Former Airman discusses alleged sexual assault case at Fort Lee
April 11, 2013
FORT LEE, Va. (April 11, 2013) -- Four years later, Jessica Nicole Hinves still suffers from a Post Traumatic Stress Disorder incident that changed the course of her life.
"Instead of fighting," she recalled, "I froze."
The former airmen first class wasn't describing a moment on the battlefields of Afghanistan or Iraq in which she experienced a measure of paralyzing fear in the face of danger.
She was describing a rape; by her account, a violent crime committed by a fellow Airman and someone she knew.
Hinves was the guest speaker at the Sexual Assault Awareness Conference Tuesday at Green Auditorium on the Army Logistics University campus.
Roughly 100 ALU students, instructors and leaders were on hand for the event. It included an open discussion with the guest speaker and her husband, Air Force Staff Sgt. Scott Hinves, and a luncheon featuring Maj. Gen. Larry D. Wyche, U.S. Army Combined Arms Support Command and Fort Lee commanding general.
Hinves, a mother of two, was medically retired from the Air Force in 2011 as a result of her life-changing ordeal. She is now an advocate for victims. She is also working to change the military's culture regarding sexual harassment and assault and is featured in the Oscar-nominated documentary "The Invisible War."
A former F-15 fighter jet mechanic who was assigned to Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, Hinves was on temporary duty at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., when the alleged rape occurred in 2009. She recalled how the assailant found his way into her dorm room after a night in which she had drinks with fellow unit members at a restaurant.
"He broke into my room through the bathroom (of an adjoining room that he earlier visited)," she recalled. " ... I remember saying I don't want to hang out with you."
Hinves implied that she was passive in her response to the Airman's presence in the room. She explained that her unit was steeped in a culture that tolerated sexual harassment so she dealt with it frivolously.
"I just learned how to suck it up, make a joke out of it and overlook it," she said, noting that it was more important for her to fit in with unit members.
Still, she was not friends with this particular Airman and questioned why he was there but not to the point that she was alarmed.
"I didn't feel threatened," she said. "I didn't feel any danger. I never knew this could happen."
Catching her unaware, recalled Hinves, the Airman became aggressive.
"He started to touch me, and then he raped me," she said. "Imagine if you're raped. You would like to kick him in the (scrotum) or poke his eyeballs out; you're like fighting back."
But Hinves didn't fight back. The act itself sucked the will right out of her. Defenseless against her larger, more powerful attacker, she said she felt her soul leave her body and focused on room furnishings to shield her from further agony and pain.
"I just left my body, and just kind of focused on the cabinet," she said. "It was a closet cabinet.
"To this day, I can't sleep with the closet door open because it triggers me ..."
The triggers weren't the only issue Hinves had to deal with in the aftermath. She said the lack of support, ostracism and harassment among unit members was tormenting and indignant.
"I lived in the barracks and people were knocking on my door saying 'Why are you doing this?'" she said.
If that wasn't enough, the alleged perpetrator was allowed to participate in an Airman of the Quarter board even though he was under investigation, said Hinves.
Furthemore, the investigation and legal proceedings that followed lasted a year. And after all that, the case was thrown out. Hinves said she did everything she was supposed to do to bring her attacker to justice, but her efforts were thwarted by a commander who had been in the position only four days.
"He said, 'We're going to drop this case because I don't think he was quite gentlemanly, but there's not enough reason to prosecute,'" she said. "I didn't realize that was an option."
Indeed, it is. According to the Uniformed Code of Military Justice, commanders reserve the right as a convening authority to essentially overturn a conviction, order a rehearing, reduce a sentence or dismiss charges.
In light of several high-profile sexual assault cases in which convictions were either set aside or reduced, the Department of Defense is calling for a Congressional review and proposed changes to convening authority provisions. One proposed change would take away the convening authority's power to set aside a conviction for crimes such as sexual assault.
Hinves expressed a sense of encouragement in many of the changes taking place with regard to sexual harassment and sexual assault issues. She cited increased training, awareness and scrutiny of cases. She also said no amount of policy change is as critical as the people charged with supporting them.
"What we can all do is," she said, using the most basic supposition, "is when somebody reports it, you don't have to believe it. Let the law determine what's right."
Lastly, Hinves said trust in the system is the key to how effective policies really are.
"I urge you, no matter what the story," she said, "if somebody comes to you in an assault case or a rape case, take them very seriously because it takes an incredible courage to talk about this."
Maj. Lillian Berry, ALU's Sexual Assault Response Coordinator and SAAC organizer, said by inviting Hinves, she hoped to provide audience members the opportunity to examine the merits of the case from several standpoints.
"Leaders should know survivor rights as they pertain to sexual assault and make sure that they use all resources to take care of the survivor," she said. "In the case of Jessica, her leadership failed to tend to her needs and the climate established allowed her to be re-victimized emotionally and psychologically by members of the unit.
"Also, because the unit had preconceived ideas that the perpetrator was a good Airman, they were less inclined to offer the support Jessica needed. It is not the command's job to investigate or pass judgment, but is their responsibility to safeguard the rights of all parties involved and foster a healthy climate."
Finally, Berry said the event promoted open and honest discussion on a subject that is a source of discomfort for some and even taboo for others. She said she thinks the Army is taking a hard look at how it treats the issue and that's an indication things could improve.
"The Army is taking steps to acknowledge our shortfalls, look at the hard truth and attack the issue," she said. "This year 'The Invisible War' became a mandatory training tool, even though it does not paint the military in general in a positive light, and I think that says a lot about how dedicated the Army is about exposing the issue so we can solve it."