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Military Sexual-Assault Victim Tells Her Story to Social Workers Conference

Retired Army Lt. Col. Teresa James says it's important for counselors to understand why victims of sexual assault in the military, like her, often don't speak up. (Teresa James)
Retired Army Lt. Col. Teresa James says it's important for counselors to understand why victims of sexual assault in the military, like her, often don't speak up. (Teresa James)
April 27, 2017

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A retired army lieutenant colonel is telling her story of surviving sexual assault, and explaining to social workers what it's like to have her commanders retaliate against her for speaking out.

Teresa James was nearing the end of her career with the West Virginia National Guard when she was assaulted by a superior officer in December 2006. She didn't report the crime for several years, until she became increasingly concerned it could happen again to another woman.

"Some of my subordinates were being sexually harassed by the same person,” James said. "I felt a duty and an obligation to report it, and I thought I would have the support of the West Virginia National Guard. But that didn't happen."

James said her charges were confirmed by an investigation, as eventually were her charges that she suffered reprisals for coming forward. James told her story during the National Association of Social Workers West Virginia spring conference in Charleston on Wednesday. She said it's important for counselors to know why military victims don't always report the crime.

Eventually James was allowed to retire for medical reasons. But she said her attacker was given the same kind of medical discharge - with full retirement benefits - after what James said was a slap on the wrist.

She said it's routine for ranking officers to minimize an ugly accusation such as sexual assault. A military unit can be a small community, she said, and the officers don't want to be embarrassed by having a crime happen under their command.

"Everybody knew who the perpetrator was,” she said. “So they tried to sweep it under the rug and keep it as low key as possible."

James said making charges of rape, assault or sexual harassment can be seen as signs of weakness in the military.

"There are a lot of people who have been assaulted and don't talk about it. You're supposed to be tough, you're supposed to be resilient, and those were some of the comments that I was even told,” James said.

The NASW West Virginia Spring Conference is the largest event of its kind in the country. It runs through Friday at the Charleston Civic Center.

Dan Heyman, Public News Service - WV