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Military Sexual Assault Victims Say They Were Harassed By San Diego’s Mayor

By Marina Fang, Guest Contributor on August 7, 2013 at 10:56 am

"Military Sexual Assault Victims Say They Were Harassed By San Diego’s Mayor"

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Bob Filner

CREDIT: AP

More women have come forward with sexual harassment allegations against San Diego Mayor Bob Filner (D), and have revealed that he may have specifically targeted victims of military sexual assault.

At least eight of the women who have come forward with allegations are military veterans, and most of them were victims of sexual assault while serving. The veterans, who are members of the National Women’s Veterans Association of America (NWVAA), believe Filner targeted them because military sexual assault survivors often fail to report incidents for fear of retaliation by their superiors.

Tara Jones, the NWVAA’s president, told CNN that the women came to her with details that Filner made sexual advances toward them while attending veterans’ events as chair of the House Veterans Affairs Committee. “He preyed upon people who were vulnerable, who he knew nine times out of 10 would not speak up, that didn’t have enough strength in them to speak up,” Jones said.

These new details expose a double standard: As a 10-term Congressman and the chair of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, Filner was celebrated as a champion for veterans’ rights and seemingly worked to increase awareness to military sexual assault. Jones said that he often spoke about “a zero tolerance of sexual abuse in the armed forces.”

Yet he targeted the women when speaking at veterans’ events.

Eldonna Fernandez and Gerri Tindley said that Filner made them feel uncomfortable when he spoke at a NWVAA event last summer while running for mayor. Fernandez, a retired Air Force master sergeant who was raped three times while in the military, said Filner asked her to dinner and left her what she described as a “creepy” voicemail. Tindley, an Army veteran, said that Filner got too close to her and rubbed her back while they both were in the green room waiting to speak.

“We’re all victims of military sexual assault. It appears to me that he was targeting the organization and hitting on the women of this organization because they were easy prey,” Fernandez said. “He’s part of an organization that’s against sexual assault and sexual violence against women and sexual harassment. And he’s doing the very thing that we are fighting to make stop in our service and in our country.”

Sexual assault is a pervasive problem in the military. A recent report from the Pentagon found that 26,000 service members reported being victims of sexual assault in 2012. Two-thirds of female victims chose not to report, many for fear of retaliation. That fear is likely justified, since 31 percent of the women who did report sexual crimes experienced administrative or professional retaliation. Last month, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand introduced a bill that would remove decision-making authority from the military chain of command in cases of sexual assault and grant that power to trained prosecutors, potentially lessening the difficulties of reporting and combating sexual assault.

Tindley noted that Filner’s actions perpetuate these difficulties and hinder an environment of trust for military sexual assault victims. “How can you be a representative, take an oath, and be a predator? Do you know how damaging that is for women who are truly victims of military sexual trauma or rape in general? Who can we trust to help us?” she told CNN.

Marina Fang is an intern for ThinkProgress.

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