This open letter by Terri Odom was published in the St. Louis Dispatch on July 23rd, 2013.
I am one of your most loyal and active supporters, but I am compelled to urge you to reverse course and support meaningful, fundamental reform to end the epidemic of sexual assault in our military.
My name is Terri Odom. St. Louis is my home. Twenty-six years ago, while I was in uniform serving our country, I was violently raped and left for dead by a superior. Because I insisted on reporting the crime, because I wouldn’t keep quiet, I was threatened with arrest and then discharged from the military. While this happened over twenty years ago, it feels like this happened just yesterday because my chain of command failed me and I never received justice. Sadly, this trend continues and for many service members, it did just happen yesterday.
I still grieve over the loss of a career serving my country, simply because I tried to report a violent crime.
Today, I volunteer at our local Veterans Administration (VA), helping those hurting souls who have been raped or sexually assaulted – who are often blamed and punished by their command and have nowhere to turn. Despite twenty years of reforms promised by Congress and military leaders, the crisis persists and even grows.
Almost daily we are hearing of more and more horrifying scandals of sexual assault in our military.
There is enormous human damage from the epidemic of military sexual assault.
As you well know, the Pentagon estimates that last year alone, there were more than 26,000 instances of rape and other sexual crimes in the U.S. military. Only a tiny fraction of these perpetrators faced justice. Most troubling is that 90 percent of victims never come forward because they are afraid of retaliation or have seen what happens to those few who report. Alarmingly, 60 percent of victims who reported said that they were retaliated against.
I know the military leaders tell you that they can and will handle this problem. We have heard this same song of “zero tolerance” for decades, although to little effect. In that time the epidemic has grown worse, not better.
The broken military justice system and culture can be fixed, but in order to do that our legislators must be willing to address the fundamental issue: victims are afraid to come forward because they do not trust their superiors to do the right thing.
Senator, given your years as a public prosecutor, you must know the value of impartiality in these cases.
How can you possibly be against the creation of a professional, independent, impartial military justice system? Our men and women in uniform deserve a justice system equal to that enjoyed by the citizens of the country that they protect. Your opposition to date has been incredibly difficult for me and other survivors to comprehend. For those who have been raped or assaulted, the current system all too often precludes justice and delivers only retribution, destruction of our careers, and rejection by our military families. While higher-ranking perpetrators are protected, lower ranking victims are persecuted. How can you be opposed to empowering a professionally trained, independent prosecutor – outside the chain of command but, still in the military – to determine whether a case should be prosecuted?
Senator McCaskill, I am a great admirer and a loyal supporter of yours. In a sense, you saved my life. For many years I made no progress fighting to receive my military benefits and medical treatment. That was until you became a Senator and stepped in to support me. As you know, during your 2012 race against Todd Akin, I, along with other rape victims, proudly supported you. I shared my story on your campaign website. Senator, you have been a champion on this issue. Yet, you are wrong regarding the reforms most urgently required to end the crisis of military rape.
The military has had decades to address and solve this problem. They have not. It has only gotten worse.
On a recent trip to Washington, DC, to talk with legislators, a good friend (who is also a fellow survivor), and I sat in a hotel room and wept as my mother watched survivor stories. It broke my heart to see my mother with tears of pain. When she watched my story, she said, “Honey, I am so sorry! I should have been there to protect you!” “No, Mom!” I said, “I was in the U.S. Navy. My job was to protect you and all of our freedoms.”
She was in shock that that the chain of command is still judge and jury on sexual assault cases. Over 50 percent of victims report the perpetrator is of higher rank and 25 percent of victims report the perpetrator is in their chain of command.
Sen. McCaskill please reconsider your position and join your colleagues in supporting the creation of a professional, independent, and impartial military justice system. U.S. service men and women deserve a justice system equal to the one provided to civilians they protect. Without your support, perpetrators may continue to go free; victims will be too afraid to come forward; and our military readiness will suffer.
Please join the movement to ensure survivors of rape and sexual assault in the military receive justice at ProtectOurDefenders.com.