A knife hangs on the wall next to Kati Beck’s bed.
On warm summer nights, with her bedroom windows open, a car door will slam shut, violently waking up the 30-year-old retired Air Force airman. She’ll reach for the knife and hurl it toward the door. Realizing no one is there, she’ll pick the knife up and go back to sleep, hoping her nightmares remain just that.
More than a quarter of the approximately 200,000 women currently serving in the military will be sexually assaulted during their careers, according to the Pentagon. Beck knows this statistic all too well, as she said she was assaulted twice during her seven years in the Air Force.
“I don’t think I have a friend that says they haven’t been raped,” Beck said of her fellow female airmen.
Beck, a Marengo resident, now speaks openly about her military experiences. She is joined by others, as evidenced by the recent charges of sexual assault made against the heads of the Air Force’s and Army’s sexual assault prevention programs, as well as three players on the Naval Academy’s football team.
“If I don’t speak about it, nobody else is going to,” she said.
The first time
Beck said her first assault occurred in January 2003, when she helped a fellow airman move from his house outside the Monterey, Calif., base. He was in the last occupied house in a subdivision of condemned homes. There wasn’t another person for miles.
When she emerged from the shower after the day’s work, Beck said the man poured gasoline on her and threatened to light her on fire if she didn’t comply with his commands. He called another man from the Air Force to the house, and the two took turns sexually assaulting the then-20-year-old.
Beck was trapped, betrayed by men she trusted. After 24 hours, the two drove Beck home.
Beck didn’t speak about the rape for years and did not report it to her superiors.
“That’s the military mindset,” said Kevin Russell, program manager at the McHenry County Veterans Resource Center. “That’s why a lot of military sexual assaults go unreported. You’re supposed to be strong. No vulnerabilities.”
A national, local problem
The Defense Department found that 3,374 sex crimes were reported in the military during the 2012 fiscal year, up 6 percent from the year before. But a separate, anonymous survey found that more than 26,000 service members reported experiencing “unwanted sexual contact,” up from 19,000 in 2010.
At the McHenry County veterans assistance clinic, 30 percent of the 120 female veterans – and 1 percent of the 3,189 male veterans – screened at the McHenry-based facility in 2012 said they had experienced either a sexual assault or harassment.
Delia De Avila, military sexual trauma coordinator at Captain James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center in North Chicago, said those numbers are likely much higher because of underreporting.
A military sexual assault can be debilitating due to the close nature of combat relationships, De Avila said. And victims often blame themselves for it.
“It’s very similar to childhood abuse,” she said. “It often happens with someone you know and oftentimes respect. There’s a sense of being stuck or being trapped.”
In some ways, Beck had a typical military experience, traveling the world as she served her country. In 2002, she entered the Air Force as a Korean linguist in Monterey, Calif. She was transferred to McConnell Air Force Base in Kansas in 2006, spent a year in Greenland, and finished her career at Edwards Air Force Base in California.
In January 2006, an Air Force member in Beck’s squadron told her he wanted to come by her apartment and show her his recent vacation pictures. Beck declined, but he showed up anyway.
The man, heavily intoxicated, forced himself into her home and eventually onto her. Her two children from her first marriage were asleep in the next room. He threatened to hurt her kids if she didn’t do what he asked.
“I could have fought back, but I didn’t. I was worried about my kids,” she said. “I think that [assault] was the most traumatic one for me. The other one was horrible. But just the fact that my kids were there in the next room, 10 feet away from it, that was the hardest part.”
Alcohol and military culture
Alcohol plays a major role in creating the culture of rape in the military, Beck said. There was a bar in her squadron, where airmen were forced to play drinking games, including drinking alcohol off the floor. At officially designated “nonalcohol” events, such as softball or volleyball, members spiked the Gatorade with vodka.
Beck found the prevalence of alcohol, combined with men outnumbering women in the military, created an environment of objectification. In Greenland, for instance, she was one of eight women among 150 men at the base.
“We showed up and they were like, ‘Yes! New girls!’ And they offered to take our luggage for us and they took us out to the club that night. I walk in and they are buying shots for me left and right.”
The man buying her the most drinks, she said, was the base commander.
“Being a woman in the military, you’re always the minority,” De Avila said. “They feel pressure to want to be part of the team. You want to be able to make friends. Guys go out to drink, they invite you, you want to go. You go thinking these are your battle buddies. You don’t think they will rape you.”
Air Force spokeswoman Lt. Col. Laurel Tingley said that’s not the mindset the Air Force encourages. Airmen are expected to act responsibly in all situations, including in regard to alcohol use.
“I can tell you that is something we are looking at and are concerned about,” she said.
A McConnell Air Force Base spokesman declined to comment on Beck’s case, saying that the information was confidential.
’It was still not enough’
Beck’s first rape went unreported. But with the second happening so close to her children, Beck wanted it to be punished.
She filed a restricted report, which allowed for a review of the evidence without making the accusations public. But when the man began stalking Beck, she filed an unrestricted report that meant a no-contact order against the man she said raped her – and made her accusation public.
Air Force special investigators cut out pieces of her carpet and ripped apart her couch, looking for evidence. She was assigned a victim’s advocate and given a physical exam, which found severe internal tearing, which later required surgery.
Investigators asked Beck to call the offender, who admitted to the sexual encounter during the recorded conversation. A trial was held.
The man was cleared of all charges.
“They didn’t have enough proof that I said no,” Beck said. “He admitted to it. I had the severe tearing. I had all kinds of other issues, and it was still not enough.”
The no-contact order was dropped. The man was a plumber in the Air Force and saw Beck daily.
“He ended up getting promoted,” she said. “I was in charge of the ID office, and I had to make his new ID because they told me I was a professional and I needed to act like it.”
Only a fraction of those accused of sexual assault in the military are prosecuted. In the 2011 fiscal year, there were 3,192 reports of military sexual assault, and 1,518 of those were reviewed for possible disciplinary action, according to the Defense Department.
Of those, 989 were disciplined. Just 48 were administratively discharged.
Critics, including members of Congress, say the process for dealing with military sexual assault accusations needs to change. U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, introduced legislation, which ultimately failed, that would have switched oversight of sexual assault cases from military commanders to outside legal professionals.
“The idea that [military commanders] are going to investigate this, and that higher-ups can control people, needs to be examined,” said Russell, of the county resource center. “There needs to be an outside, independent source to investigate.”
But at a June Senate committee hearing, leaders from every branch of the military opposed that change.
“Reducing command responsibility could adversely affect the ability of the commander to enforce professional standards and, ultimately, to accomplish the mission,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey told the committee.
Tingley said it would be inappropriate for her to comment on changing that process, as the issue is being debated. She noted that the Air Force opened a new sexual assault prevention office this month, with a goal of better analyzing cases and providing a “more expanded mission.” She could not elaborate on the office’s potential future effect because its details still are being developed.
After the trial in Kansas, Beck was transferred to Greenland. Within a week, she had fallen apart: She would ball up in a corner and threaten anyone who came near her.
After a year, she was sent to Edwards Air Force Base in California and diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Doctors gave her a variety of antidepressants and tranquilizers. She was medically retired in June 2009.
Today, Beck works for TLS Veterans in McHenry. She’s studying to become a nurse, with hopes of working with victims of sexual assault. She helps at the mobile food bank and the homeless shelter, and has taken up painting.
Beck is in a better place now. But she often wakes up screaming. She is less trusting of everybody, including herself.
“It was my own judgment,” she said. “I’m the one who let him into my apartment. ... And I know I’m not supposed to blame myself, but I am the one that put myself in those situations.”
So she runs every day, bringing with her the knife from her wall.
“I run for miles and miles and miles, and that’s how I cope with the PTSD. When I start to get too stressed out, I just go for a run until it’s all gone,” she said.
There are days she doesn’t want to get up, or when she cries on the way to work.
“I have my little ways of coping with it. I’ll give myself permission, ‘OK, you’re going to cry for 15 minutes, and you can cry and cry and cry, but after that 15 minutes is up, you’ve got to get up and you’ve got to move on.”