by The Associated Press, published by Seattle Times. June 15, 2006

 

EUGENE, Ore. – An Oregon soldier who was arrested after refusing to deploy with her Army unit to Iraq for a second tour says she was coerced into a sexual relationship with her immediate supervisor.

Suzanne Swift, a specialist with the 54th Military Police Co. based at Fort Lewis, Wash., said three sergeants began propositioning her for sex shortly after she arrived in Iraq in February 2004. Swift said she ended up having a sexual relationship with her immediate supervisor, but it wasn’t her choice.

"In a combat situation, your squad leader is deciding whether you live or die," she said in an interview with the Register-Guard newspaper on Wednesday. "If he wants you to run across a minefield, you run across a minefield."

Swift remained in Iraq until February 2005. When her unit was redeployed to Iraq in January 2006, she refused to go and remained in Oregon, citing the harassment as a reason.

Swift was arrested at her mother’s Eugene home on Sunday and held at the Lane County Jail before being returned to Fort Lewis on Tuesday.

Her unauthorized absence violates the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Her penalty will be decided by her commanding officer and could range from a reprimand to court-martial, loss of all Army benefits and up to five years in prison.

"The Army is investigating the details surrounding her absence from the unit," Fort Lewis spokesman Joe Hitt said.

Swift’s attorney, Larry Hildes, said his client’s commanding officer, Lt. Col. James Switzer, assured him that he planned a criminal investigation into the harassment allegations.

Hildes said that when Swift complained to the appropriate Army authority, an equal opportunity officer, her complaints were ignored. For rejecting the sexual advances of two men, Swift said she was publicly humiliated and forced to do extra work.

Swift said she believes the military is now taking her allegations seriously. She is back in the barracks with her company, which returned in April from its second tour in Iraq. While Swift said she didn’t discuss sexual harassment with the other women in her unit, she’s certain she wasn’t the only one targeted.

"Nobody talks about it," she said.

By abandoning her unit for more than 30 days, Swift moves from unauthorized absentee to the more serious category of deserter — a soldier with no intent to return, said Kathleen Duignan, executive director of the National Institute of Military Justice. The nonprofit agency works to improve public understanding of the military justice system.

Her commander will likely balance the aggravating factors in her case, such as deserting during a time of war, against the harassment allegations, Duignan said.

"I can’t see it offering a complete defense, because they would say she should have continued to bring it up through the chain of command," Duignan said.