"The military system is inherently biased," said Rep. Jackie Speier, D-San Francisco/San Mateo, who attended the morning news conference announcing the suit at Hastings Law School at 200 McAllister St. "Victims are put on trial and told they have asked to be raped," she said.
The victims bringing the suit, from a dozen states, allege that by failing to protect them from assaults, the defendants, including Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and the secretaries of the U.S. Army and Navy, violated their constitutional rights to due process of law and equal protection.
Two of the plaintiffs, Daniele Hoffman and Kole Welsh, both Army veterans, became emotional during the news conference when they described their feelings as victims of rape while in the service.
"I've been alone and silenced, but I won't be silenced any more," said Hoffman, who had attempted suicide after she was sexually assaulted nine years ago while in the Illinois National Guard and then suffered "continually" from harassment while serving in Iraq from 2007 to 2008.
"Let me be clear -- the federal judiciary is actively condoning" the rapes of members of military, said Welsh, who claimed that Army officials avoided prosecuting a sergeant who was "raping other male soldiers in order to give them HIV."
Welsh said he blamed the lack of action on military sexual assaults on the federal judiciary system, and that that under current law and military regulations, perpetrators of sexual assaults know that they "could not be sued or held criminally liable" for their crimes.
Susan Burke, the lead council for the plaintiffs in the suit filed, said that military leaders were made defendants because the plaintiffs were denied access to fair judicial review and the military permitted retaliation against victims.
Judges hearing such cases generally have been protective of the military, which has won cases arguing that sexual assaults qualify as "a hazard of duty" to be endured legally by people in the armed forces, Burke said.
The plaintiffs in the case seek to be respected in criminal and civil law the same way as civilians are in sexual crime cases, she said.
The case is the fifth federal lawsuit Burke has filed against the U.S. armed forces over sexual assault prosecutions.
The filing of the suit came two days after a brigadier general at Fort Bragg, N.C. was charged with sexual assaults on several female subordinates. This summer, Congress investigated the scandal at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, where 43 female trainees charged they were sexually assaulted by 19 instructors.
Speier said that an estimated 19,000 assaults were committed against women and men in the military in 2010 alone, but only 3,400 were actually reported and only 190 people charged.
Victims often are discouraged from reporting assaults because they face they loss of their careers, and sometimes the person who assaulted them is their superior who has the ability to halt investigations into them, Speier said.
"If you report, you are more likely labeled with personality disorder and discharged from the military," she said.
Panetta has acknowledged the military's poor record with sex crime investigations. In April, he created Special Victims Units for the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines to probe sexual crimes, which must be overseen by officers at the colonel level or above.
Speier said she believes that Panetta is "very serious" about the issue, but that conflicts of interest still exist in the military that can compromise investigations.
A bill she introduced, H.R. 3435, which would establish an independent board within the military to review sexual assault cases, is stalled in the House Armed Services Committee, chaired by Howard McKeon, R-Santa Clarita, whose district includes several military bases.