KOMO 1000 News reported Tuesday that Suzanne Swift, a private from Eugene, Oregon, in a military police unit who had gone AWOL, was brought back to Fort Lewis in handcuffs. -- She is accused of desertion, but says she failed to report back because she was a victim of sexual harassment by five sergeants in her unit and feared for her safety. -- The Eugene Register-Guard reported Tuesday that she has been AWOL since January and was arrested Sunday at her mother's home. -- Susan Palmer reported that "Days before the redeployment in January, Swift was packed and ready to go, but then broke down, car keys in hand, [her mother, Sara] Rich said. 'She turned to me in the kitchen and said, "I can't go back there." I said, "Good, don't do it,"' Rich said." -- See also the appeal for support from Suzanne Swift's mother, Sara Rich....
AWOL SOLDIER RETURNS TO FORT LEWIS
By Tracy Vedder
KOMO 1000 News
June 13, 2006
[PHOTO CAPTION: Suzanne Swift]
EUGENE (Oregon) -- Another Fort Lewis soldier is refusing to go to Iraq, but this time, it's a woman.
And she claims she was the victim of ongoing sexual assault and harassment during her first tour in the country.
Military police brought Suzanne Swift back to Fort Lewis in handcuffs Tuesday. She's accused of deserting her military police unit just before they were supposed to go back to Iraq.
But her attorney says she was afraid -- not of the danger in Iraq, but of her fellow soldiers.
Swift joined the Army in 2002, signing up for a 5-year stint with the military police. In February of 2004, Swift and her MP brigade deployed to Karbala, Iraq.
There, her attorney and her mother both say she was repeatedly sexually harassed by five sergeants.
"Sergeants will make bets on who can make which private, female private, their private," Swift's mother Sara Rich says that her daughter told her.
Another sergeant allegedly forced the 21-year-old specialist into a sexual relationship.
"She was afraid for her life if she didn't do this," explains Swift's attorney Larry Hildes, "because of the power that he had over her."
Hildes says Swift didn't believe she could say no.
"He could send her into combat," he said. "He could not provide support for her, he could demote her, he could demand that she be discharged."
Hildes says Swift reported the harassment to her superiors at least five times, and the only discipline was a single letter of reprimand.
"Each time she reported this, they retaliated some way against her," Hildes said.
And when Swift was scheduled to return to Iraq with her unit last January, she refused.
"And she looked at me," says Swift's mother Rich, "and said, I just don't think I can do it."
That was in January, for the next six months, Swift's attorney negotiated with the military while she stayed with friends or at her mother's Eugene, Ore. home.
Hildes and Rich say Swift planned to turn herself in this week. Instead, she was arrested by Eugene police after the military sent a federal warrant.
KOMO 4 News asked for an interview with Swift's Commander at Fort Lewis and with someone who can address the issue of sexual harassment complaints. They have declined.
Swift could face a wide range of punishments, anything from a letter of reprimand up to a court martial and five years in prison. Her attorney wants a medical discharge for his client and wants the Army to pursue criminal charges against the soldiers allegedly involved in the harassment.
ARMY SPECIALIST REFUSES TO RETURN TO IRAQ
By Susan Palmer
** AWOL soldier's arrest brings out supporters **
Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
June 13, 2006
A soldier who deserted her Army unit to avoid a second tour of duty in Iraq will be returned to Fort Lewis, Wash., today after being arrested in Eugene on Sunday.
Eugene police arrested Suzanne Nicole Swift, 21, a specialist with the 54th Military Police Company, after receiving a copy of a felony warrant from the Fort Lewis provost marshal's office on Sunday. The warrant indicated that Swift could be found at her mother's house and officers arrested her there, Eugene police spokesman Rich Stronach said. Swift had been absent without leave since January.
Swift was taken to the Lane County Jail where she was expected to be handed over to military police today and returned to the Army base near Tacoma. She could not be reached for comment.
Swift's mother, Eugene social worker Sara Rich, has been a vocal opponent of the Iraq war, but said she didn't stand in her daughter's way when Swift decided to join the Army in spring 2003. Swift had graduated from South Eugene High School the year before and had been working, but felt she wasn't getting anywhere, Rich said. The message from Army recruiters -- that she could receive an education and travel -- resonated. Rich said recruiters told her daughter if she signed up for a five-year tour with the military police, she would not be sent to Iraq.
But it didn't work out that way. After Swift became part of the military police, her company was deployed to Iraq in February 2004.
She was stationed in Karbala, about 60 miles southwest of Baghdad. The city -- a holy site to Shiite Muslims -- has seen its share of the violence of war. Swift drove a Humvee on combat patrol there, her mother said.
She came home to Fort Lewis in February 2005, believing she had the standard 18 months decompression time before she would be redeployed, Rich said. Mother and daughter visited whenever they could, but Swift didn't tell her much about what she'd seen of the war.
"She had been through so much, but she didn't want to freak me out," Rich said.
Then Swift was asked to sign a waiver agreeing to return to Iraq early, in January, 11 months after returning to the United States. It was the last thing Swift wanted to do, Rich said. Having seen the war first-hand, she had profound doubts about it, and had told her mother she thought the war lacked purpose and that no one had benefited from the U.S. presence in Iraq.
While she was in Iraq, she wrote to Rich about being repeatedly sexually harassed by Army staff and was always anxious about being assaulted, Rich said. She didn't complain because she thought it would make things worse, Rich said.
Days before the redeployment in January, Swift was packed and ready to go, but then broke down, car keys in hand, Rich said.
"She turned to me in the kitchen and said, 'I can't go back there.' I said, 'Good, don't do it,' " Rich said.
So Swift stayed behind when the 54th Military Police Company returned to Iraq. First she stayed with a friend in Brookings on the Southern Oregon Coast, but in May, she came back to Eugene and moved in with her mother.
Rich arranged for her to speak with an attorney and begin seeing a psychologist for help with post traumatic stress disorder. She said she would rather see her daughter imprisoned for desertion than returned to Iraq.
Fort Lewis Army spokesman Joe Hitt confirmed that Swift would be returned to Fort Lewis, but declined to discuss her situation further. He said that her company commander will determine appropriate punishment and that no decision had been made in her case.
According to an Army spokesman at the Pentagon, the number of soldiers absent without leave -- AWOL, which means they are are missing from their military unit for up to 30 days -- is less than 1 percent of the total number of soldiers. In 2005, 2,011 soldiers were reported AWOL, down from 4,483 in 2002, the spokesman said.
But those numbers don't add up, said the lawyer representing Swift. Larry Hildes, a Bellingham, Wash., attorney who is part of a National Lawyers Guild task force on military law, said there are hundreds of lawyers around the nation representing deserting soldiers. He has handled a dozen such cases since the Iraq war began and has four current cases.
A national hotline dealing with the rights of those in the military gets a minimum of 2,000 calls a month, Hildes said, the majority of them from soldiers who don't want to return to war.
"An increasing number have been to Iraq and are refusing to go back. I've got interrogators and military police officers who will not go back," Hildes said.
Desertion can bring a range of responses, from a reprimand and re-integration with the unit to the loss of all military benefits, court martial, and a five-year stint in prison.
It carries a powerful social stigma, too, which Rich acknowledged. But she sees her daughter's refusal to return the way she viewed her daughter's willingness to serve in the first place.
"She went to Iraq once and she was my hero then," Rich said. "I think it takes a lot more courage to say no than to go back and be fodder for an immoral war."
Hildes said he had been in contact with base officials weighing Swift's case, and the last he heard, they were considering a nonjudicial punishment, possibly an administrative discharge.
The Register-Guard was unable to talk with the Fort Lewis commander making the decision in Swift's case. The 54th Military Police Company returned from Iraq in April. According to a base newspaper, the company helped operate two compounds at Camp Bucca, the largest prisoner-of-war facility in Iraq.
About 70 peace activists joined Rich for a vigil on Monday in support of her daughter outside the Lane County Jail.