It was March 2, 2003, just 17 days before the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Army Lt. Jennifer Machmer had just picked up a load of luggage at an airport an hour from her base in Kuwait when, she says, the noncommissioned officer at the wheel of the Nissan sedan she was traveling in leaned over and tried to kiss her. Machmer and the driver, whom she had known for two years, had been chatting amiably, so, more embarrassed than anything, Machmer says, she "tried to play it off as a joke. I fidgeted with the radio."

Moments later, though, the NCO grabbed her hand and put it on his crotch, she says. Then, as he drove, continues Machmer, "he reached over and undid my seat belt, trying to grab me, and said he had wanted to touch me for two years." When they neared the base, Machmer says, she thought the episode was over, but then the NCO drove to a secluded place, unbuttoned her combat pants and forced himself on her. "I said, 'I do not want this,' " says Machmer, 27. "Five or six times I said no. I just wanted to get out of the situation." Finally, she says, "he stopped and sat up and said, 'Maybe not tonight, but later.' "

Military sources confirmed that Machmer reported her case and that her alleged assailant was punished. Despite numerous attempts to reach other Army personnel for comment, however, no further details were available. But clearly sexual assault against female soldiers in Iraq and Kuwait is a significant problem. On Feb. 5 Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld ordered a 90-day inquiry into allegations of sexual assault in the Persian Gulf, spurred on by a Central Command report that cited 80 allegations of sexual misconduct by U.S. Army soldiers in Iraq and Kuwait in the past 12 months. The Pentagon said that of the 80 complaints, 43 investigations have been concluded and 33 of those require further action. (The Pentagon refuses to identify specific cases and won't say whether Machmer's allegation is one of the 80.) "Sexual assault will not be tolerated in the Department of Defense," Rumsfeld wrote in a memo ordering the internal investigation. "Commanders at every level have a duty to take appropriate steps to prevent sexual assaults, protect victims and hold those who commit offenses accountable."

Some high-ranking military women say it is long overdue. "The system in place to help soldiers report and file sexual harassment complaints is not trusted by the soldiers," says retired Gen. Pat Foote, who chaired an Army review into sexual harassment in the military in 1997. "As soon as they report, they find that they become the victims. It's the whistle-blower syndrome."

Machmer says that after she reported the incident to a senior officer, the Army launched an investigation. But she was still forced to see the NCO she had accused every day, even as their unit moved into Iraq. "I didn't feel safe in Iraq because of him," she says. Her case stalled as the Army lawyers assigned to her kept changing—she says she went through five altogether.

Her last lawyer called and told her she had an hour to decide whether she wanted to pursue a court-martial or allow her unit's commanding officer to rule on the case. She opted for the latter, and according to a military source, her alleged attacker was dealt a nonjudicial punishment. (Machmer believes he was given a pay cut.) Reached by PEOPLE, the accused NCO denies ever attacking Machmer. At press time, the soldier's unit was moving out of Iraq and his former commanding officer could not be reached for comment.

Machmer, now a captain, says she plunged into depression and was transferred to a German base Sept. 9 for treatment. Evaluated for posttraumatic stress disorder, she says, "Everyone turned their backs on me. I have lost everything."

Other cases have been coming to light as well. Barbara Wharton of Quarryville, Pa., says her daughter, a 23-year-old Army intelligence sergeant, was raped in Iraq and also feels abandoned by the military. She was less than three weeks into her tour in Kuwait last November when an unidentified assailant struck her from behind, knocking her unconscious, says Wharton. When her daughter awoke, bound and gagged, a masked man—with an American accent—was raping her. At a field hospital, medics attended to her wounds, but she received no psychiatric counseling. About five days later she tried to commit suicide and is now in treatment at Fort Lewis, Wash.

The Army confirms that they are investigating her case but will not give any more details. In the meantime, the sergeant and her husband are trying to arrange for a transfer away from Fort Lewis so that they will not have to confront her old unit—her attacker possibly among them—when they return to the base in the coming months. Says the woman's sister Abby Wharton: "I think she's lost faith in the military."

Thomas Fields-Meyer. Karen Nickel Anhalt in Berlin, Maureen Harrington in Seattle and Andrea Billups and Linda Kramer in Washington, D.C.

  • Contributors:
  • Karen Nickel Anhalt,
  • Maureen Harrington,
  • Andrea Billups,
  • Linda Kramer.