Military sexual assault is focus of YouTube series

Associated Press
This image provided by Kayt Jones shows a scene from YouTube's new channel WIGS' "Lauren," starring Troian Bellisario as a female soldier who reports being raped. The three-part Web series gives a close-up look at the challenges and obstacles women service members face in trying to find justice after being raped. (AP Photo/Kayt Jones)
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SAN DIEGO (AP) — The enormous obstacles and emotional torment that a female solider confronts in reporting a sexual assault in the military are the focus of the three-part Web series "Lauren" debuting Monday on YouTube's new channel WIGS, which focuses on drama for women.

Featuring "Flashdance" star Jennifer Beals and Troian Bellisario, "Lauren" gives a close-up look at the challenges women service members face in trying to find justice after being raped. It's a problem that military leaders have given unprecedented attention to this year.

The Defense Department has estimated that 86 percent of sexual assaults go unreported, an indication that some women are worried about the effect reporting an assault may have on their career and that they mistrust the military prosecution system. Nearly 3,200 sexual assaults were reported in the military last year.

Military leaders say sexual assault is not only dehumanizing to the victims but threatens operational readiness. The Pentagon has set up hotlines and has been trying to encourage service members to help victims. High-ranking Navy leaders have likened their campaign to the crusade years ago to stop rampant drug abuse, although activists say sweeping institutional changes are needed for victims to find justice.

Directed by Lesli Linka Glatter, "Lauren" sets out to show viewers how unfair and unsympathetic the military can be toward the abuse of female service members. At the same time, it depicts the turmoil of many of the victims — who have a deep love and respect for the military but often feel betrayed after coming forward.

The series opens with an Army commanding officer — Maj. Jo Stone, played by Beals — scrutinizing a report made by a sergeant named Lauren about being raped by three fellow soldiers. Stone asks the young soldier if she ever considered a career as a fiction writer and then asks how many drinks she had the night of the "incident." She provides an ominous warning if she pursues her accusations.

"Even if the men are deemed guilty, they're likely to suffer a reprimand or a slight pay cut, nothing more," Stone tells the soldier. "But WHAT will happen to you may expose you to repercussions for your entire career."

After Monday's debut, the second and third episodes in the series will be available Wednesday and Friday.

Beals told The Associated Press her character's words may at first seem hurtful and harsh but later viewers realize it's more complex for the commanding officer, who herself has had to fight her way up through the ranks.

"Even though she seems so hard, there is one little flicker of humanity," Beals said, adding later: "You have to get to the end (of the series) before you realize what the real story is."

Bellisario said in an interview that she was drawn to the script because even though her father, "NCIS" and "JAG" producer Donald P. Bellisario, served in the Marine Corps, she was not aware of the institutional barriers in today's military that deter many female service members from reporting sexual assaults.

"The biggest problem when you're overseas and you're serving, is all you have is the guy or girl next to you and your commanding officer," Bellisario said. "If your commanding officer does not want to do it (report the rape), then you have nowhere else to go."

More than a dozen U.S. veterans who say they were raped or assaulted by comrades filed a class-action suit in federal court last year attempting to force the Pentagon to change how it handles such cases. The current and former service members — 15 women and two men — described circumstances in which servicemen allegedly got away with rape and other sexual abuse while their victims were ordered to continue to serve with them. In several cases, the aggressors continued to call them names and taunt them.

Bellisario hopes the series will help push efforts to prevent sexual assault and prosecute it to the full degree.

"My hope is people will see that this is not slandering this great institution but rather holding it up to a high standard and asking it to recognize there is an issue and that it should be addressed," she said. "It's not anti-military at all."

Anuradha Bhagwati is a former Marine Corps captain and executive director of the Service Women's Action Network, which advocates for such policy changes. She was allowed to preview the series and says it gives a realistic picture of what thousands of female service members face, especially its depiction of the retaliation and name calling victims often suffer.

According to Bhagwati's organization, the Defense Department's own statistics show that fewer than one in five of these cases are even referred for court martial. She says part of the problem is unit commanders are the judge and jury in these types of cases and there needs to be an impartial party involved. Too often, she adds, perpetrators are given nonjudicial punishments.

"One of the key things that the series brings up," Bhagwati said, "is this idea that you often don't get a fair shot within the military judicial system."

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