LAS VEGAS (KTNV) — Courage, honor and duty are some of the cornerstones of serving in the U.S. military. But there's trouble in the ranks for some including right here in Nevada.
Military sex assault is a crime still being reported and allegedly can lead to retaliation.
13 Investigates looks at the toll it takes when the rank and file say they've been attacked.
April (not her real name) was once willing to lay her life down for her country. Now she's struggling to put it back together after what she says happened, not on the battlefield, but at the hands of a superior.
"And like, my first thought was just like shutting myself down and going like, you know, even God wouldn't forgive me, for not fighting hard enough to get him off."
April was serving in the Nevada Air National Guard, assigned to the 152nd Airlift Wing outside Reno. In February 2018 she met a Master Sergeant with more than two decades of service.
"They're often quite encouraged to find like a senior non-commissioned officer who can be their mentor, who can kind of help them with their career progression." says Lindsey Knapp, Executive Director of the nonprofit group Combat Sexual Assault, who is representing April.
April says this initially felt like a mentoring relationship. It involved team building exercises off base, after regular work hours and on weekends. Routine, they say, in military life.
"He would have like this 4-wheeling group," says April.
But in remote areas with few around.
"It just turned into the complete opposite of being a mentor and leader," she says.
April now believes the Master Sergeant was grooming her.
"He was doing little things, where he was just being inappropriate, making jokes about sex, making comments about other people and teaching people about women's parts."
April went to her chain of command, reporting she was uncomfortable.
"They just blamed me and said that I would get written up for fraternization. "
Then, she says, the Master Sergeant's behavior escalated.
"... forcing me to touch him in inappropriate places and like touching me without my permission," says April.
"And he took away the knife that he gave me for protection and like whispered, 'you won't be needing this.' And then just got on top of me...and just wouldn't stop touching my private areas," April explains. "And I was like basically just fighting to get his hands off of me."
She claims she felt helpless to stop these each time they happened.
"You are trained to follow the orders of those that outrank you and those that are superior to you. You are trained to do that without question," says Knapp.
Then, in November 2019, April began to fear for her life.
"And he was just going off on me, telling me that I had to love him and that his wife settled for him and I couldn't settle for him, that I had to want him and be in love with him and just like going off," says April. "I actually ended up calling the chaplain and trying to get help from there. And then he told me to call the SARCs."
SARC stands for the military's Sexual Assault Response Coordinator.
April reached out but to no avail. She says the SARC and a senior airman interfered with her attempt to report an assault to police in Sparks.
"That was the last day to get my rape kit and Security Forces heard that and took me off, took me away from the police department and told me to go home."
The next day, April says a senior supervisor found out she was trying to involve police.
"He basically told me that I wasn't reporting to law enforcement or the SARC," April explains. "And I had to go meet with him. And when I did, he told me that it was consensual."
Unable to believe what was happening, April defied orders and went that day to Reno police.
Reno police ended up closing the case, telling 13 Investigates they couldn't find probable cause to file any charges.
April says other findings validated her claims.
The military issued a protective order against the Master Sergeant. So did a Washoe County civilian judge and after a hearing that included testimony from the Master Sergeant, the judge checked the "sexual assault" box on the order.
When April sought medical attention on her own, an examination at Travis Air Force Base found and injury which "...is very common after sexual assaults."
Knapp says despite all that, the military didn't investigate further.
"We have all of this evidence in black and white that shows that the military is not following its own processes and policies," says Knapp.
The Nevada Guard declined an on-camera interview. But they did tell us they immediately separated the Master Sergeant from the victim.
And they requested the Office of Complex Investigations to review April's case, but that office declined, citing the Reno police investigation as "...the most extensive report into an allegation of sexual assault this office has ever been presented for review."
April says she still felt trapped and unable to leave the military.
"She could be considered AWOL. Right?," says Knapp. "You cannot just quit, right? You have to endure. You have to put up with the gaslighting. You have to put up with the retaliation, because if not, they're going to throw you in jail. It's not like I work for a corporation and I could just leave."
The Guard says they separated the Master Sergeant out of the military with an Other Than Honorable discharge concluding his conduct was prejudicial to good order and discipline by committing adultery and fraternization.
April's attorney says that's the military's way of glossing over the problem.
"This is why service members are experiencing retaliation at the rate that they are, because commanders have found that they can just retaliate and get away with it. Nobody is stopping them," says Knapp.
Some lawmakers are trying to address that dynamic with a new law, the Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act, hopefully removing the decision to investigate sexual assault allegations from the chain of command.
"It puts highly technical, difficult work in the hands of those who have the most expertise to know how to complete that mission," said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) at a Washington, DC press conference last month.
Until that becomes a reality, Knapp says those who serve to defend us from foreign threats will be forced to defend themselves against their own.
"So now the victim has got to literally scream out to the media to throw up a flare in hopes that Secretary Austin or President Biden is going to see and act! That is not the way the process is supposed to work!" says Knapp.
Something might finally be working in April's favor. After 13 Investigates started asking questions, the military decided to allow April to move to a different National Guard unit, approving an Expedited Transfer which they'd previously denied. April's attorney says the transfer approval means commanders must now agree April has "a credible report of sexual assault." And that could raise questions about how her case was handled from the very beginning.
For context, we requested data from the Nevada National Guard which currently has over 1100 Guardsmen. The data shows 9 cases of sexual assault were reported between 2018 and 2020; 3 of those were substantiated.
The Nevada Guard says that potential new law would only apply to active military not the reserves; instead they're working on a new state law, SB 28, to rework how sex assaults and harassment are handled in the Guard. And they point to a Memo of Understanding established on January 12 this year with the Nevada DPS where the Department of Investigations will be included in the process of investigating claims of sex assault in the Guard.
The Nevada Guard also provided the following statement:
Department of Defense Directives and Army and Air Force regulations applicable to the Nevada National Guard require all unrestricted reports of sexual assault be referred to the appropriate civilian law enforcement organization (LEO) and the Sexual Assault Response Coordinator (SARC).
In this case, the Reno Police Department conducted an extensive investigation that led to the drafting of a 633-page report. Six other law enforcement agencies also investigated this case. None of the agencies involved found the requisite probable cause to press charges against the accused party. The Nevada National Guard places great confidence in the investigative abilities of the Reno Police Department in handling a case that is sensitive in nature and has garnered attention at the state and national levels.
Following the RPD-led report, the Nevada National Guard requested a review of the investigation from the Office of Complex Investigations (OCI) in Washington, D.C. This review is not required by National Guard regulations when law enforcement conducts an investigation. OCI concluded on Nov. 30, 2020 that RPD led "the most extensive report into an allegation of sexual assault this office has ever been presented for review." They declined to investigate further based on the high quality and depth of the report.
Given the facts, though, there was cause to remove the accused Airman from his full-time position during the investigation, and eventually process him out of the military after the investigation with an "other than honorable discharge." Based on the facts surrounding his affair with the Airman, who filed the complaint, the Nevada National Guard concluded that the accused's conduct was prejudicial to good order and discipline by committing adultery and fraternization. These are violations of military regulations and not criminal offenses under NRS criminal statutes.
Over the course of the past 14 months, this case has received numerous inquiries from TV, print and online media. The majority of the news reports aired more than a year ago and the most recent aired on June 26, 2020. The Nevada National Guard has been responsive and transparent with all media inquiries surrounding this case. In all of the previous stories, the only evidence provided is uncorroborated, anonymous statements from the Airman who filed the complaint.
The Nevada National Guard's command staff and Sexual Assault Response Coordinators (SARCs) have also taken the accusations of this case very seriously, dating back to the day the Nevada Air National Guard SARC received the case on Nov. 22, 2019. On that day, the SARC accompanied the alleged victim to the Reno Police Department to file a police report. A formal military protective order was immediately issued to indefinitely remove the accused Airman from work, pending the outcome of the investigation.
Throughout the RPD investigation, with seven independent law enforcement agencies, federal review, numerous news reports and disciplinary action taken, the Nevada National Guard has remained cooperative, accountable and transparent. This transparency and cooperation has also led to other independent investigative agencies determining that the Nevada National Guard handled this case appropriately. In particular, multiple Inspector General offices have inquired and been satisfied with how the Nevada National Guard handled this case.
The Nevada National Guard takes all allegations of sexual assault very seriously and will always prosecute allegations of sexual assault to the fullest extent of the law when a law enforcement agency determines that a crime occurred.
Senator Rosen's office sent the following statement:
"The office of Senator Rosen has a longstanding policy of not commenting on individual casework issues. Senator Rosen believes that sexual harassment and assault are serious issues we cannot take lightly, and there has not been enough improvement in how the military handles these cases after years of incremental reforms. The Senator is pleased to hear that Secretary Austin has established an Independent Review Commission on Sexual Assault in the Military, and is looking forward to their forthcoming recommendations. From a legislative standpoint, Senator Rosen recognizes that maintaining the status quo is unacceptable, which is why she is supporting Senator Gillibrand's bipartisan Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act. This bipartisan legislation will help treat sexual assault in the military with the urgency and seriousness it demands."
Senator Cortez-Masto's office also pointed to the Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act, providing the following statement:
"Protecting survivors is among my top priorities and we must do everything we can to prevent sexual assault and violence in our military. I'll continue working across the aisle to help pass this bipartisan legislation that will bring justice to sexual assault survivors and more accountability to the military justice system."