Army staff sergeant hospitalized for suicide attempts following alleged sexual assault

Posted on : 2021-08-25 17:31 KST Modified on : 2021-08-25 17:31 KST
The division’s legal team decided to discipline the perpetrator instead of filing criminal charges against him
(Getty Image Bank)
(Getty Image Bank)

A female staff sergeant in the South Korean army tried to kill herself after being sexually harassed and stalked by a superior officer, following similar incidents in the air force and navy. This incident is similar in many respects to what happened in those other branches, including the attempts to downplay and cover up the wrongdoing, mild disciplinary measures, and secondary harm to the victim, such as leaking her personal information.

Since the woman in question is currently hospitalized, the Hankyoreh conducted a telephone interview with her older sister on Monday.

The alleged perpetrator was disciplined and discharged without facing any legal consequences in the army. Only later did civilian prosecutors indict him and put him on trial. The army said that the staff sergeant hadn’t indicated she wanted to press criminal charges, but her family said she’d never received a proper explanation.

The victim was assigned to a unit in the army in April 2020, shortly after being commissioned as a staff sergeant.

One week later, a sergeant first class who was her immediate superior suggested that they go out, which she courteously declined. But afterward, he started stalking her, the woman’s family said.

It didn’t end with stalking, though. The sergeant first class would reportedly share his sexual experiences while drunk or surreptitiously grope her while they were on duty.

In early August of last year, after four months of this sexual harassment and assault, the woman reported the issue to her unit with the help of another superior officer.

The woman’s family said that the army division and legal staff in charge of counseling and investigating had been irresponsible and inappropriate in their handling of these matters.

The victim and perpetrator ought to have been separated immediately, but that didn’t happen until two weeks after the woman had filed her report.

In the meantime, the man began to complain to other soldiers about what he regarded as unfair treatment, and a rumor spread in the unit that the woman was sexually promiscuous.

The division’s legal team decided to discipline the man instead of filing criminal charges against him.

The staff sergeant gave testimony about the stalking, harassment, and assault she’d suffered, and her family members even called a hotline set up by the Ministry of National Defense’s bureau of investigation, demanding a thorough investigation. But there was never an investigation with the authority to collect security camera footage or telephone records that would have served as evidence.

The woman had given letters from the sergeant first class and other documents to division staff, but when she asked for the documents to be returned, staff reportedly refused, giving the unlikely excuse that the documents had been “washed away in the rain.”

Without conducting much of an investigation, the military investigators eventually decided to discharge the sergeant first class from the army for “violating his duty to maintain respectability.” But they opted not to apply some of the punishments available for such a discharge.

Nor was there any investigation, not to mention discipline or prosecution, into the unit staff who’d inflicted a severe amount of secondary harm on the victim.

A full-fledged investigation didn’t begin until November when the woman personally hired a private lawyer and filed a complaint with the investigating authorities.

In June, the unit responsible for investigating crimes against women and children at the Suwon District Prosecutors’ Office filed charges against the sergeant first class for violating the Sexual Violent Crime Act through sexual misconduct based on work authority. That was radically different from the conclusion reached by the division’s legal team, which had gone no further than disciplining him for the same behavior.

“We quickly proceeded with disciplinary measures because the victim hadn’t indicated that she wanted criminal charges filed [against the perpetrator],” the army’s office of troop information and education wrote in a statement to the Hankyoreh.

But the staff sergeant’s family said, “The army didn’t share much information about how the proceedings were going at the time. There was basically no information about legal options.”

“The army’s central bureau of investigation is currently looking into the appropriateness of how the investigators handled this case,” the army said.

“Setting aside the woman’s feelings of victimhood, a legal case must satisfy requirements of time, place, and method. Those are the issues we will address in the courtroom,” the sergeant first class’s lawyer told the Hankyoreh over the phone.

The military’s lackadaisical measures were a breeding ground for secondary harm. Even after being transferred to a new unit, the staff sergeant was reportedly stigmatized as a troublemaker who’d broken up her previous unit by having it in for her superior officer.

The woman was hospitalized after she recently attempted to end her life, following a previous suicide attempt at the beginning of this year. Her family filed another complaint about the case during a special reporting period announced by the Ministry of National Defense following the recent death of a noncommissioned officer in the air force who’d been sexually harassed.

The staff sergeant’s older sister said she’d been “shocked” by the similarity between what her sister had suffered in the army and what the noncommissioned officers had suffered in the air force and navy.

“The original perpetrator is a problem, of course, but we also need to put in place clear standards and systems for prosecuting secondary perpetrators,” she said.

The woman’s older sister posted a petition to the Blue House’s website on Friday.

“In an organization where problems can be fixed by people dying, problems don’t get solved as long as they remain alive. I ask you to support the prevention of sexual violence in the military, transparent investigation of incidents, and stern punishment [of offenses] by staying vigilant and constantly asking questions,” she wrote in the petition.

By Lim Jae-woo, staff reporter

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