed anything… I mean it's been this long and nothing's been found. If you don't care about me, you should at least care about the fact that there's a rapist on your post who could do this to someone else.”

Two weeks after the attack, Capt. Arlinghaus agreed to the Army's request to answer questions under hypnosis. Army sources told "Dateline" it's rarely used, but can be helpful in unlocking repressed memories. But civilian experts say it's unreliable, can be emotionally damaging and should be used only as a last resort.

Capt. Arlinghaus:: “When they brought the idea up, I was, of course, very hesitant just because I was tired going through it, over and over and over again. But I figured, you know, if I want to catch this person, I better do whatever I can to do it.”

Phillips: “Did any new details come out?”

Capt. Arlinghaus:: “Nothing that I really thought was significant. They seemed optimistic about it.”

But as the weeks go by with no arrest and no word from the Army about where the investigation stands, she says instead of healing, her emotional wounds have deepened.

Capt. Arlinghaus: “It's pretty much taken control of my whole life, our whole life, really. It's been not only me, my parents, my husband.”

Phillips: “This time in your lives shouldn't be this way.”

Brian Arlinghaus: “We should be arguing over paint colors in the baby's room, not arguing on the telephone with the military whether they've done any investigative work at all.”

And worse, according to her father, Tom Carey, is the Army's lack of awareness of how to handle victims of sexual assault, from the emotional triage so important immediately following an attack, to the long-term counseling and care needed for recovery.

Tom Carey: “I don't think they've handled this right from the very beginning and the really sad part about this whole process is I'm sure if you talk to the command at Fort Knox, they think they've just done just fine. Which to me, is an indication that something needs to change.”

Phillips: “The Army will say we did the rape kit… We investigated… You've been given an advocate… We have responded with coverage for counseling.”

Capt. Arlinghaus: “Right.”

Phillips: “We are doing what we need to do. We are responding.”

Capt. Arlinghaus: “Not without a whole lot of struggle on our part. I don't think.”

Phillips: “Have you ever heard from the fort commander?”

Capt. Arlinghaus: “No.”

Phillips: “Never a phone call?”

Brian Arlinghaus: “No.”

Phillips: “Raped at knife point. His facility.”

Brian Arlinghaus: “Right.”

Phillips: “No phone call, no word, no letter. No communication.”

Capt. Arlinghaus: “No.”

Brian Arlinghaus: “No.”

As hard as the whole experience has been on her, Captain Arlinghaus says it's left her wondering how a female soldier with less support and a lower rank would fare.

Capt. Arlinghaus: “You know, I'm an officer. Certainly doesn't make me better than anybody else. But rank matters. If this is happening to me, there's some young girl who's a private or young enlisted soldier who's even more intimidated by all this than I am. You're just going to shut up, do what you're told, let it go and move on.”

At a Senate hearing last month, top military leaders acknowledged that the armed services need to do a better job handling complaints about sexual assaults, crimes the Army says it will not tolerate.

Gen. Franklin Hagenbeck: “This smacks of leadership issues. And it smacks of discipline issues.”

Gen. Hagenbeck is on a mission. As head of Army Personnel, he says he's called every commander in Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan to make it loud and clear that claims of sexual assault must be taken seriously. 

Phillips: “A study by the Veteran's Administration last year estimated that 30 percent of female veterans experienced a rape or attempted rape during active service. What's your reaction to that?”

Gen. Hagenbeck: “I think that's unconscionable that that could ever, that would in fact be that high. I don't dispute it at all. I would say to you that the notion that our soldiers are not being taken care of, in my personal experience in over 30 years in the army, is just not the case.”

Phillips: “The women we talk to say you've got a long way to go. They just feel like there's been tremendous insensitivity, and they just don't feel like they're being heard or their cases are being pursued aggressively.”

Gen. Hagenbeck: “Well, I can understand an assault victim having that perspective. And we owe them better than that, even if it's from a perspective standpoint. But I would tell you that we aggressively, when reported, do everything in our power both to take care of them and to pursue those that may have committed these crimes.”

Phillips: “If these cases are such a priority, why is it taking so long to process the evidence in these cases? These rape kits, and other evidence?”

Gen. Hagenbeck: "The length of time that it takes is always a function of the thoroughness by which we want to insure that the investigation is done properly. On the other hand, I'm committed to see if we can find ways in which to speed up this process.”

Phillips: “What kind of an obligation do Army investigators have to keep victims and their families apprised of where an investigation stands?”

Gen. Hagenbeck: “I think we have an obligation to that family, absolutely. In the past, we may not have been as good as we should have been. But we are committed to keeping them apprised of the situation as it develops.”

Phillips: “Well, the two women in our report say that just hasn't happened.”

Gen. Hagenbeck: “I can't address those particular cases, but I will tell you systemically we do pretty well. But we do on occasion don't do as well as we should and we're going to get better at that.”

The Army's promises to do better have not dissuaded Captain Arlinghaus from deciding she wants out.  Sgt. Wood and her husband say they want out as well.

Phillips: “What's the most painful part of all of this for you?”

Sgt. Wood: “The abandonment that I feel from them. They really let me down. And they've lost two great soldiers because of this.”

Capt. Arlinghaus says the Army refuses to even consider her request for a medical discharge until she has delivered her baby.

Phillips: “Do you think they're going to let you go?”

Capt. Arlinghaus: “I honestly don't know. They seemed bound and determined to retain me. They are just convinced that once I have this baby that everything's going to be OK. And to me, I think it'll be worse. I think they just need to let me go.”

Her father says it is heartbreaking to watch how the rape has broken his daughter's strong, independent spirit. And after devoting 25 years of his own life to the Army, he says he is just waiting for the day when fathers can encourage their daughters to put on the uniform as he did. And trust they'll be treated right.   

Tom Carey: “I still believe that somewhere out there, a leader is going to step forward and do the right thing and make the right decision and push the military bureaucrats aside and say, look, we need to take care of this soldier. We need to honor her request.”

This expectant mother hopes her voice will be heard. Her message to the Army? It's just a matter of listening.

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