In Harm’s Way

Non-combat deaths of Ohio soldiers raise questions about U.S. military’s treatment of female members

“Is this how we treat our female soldiers?” Painfully, this is a question Dayton-area resident Mary Lauterbach has been asking since her daughter, U.S. Marine Lance Corporal Maria Lauterbach, was brutally murdered in December 2007 by a fellow Marine she had accused of raping her.

Maria’s story became well known in the Southwestern Ohio area after the Inspector General, in a report released last October, blasted the military for mishandling Maria’s rape case. Besides the Lauterbachs, however, there are several other Ohio families whose military daughters died from “non-combat” circumstances and, like what happened to Maria, their tragedy was amplified when the military tried to tarnish the victim’s reputation and even blame the victim for her own death.

“It’s like a broken record, the same thing keeps happening over and over again,” says Mary Lauterbach about the growing number of female soldiers who suffer what the military calls a “non-combat” related death, which is usually followed by a “completely mishandled investigation,” she adds.

Lauterbach remembers how she told her daughter, “You owe it to your sister Marines to report what happened [the rape].” Now she is dedicated to keeping Maria’s legacy alive, and also the legacies of other female soldiers from Ohio, such as U.S. Marine Stacy Dryden of Canton and U.S. Marine Carrie Leigh Goodwin of Alliance.

Like Maria Lauterbach, Goodwin was sexually assaulted by another soldier, and when she tried to seek justice she was intimidated, ostracized and ignored by her commanding officers. Distraught and mentally besieged by military-prescribed anti-depressants, Goodwin drank herself to death.

Dryden was stationed in Afghanistan when the military says she died after “voluntarily” wrestling with a male sailor. Two years later, the military told Dryden’s persistent father, Scott Dryden, a different story: that his daughter — nicknamed the “Fiery Angel” — knocked the male sailor down first after he had insulted a group of Marines Dryden was with. The sailor responded by body-slamming her. She retreated to her barracks, but was found dead a day later from a head contusion. The sailor was never court-martialed, and the military refuses to say if he was punished at all.

Both Dryden and Goodwin weren’t perfect, to which the Pentagon can attest. Mary Lauterbach readily admits her daughter had problems too, as she craved attention and respect, especially under stress (a major issue with many young soldiers). But just because a soldier’s character isn’t pristine doesn’t mean you sweep their brutal murder under a rug in total disregard for the person and their grieving family, says Lauterbach.

“They circle the wagons,” she says about how the military handled Maria’s murder and other female soldier deaths. “They are trying to protect their reputation.” And the military is protecting its reputation while struggling to recruit soldiers for an all-volunteer military.

These days, some of the best and brightest recruits — and those who are least likely to go on a civilian-killing rampage — are women. It’s no surprise that women are joining the military as never before, a trend that accelerated during this past decade of wars, which was also a decade that included high rates of joblessness.

In 1970, women accounted for 1.4 percent of all military personnel. Today, that number is nearly 15 percent, representing roughly 200,000 women.

Since 9/11, women have garnered two Silver Stars, the military’s third-highest decoration for extraordinary heroism while engaged in combat with the enemy, while 150 U.S. military women have died in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Indeed, the military increasingly relies on female soldiers, yet the Pentagon has been accused of fostering a culture of abuse as women in the ranks seek greater acceptance and respect.

Several lawsuits were filed during the last year seeking to reform how sexual crimes are handled in the military. The most significant was Cioca v. Rumsfeld, which charged former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld with failing to take action on military sexual trauma, but the suit was dismissed by a federal judge in December. The lead plantiff is Kori Cioca, a resident of Wilmington, Ohio, about 50 miles north of Cincinnati. Cioca was a member of the Coast Guard when a commanding officer allegedly spit in her face for failing a knot-tying exercise, calling her a “stupid female.” Not long after this she was raped and threatened with a court-martial if she reported it. 

Earlier this month, victims of “military sexual trauma,” or MST, filed another lawsuit against the military alleging brutal crimes. One victim in the suit charged she was gang-raped in 2010 at the U.S. Marine Barracks in Washington D.C. The complaint also speaks to the culture of retaliation, as victims were referred to on Facebook as “cry babies.”

This is why Lauterbach continues to tell the story of her daughter: to raise awareness about the plight of the female soldier and the issues they face. She is now in demand as a speaker at conferences supporting soldiers and veterans.

In a way, Lauterbach is turning her imperfect daughter into a pioneer. Because Lauterbach and her daughter’s legacy — and the legacies of Dryden and Goodwin, along with tens of thousands of female soldiers — stand at a crossroads with the U.S. military as it decides whether it will continue to tolerate sexual discrimination and even rape within its ranks.

Here are the Defense Department’s (DOD) own numbers: Sexual assaults in the military are up 97 percent since 2006. The military estimates that 19,000 incidents of sexual assault occurred within the armed services in 2010, but that only 13.5 percent of those were reported because victims in some cases either feared retaliation from commanding officers or believed nothing would come of a report.

The DOD’s numbers also reveal that the military is soft when prosecuting MST incidents. In 2007, only 600 out of 2,212 sexual assault cases reported and investigated to some degree resulted in suspects facing any sort of accountability. And out of those 600 cases, only 181 were recommended for court-martial, the equivalent of a criminal trial. This means that in those sexual assaults reported and investigated to some degree, only 8 percent of suspects faced potential prosecution.

“The military is your family,” says Susan Avila-Smith, director of the Seattle-based Veteran Women Organizing Women (VETWOW), and good friends with the Lauterbachs. “When you go into battle, we’re like brothers and sisters. We would die for each other. But these same people will come into your room and rape you, and grope you, and think nothing of it. It’s like incest, it’s as if your brother sexually assaulted you. Then they act like it never happened. They flat out deny it and if the female were to pursue [charges], the military family says you should keep quiet, you shouldn’t pursue this, it was probably your fault anyway.”

To fully understand just how uncaring were Maria Lauterbach’s commanding officers and the military investigators at Camp Lejeune assigned to handle her daughter’s rape case, Mary Lauterbach tells people to read the entire Inspector General’s (IG) report regarding Maria’s rape complaint.

The report is a microcosm of how the military has treated female soldiers who report sexual assaults, she adds.

The Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) agent who was assigned to handle Maria’s rape case broke numerous protocols, according to the IG report. “She could not explain why some witness interviews took months and others [were] never conducted,” it states.

As for the accused, then-Marine Lance Corp. Cesar Lauren, the NCIS investigator whose name was redacted from the IG report and remains a mystery to the Lauterbachs, “never tested the validity of the suspect’s alibi.”

Also, the NCIS agent appears to have attempted to re-victimize Maria. According to the IG report, during their second interview, the NCIS agent challenged Maria on an incident that occurred a year prior when she was caught taking a small amount of money from a petty cash fund. What’s more, the IG believes during this interview the rape was never even brought up.

Not long after Maria made the rape allegation, she was punched in the face in the parking lot of her barracks by an unknown assailant. Maria insisted the assault was in retaliation for the rape accusation. Several witnesses reported Lauterbach had bruises on her face, but again, the NCIS agent, even though told of the incident, never reported it and never acted on it.

And after the NCIS agent completed just a handful of interviews, “Lauterbach’s rape complaint remained idle for almost seven months,” states the IG report.

Perhaps the greatest insult to Maria occurred long after she was laid to rest. IG investigators in 2011 tried to find out if the NCIS agent who essentially turned a cold shoulder to Maria and her rape charge was ever punished. “We were unable to verify if local NCIS leaders took any action,” stated the IG report.

Lauren in 2010 was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison after an extradition process that involved the FBI and Mexican authorities.

The Defense Department says it takes the issue of rape in the ranks seriously, and points to the establishment of its Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO), as a prime example of its diligence.

SAPRO has established a 24-hour global hotline, trained hundreds of Sexual Assault Response Coordinators (SARCs) and also initiated a public relations blitz across the armed forces. But the IG report regarding Maria’s rape complaint suggests the millions of dollars spent to create SAPRO amounted to little.

For instance, at Camp Lejeune, SAPRO protocols, such as monthly meetings to discuss rape cases such as Maria’s, weren’t in place even though it had been two years since SAPRO was up and running.

A SARC was assigned to assist Maria after she filed her rape charge but did not enter Maria’s rape charge into a database that may have alerted others to her impending danger. And worse, Camp Lejeune has a SARC overseeing the entire base, but he wasn’t alerted to Maria’s rape until after she was murdered.

Maria’s family wants her to be remembered as the person they knew: at times outgoing, at times shy. Like many teenagers, she was a borderline misfit who loved sports, music and friendships, says her sister Anne Lauterbach. 

Anne also wants to make it clear that Maria’s decision to join the U.S. military’s most feared and respected branch wasn’t some knee-jerk decision. In her first year of high school, Maria began pinning up military posters in her room.

Soon enough, says her sister, Maria was determined to take the greatest challenge and believed the Marines was the branch that offered it.

But there was another reason she enlisted.

“She wanted to make a difference. She wanted to make bad things good, and that’s was why she joined,” says Anne Lauterbach. “She wanted to go overseas [to Iraq or Afghanistan]. She told that to just about everybody she spoke to.”

This story first appeared in the Dayton City Paper. Contact John Lasker: [email protected].

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