MELBOURNE, Fla. - A phone call about a year ago rocked Gwen Arnold's world.
A baby girl she gave up at birth, more than 30 years ago, called her out of the blue, a shocking reminder of the trauma she says she suffered when she was raped as a 19-year-old soldier.
"I lived in fear for thirty-some years," said Arnold, now 53. "When I say these things, they don't even sound real."
The Cocoa Beach woman is one of several thousand each year who report sexual assaults in the military. The Defense Department's own numbers -- 3,000-plus reported attacks and as many as 16,000 more unreported a year -- are getting intense attention from Congress, the Pentagon and military commanders across the country. The military is demanding top officers be accountable. Congress is investigating and proposing legislation, including maybe taking handling of sexual assault cases out of the normal military chain of command. Advocates say more is needed.
Part of the effort is women telling their stories, to raise awareness of what happened to them and how they felt treated afterward. They're hoping Congress, military leaders and the public insist on reforms. Arnold is one of three local veterans who spoke with Florida Today about attacks they say went unpunished, though they were reported to military authorities.
They say their cases are not unlike thousands of others, acknowledged in the Defense Department's own reports, where victims either choose not to report the attacks for fear of retribution or report them but feel military unit commanders -- who currently have the authority to move forward with cases or not -- did not do enough about their case.
"We've got to eradicate this problem," said U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif. "When we have a military system where a service member is more likely to face violence from someone in the military than from the enemy, we have a problem. The issue has been under the radar for so long. When I talk about this issue, people are shocked."
Speier proposes an independent body of civilians and military personnel to oversee each report of sexual assault, taking it out of the military chain of command. A bill she supported to do that didn't come up for a vote last year.
The Defense Department has taken steps to deal with the issue, including making make it easier to report sexual assault, creating a coordinator position at all major bases, and increasing the minimum rank of the person responsible for deciding how to proceed with a case. Despite those measures, reported cases were up 1 percent from 2010 to 2011.
'Goal is zero'
"The Air Force goal for sexual assault is not simply to lower the number," said Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, during testimony about a recent scandal involving 32 instructors at a base in Texas. "The goal is zero. It's the only acceptable objective."
In Brevard County, victims like Arnold are finding help from an organization born here and growing nationally. Ten to 15 women meet in person, and interact online, under guidance of a therapist from the Department of Veterans Affairs. Some of those attending served more than 30 years ago; others are recently back from Iraq or Afghanistan.
They also stay in touch with Olga Ferrer-Cintron, a fellow victim who started the group, A Black Rose, and a companion website ablackrose.org about four years ago.
"There are days that I'm exhausted and I don't want to hear another story," said Ferrer-Cintron. "It's not that I don't want to hear it, but I'm sad that it is still going on in the military."
Ferrer-Cintron, 43, said she was attacked in a tent shower in Bahrain during Operation Desert Shield. She said a man's hands gripped her neck so tightly while he raped her that she lost consciousness. "I was afraid for my life," she said.
Then 20, she said she reported it to military police. When she later sought a copy of the report, she said she was told there was no report. She did not see the face of her attacker. No one was charged.
'Shooed me over'
Ramona Booker was 22 when she said she was attacked on a base in England, more than 25 years ago. She said a military man visiting from another base hid in her room while she was in the restroom and then attacked her.
"Your life changes in a matter of minutes," she said, talking openly for the first time. "When it's done, you're happy to be alive. How can you rebuild your life after that."
Booker didn't come forward. She only agreed to talk now to help other victims. A self-described loner, she never married or had children.
Booker, who said she had trouble walking after the brutal attack, reported the incident to the person in charge of the dorm. After a few days, she said she was reassigned from the aircraft mechanic job she loved and said airmen in her unit turned against her.
"They kind of got rid of me," she said. "They shooed me over. You get taunted, you get harassed."
"This shouldn't still be happening," she said. "They are not going to warn you, they are not going to tell you about the problems when they are trying to recruit you. I think they should implement a safety class for women going (into the military) now."
Women like Booker and Arnold bear mental scars for decades, experts say.
"It forever impacts the ability to trust others," said Scott Fairchild, a Melbourne psychologist who treats traumatized veterans. Fairchild said it causes victims to be cautious, depressed and insecure.
Arnold was 18 when she went into the Army in 1977, and "had no idea what the military was like."
She said she reported the first of two sexual assaults and "all it did was get me in trouble." She learned other women in her unit had stories of attacks. "We were blackballed. We sat in the commander's office. We might as well had been lying."
"The military needs ... to acknowledge that it's not reported because of fear," she said.
She describes nightmares and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder but says she learned to cope. She moved to Brevard from Tennessee in 2011 looking for a quieter life. She shut out many details of what happened, until she got the call from the daughter she'd given up after the attack.
The sudden call has caused intense turmoil. Her husband and their 28-year-old daughter did not know of her attack, until now.
"I came here with hope of living a peaceful life on the beach," she said.
(Copyright © 2013 USA TODAY)