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June 4th, 2013
07:49 PM ET

Military rape survivor: I was drugged and raped, and didn't tell anyone

There were an estimated 26,000 cases of unwanted sexual contact last year alone in the military, according to one Pentagon survey. But only about 3,400 were actually reported. That is a dismal record, and it comes as news of officers in charge of preventing unwanted sexual contact allegedly engaged in it.

Answering for it Tuesday on Capitol Hill were all of the military chiefs. A long table of 11 men and just one woman testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee as to why removing these investigations from within the chain of command, as many in Congress are pushing, would not be effective.

"The role of the commander should remain central. Our goal should be to hold commanders more accountable, not render them less able to help us correct the crisis," said Gen. Martin Dempsey, Joint Chiefs chairman.

Gen. Raymond Odierno, the Army chief of staff,  said "removing commanders, making commanders less responsible, less accountable, will not work."

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, one of seven women on the committee, has a bill that would let prosecutors decide which cases move forward, not the alleged victims' commanders. She was displeased with the Joint Chiefs' resistance to the idea.

"You have lost the trust of the men and women who rely on you that you will actually bring justice in these cases," said Gillibrand. "Not every single commander necessarily wants women in the force. Not every single commander believes what a sexual assault is. Not every single commander can distinguish between a slap on the ass and a rape."

And this is not just about the victimization of women. The Pentagon survey estimates that in more than half of the estimated 26,000 sexual assaults last year, men said they were the targets.

Trina McDonald is a Navy veteran who has a horrific story of being drugged and raped by her superiors, and disagreed with the Joint Chiefs testimony.

"It's an atrocity to hear such things come out of a commander's mouth. To hear him say that takes away from what we're trying to do, [which] is making people feel safe and not re-victimized," said McDonald.

If McDonald's case was taken out of the chain of command, "I would have had an outlet to be able to go somewhere," she said.

McDonald enlisted in the military she was 17. She was on delayed enlistment for one year, leaving a small town in Kentucky to join the Navy. She trained in Florida before heading to a naval station in Alaska.

McDonald was supposed to be in Alaska for 18 months; she was there for two months before she was sexually assaulted for the first time.

"I was drugged and raped," said McDonald. "I didn't tell anyone. I was raped multiple times ... [over a period] of nine months."

McDonald said at the time, there was no one she could tell.

"They make it clear to me if I came forward they were going to kill me. They threw me in the Bering Sea at one point and left me for dead. There was nowhere for me to turn, they made it clear if I did come forward, something worse was going to happen to me," said McDonald.

"There were four people I know of. There's three assaults that I remember. I came in and out of the assaults, of consciousness. And the other ones that I don't remember I woke up in my bed, just - I would be in one place and I would wake up, just tucked away in my bed, but having known something had happened to my body," said McDonald.

McDonald is now an active campaigner on the call to overhaul the military's prosecution of sexual assaults. She also told her story in "The Invisible War," a documentary on sexual assault in the military.

Watching the hearings Tuesday, McDonald said she gets the sense the people who command the military do not quite get it.

"I don't think that they get the full impact of what's really going on with people that have been sexually assaulted. Especially being in the military," said McDonald.

"When you're in a unit with your brothers and sisters and everything's so cohesive, when you take those things away, when you're sexually assaulted by someone who's supposed to be your brother or sister, you know, that you would have laid your life down for, and you take those things away from yourself, you're left with being a broken person," said McDonald.

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