SAN DIEGO – Stacey Thompson had just been stationed at Marine base in Japan when she said her sergeant laced her drinks with drugs, raped her in his barracks and then dumped her onto a street outside a nightclub at 4 a.m.
The 19-year-old lance corporal was not afraid to speak up.
She reported it to her superiors but little happened. She said she discovered her perpetrator was allowed to leave the Marine Corps and she found herself, instead, at the center of a separate investigation for drug use stemming from that night. Six months later, she was kicked out with an other-than-honorable discharge -- one step below honorable discharge -- which means she lost her benefits.
Now, 14 years later, she has decided to speak out again, emboldened by the mounting pressure on the Pentagon to resolve its growing sexual assault epidemic.
She went public with her story Thursday in an exclusive interview with The Associated Press. She is among the scores of service members who have lived in silence for decades and are now stepping forward to fight for an overhaul of the military's justice system and demand their own cases be re-examined.
"To see that what happened to me 14 years ago is still continuing to happen now, for me that was a big reason why I felt the need to come forward," she said. "I can finally say I have the strength."
Marine Corps and Navy officials declined to comment, saying they do not discuss specific cases. The Marine Corps has said it takes sexual assault allegations seriously and continues to improve in responding to and preventing rapes within the ranks. All branches have been implementing sexual assault prevention programs in the past year.
Retaliation is part of a military-wide pattern that has prevented countless cases from being reported and investigated, exacerbating the epidemic, according to victims' advocates. A Pentagon report released earlier this month found 62 percent of sexual assault victims in the military who reported being attacked say they faced some kind of retaliation afterward.
"It's an ongoing problem that is not getting better, it's getting worse, as the latest statistics out of the Pentagon show," said Brian Purchia, spokesman for Protect Our Defenders, which has been helping Thompson. "Unfortunately commanders are conflicted: When a sexual assault occurs on their watch, it reflects poorly on them and that's why it's shoved under the rug. The perpetrators frequently out rank the victims, which is also why there is this bias. They're going to trust people they've known -- not an 18 or 19-year-old just new to the service."
Thompson said military culture will not change until the system changes. She will speak Friday at a news conference in Los Angeles with Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., to show her support for her bipartisan bill that would put the cases in the hands of military trained prosecutors.
Service members now must report any crimes to the chain of command, even when their superiors have been involved.
"Too many survivors of military sexual assault are afraid to report these crimes because they fear retaliation, and they don't believe they will get justice," Boxer said. "They deserve a system that encourages victims to come forward knowing that the perpetrators will be brought to justice."
Thompson said she was not afraid to report the crime but paid heavily for doing so.
The investigator called her a liar, and military authorities checked her hands for needle pricks after accusing her of using drugs. She said she never used drugs. She was reassigned to another unit, removed from her job and told to report to an office, where she had nothing to do for months.
Then she was kicked out. She continues to suffer from her other-than-honorable discharge, which stripped her of her benefits and she believes has led to her missing out on Defense Department jobs.
"I felt the Marine Corps re-victimized me again after getting raped," said the 32-year-old mother of three.
Thompson said she shut down after getting out, refusing to talk about her rape. She was afraid of men, especially Marines. To this day, she keeps her dog nearby when she showers and sleeps with lights on in her house, even when her combat Marine husband is home.
"That fear is still with me 14 years later," she said.
But the fight is there too. Thompson requested her records in December. She said they showed the drug use allegations against her came from her perpetrator's friends.
She is now appealing her case to the Department of Veterans Affairs and is seeking compensation related to military sexual trauma. After that, she plans to also appeal her discharge status to get it upgraded to honorable.
Several service members have filed lawsuits in the past two years, alleging retaliation after they reported being raped. Among them was another former Marine, Elle Helmer, who said in her lawsuit that after reporting her sexual assault in 2006, the military investigated her for public intoxication and unbecoming conduct. She left the military soon after.
The extent of the assaults came to light when the Pentagon released a report earlier this month estimating that as many as 26,000 military members may have been sexually assaulted last year and that thousands of victims are unwilling to come forward despite new oversight and assistance programs. That figure is an increase over the 19,000 estimated assaults in 2011.
Only 3,374 of these crimes were reported, resulting in just 238 convictions. The Senate Armed Services Committee will hold a hearing next week on legislation to combat military sexual assault, including the bill sponsored by Boxer and other lawmakers.