Claire Russo, an officer in the Marines, was raped by an F-18 navigator at his Marine Corps' Ball in 2004. The military chose not to court-martial her rapist, though he was later convicted in civilian court. We've read the court documents, talked to Claire, the Deputy District Attorney, and the NCIS Special Agent on the case to try to piece together Claire's story and find out why the military didn't act.
Here's an outline of each section of Claire's story below:
An all-American girl raised in Washington DC, Claire Russo rode horses competitively and wanted to be a politician when she was young. Instead she became a Marine who served in Iraq and an advisor for the Army in Afghanistan.
She put her life on the line for her country, but the greatest danger she would face came before she even left American soil, when she was drugged and raped by a fellow Marine—and the military did nothing.
From a young age Claire was moved by a duty to serve her country. At 14, she was a Senate page for Dan Coats, worked at the Republican National Convention in San Diego, and interned for Senator Judd Gregg the following year."When I was at Officer Candidates School, one of the drill instructors did tell us, 'You’re either a bitch or a slut.'"
In high school, when she saw the Hollywood blockbuster, "A Few Good Men" something cemented in Claire.
"I became obsessed with the Marine Corps after that," Claire says. "I knew the legacy of the Marine Corps was elite and the legacy of Guadalcanal. They were pretty tough and if I was going to join, I’d join the toughest out there."
The summer after she graduated from Tulane University, Claire entered Officer Candidates School (OCS) in Quantico, Va. ; she finished fourth in a class of 65. She then attended The Basic School where she endured rigorous training and met her future husband Josh.
Claire was not attuned to any systematized sexism in the military, but began noticing some red flags pretty quickly in the Marines. A woman she knew well from OCS had alleged that she was raped by a male student. At the preliminary hearing, the officials read her diary aloud and insinuated that she was a slut because of what she wrote about her sex life.
“I felt based on her description it describes a campaign to intimidate her, to push her not to follow through,” says Claire. The woman ended up dropping out of the Marines.
“I just started noticing sex-based parameters of the organization. We did have a female Major take us all aside and tell us all, and this is a pretty common thing that women convey, that your male counterparts are going to rank you lower. You have to prove yourself and you’re going to have to earn it so much more. And we had a talk about having your period in the field and I remember being frustrated.
“When I was at Officer Candidates School, one of the drill instructors did tell the females, ‘You're either a bitch or a slut.' You’re either a hard-ass and get your job done or you’re a slut because you’re flirtatious and involved with male Marines. I was like, I’m not either one of those things.”
In fall 2004, Claire was assigned to 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing as an air intelligence officer at the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego.
She moved in with her cousin Tom, who was a Navy F-18 pilot and instructor on the base. Josh, Claire's boyfriend from OCS, was stationed further north at Camp Pendleton where he was a Combat Engineer.
Claire was eager to establish herself at Miramar since she wanted to deploy, and being a Second Lieutenant put her at the bottom of the totem pole. She immediately began briefing the Commanding General at his weekly intel briefing and was in charge of a command of 10 Marines.
Just a month after Claire arrived at Miramar, the festivities surrounding the Marine Corps' annual birthday celebration were in full swing.
Claire was happy to accompany her cousin Tom to his Marine Corps Ball when he didn’t have a date. She’d worn her dress blues to the balls for her and Josh's units, so her cousin urged her to dress like a civilian this time. She donned a black, knee-length cocktail dress with wide straps that crossed in the back and high heels; a rarity for Claire.
That night Josh was on call, so Claire planned to stay for a few hours and return via cab since a lot of Marines would get drunk, hook up and crash at the hotel. But the night spun wildly out of control.
Claire and her cousin Tom arrived at the Manchester Grand Hyatt in downtown San Diego around 6 pm with one of Tom’s friends and his date. They partied in a hotel room before the official cocktail hour began.
Claire was excited to meet Tom’s friends since she would ultimately be working closely with pilots.
“Pilots have a particular reputation of being very high maintenance, very individualistic. People always make jokes about their hair being long and needing special trips to the barber. There’s this joke, ‘How do you know you’re in the room with fighter pilot? Because he’ll tell you,’” says Claire. “My cousin is pretty confident but not an asshole. I was looking forward to meeting them.”
Claire drank rum and Cokes, posed for pictures and sat through the formal dinner. She was then introduced to some of Tom’s friends by their call signs, Wallet and Dirty who were both dateless. She made small talk with them and then joined the civilian wives on the dance floor.
Around 10:30 pm, the group decided to head upstairs to the Top of the Hyatt bar.“I would certainly never question the integrity or motivation of the Marines—certainly not at that point. I didn’t doubt this guy at all.”
There were four couples and Tom had even paired off, so Claire began to feel like the odd-woman out. By now she’d had maybe five drinks and decided to stay for another hour at most. She was waiting for Tom to join her downstairs for a cigarette when she ran into Dirty, who offered to buy her a drink.
While Dirty was at the bar, Claire struck up a conversation with a Squadron Master Sergeant.
Claire remembers thinking, “I should take this drink slowly. I don’t want to be like completely shit-faced.” She finally decided to go downstairs and have that cigarette.
As she was leaving the bar, Dirty approached Claire and asked if he could join her. He wasn't being overly flirtatious so she didn't mind his company.
While she was smoking outside, Claire was chatting with a Lieutenant and his wife, unaware that Dirty was still there. He said Tom and the crew were at a room party and invited her to come.
“I’m not in any way suspicious. I’m in the Marine Corps,” says Claire. “This is a guy who’s a senior officer and works with my cousin; I feel very safe.”
“I would certainly never question the integrity or motivation of the Marines—certainly not at that point. I didn’t doubt this guy at all.”
As they get into the elevator, Claire feels extremely drunk and things go hazy—she concludes later that Dirty drugged her last drink.
“I have vague recollections of getting to a room, him using a key and thinking to myself, ‘That’s weird, he didn’t say we were going to his room for a party.’ My brain was not functioning. Why didn’t I say, I should leave?”
“I thought, oh my God, what am I doing here? What’s happening? I remember not being able to react emotionally, but having concern.”
“From this point on, everything that I remember is small snippets of memory.”
“The next thing I remember is being on the bed, that I was choking and vomiting, propped up on my knees, feeling like I have no muscle control and he is holding my head and he’s forcing me to give him a blow job. He’s pushing himself down my throat and it’s so far it’s making me vomit. I’m throwing up onto him and I’m trying to get him to stop and I’m crying and there’s vomit. There’s vomit all over.”
The only thing she remembers him saying to her was, “You’re so disgusting.”
“Basically, the next thing that I remember is being in the bathroom, being pushed up, being held with somebody’s flat arm against the wall and crying. He’s trying to penetrate me anally but my body is so limp, I’m not able to hold myself up. I’m not really struggling. I’m not even sure if I’m able to say, please stop.”
This continued until Claire was bleeding.Claire remains silent as she puts on her vomit-stained dress and jacket, leaving behind ripped stockings and a broken necklace.
“The next thing I remember is being on the bathroom floor and waking up, naked. I’m extremely confused and delirious.”
Claire hears the ring of her cousin’s cell phone coming from her purse and enters the room to find Dirty lying in bed.
He doesn’t acknowledge her as she crosses the room to answer the phone. It’s one of Tom’s friends, looking for her. He asks her where she is but Claire just starts crying and he tells her to get into a cab and go home. When she gets off the phone Dirty says, “Who was that?”
Claire remains silent as she puts on her vomit-stained dress and jacket, leaving behind ripped stockings and a broken necklace. Without a word, Dirty lets her leave.
Distraught and still completely disoriented, Claire wanders abjectly through the hotel looking for Tom and eventually catches a cab home around 3 am.
Claire is unable to reach Josh until he finally calls her around 7 am. Crying and incoherent, all she would say is, “I should have called the police.”
“I wouldn’t tell him. My first coherent thought was, ‘I will not report this. I will not go through what the girl at The Basic School went through,’” says Claire. “If I had called the police the evidence would have been there but in my mind my only option was to deal with the Marine Corps.”
Claire can’t explain the disconnect between thinking she should have called the police and knowing she would not report the rape. Perhaps it was the dueling instincts of a civilian and a Marine.
While Josh is on his way, Claire goes to the bathroom to take a shower and realizes that she is bleeding heavily. Tom had spent the night at the Hyatt and still wasn’t home so the couple drive north to Josh’s place. Claire still refuses to tell Josh what happened.
When Tom finally calls, he insist that she talk.
“Dirty,” was all that Claire has to utter for Tom to understand.
“You have to come home right now,” he responds.
Around 4 pm Claire returns home and begins to go into shock—crying, shaking, feeling cold and panicked—as she relived the events of the previous night through telling Tom. A dutiful pilot, he immediately phones his Unit Executive Officer to report that there was an incident at his Marine Corps Ball, despite Claire’s protests.
“I have no choice,” says Tom. “I have to report this. I have to work with this guy.”
Tom receives instructions to call the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) but is unable to get through to anyone. In the meantime, he takes Claire to the Emergency Room at Balboa Navy Medical Center.
In the hospital waiting room, Tom receives a call from his commander who says, “There will not be vigilante justice, Tom. You will not go near this guy.”
He tells him not to come back to work until things had been sorted out. The following day Dirty is taken off flight status and moved to a different squadron.
Tom then receives a call from NCIS Special Agent Zach Paton, who says, “Do not let them examine her. They’re going to screw it up,” referring to the Navy medical center.
He tells Tom to bring Claire to a Sexual Assault Response Team (SART) nurse who specializes in sexual assault exams at Palomar-Pomerado Hospital, a civilian facility.
Conclusive evidence was never found as to whether Claire had been drugged but Paton affirms that this was highly probably based on the fact that she was far more incapacitated than her level of intoxication.
Claire was examined approximately 22 hours after the assault and it’s common for date rape drugs to be undetectable by then.
As the lead investigator on the case, Paton made several presentations to the suspect’s Commander, the Staff Judge Advocate, and other members of the commanding “cabinet.” About halfway through the investigation they gave NCIS a prosecutorial declination, which Paton, who specialized in sex crimes for more than six years, said was unusual to receive so early given the severity of the allegations.
Paton recalls a conversation with the SJA who said there wasn’t enough evidence to prosecute; that it was a “he said, she said” case and there wasn’t anything in the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) that would allow them to prosecute a rape by intoxication.
So Paton took the case to the San Diego District Attorney’s office.
“They about crapped in their drawers,” says Paton. “Because of his [Dirty’s] position and rank and the potential media outcome, they wanted to keep it as small as possible.”
Dirty is Captain Douglas Alan Dowson. He was the first person in his family to graduate from college. He attended Rutgers University and graduated from The Basic School with honors, according to documents from his case file.
During the trial the defense was concerned that his unsavory call sign, the only name Claire knew him by, would be incriminating. They contended that Dowson got the nickname because his father raced a demolition derby car called “Dirty Doug."
But this was unlikely given that Dirty had exhibited sexually deviant behavior before.
Through pretrial discovery, investigators found tapes of Dowson having sex with four other women. He had shown the tapes to other Marines without the women’s consent.
Just six months earlier while stationed in Japan, Dowson took photographs of a female Captain while she was sleeping naked, then stole the memory card from the camera and lied about it. The woman later claimed that he had sexually assaulted her but she never pursued it.
On the two computers found at Dowson’s home, 84 percent of the websites he visited were sex-related, including hundreds of visits to Adultfriendfinder.com and “The World’s Largest Sex and Swinger Personal Site.”
Much of the evidence that the defense used to try to damage Claire’s character was found inadmissible.
Gretchen Means, the Deputy District Attorney in San Diego's Sex Crimes Unit who prosecuted Claire's case, has witnessed the way in which rape victims end up on trial themselves.
“I would never report a rape,” says Means. “I could be left for dead, beaten to a pulp and I would never report it. It is so traumatizing to someone who has been sexually maligned as much as they are. When someone is raped, why do we care what their Facebook page says two months ago? You have to be a nun wearing a chastity belt to be treated with respect. You see that with no other type of crime. My prostitute victims are treated better.”
Dowson, who had no prior record, was charged with six counts of sexual assault.
Two days into the trial Dowson accepted a plea on one count of sodomy of an intoxicated person.
He was sentenced to three years in prison but served just 19 and a half months. Given the sentencing laws, Means says, it was likely he would get more time if he had been found guilty on multiple counts.
Dowson is registered as a sex offender and was discharged from the Marine Corps with an other than honorable discharge in 2006. In the summer of 2007, Claire sued Dowson for damages and he settled for $13,000.
According to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, where he was last registered in 2010, he is now living in Scottsdale, Arizona.
In an attempt to deal with the mounting problem, the military created the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO) in 2005.
Agent Paton remembers that part of the new protocol was an initiative that allowed victims to report sexual assault, submit to a SART exam, and have the evidence stored anonymously.
“It was almost laughable, like who comes up with this stuff, an anonymous rape kit? How do you figure that that’s the problem? It just was mind blowing,” said Paton.
SAPRO’s 2011 report on military sexual assault found that "67 percent of women are 'uncomfortable' with reporting, 54 percent 'fear reprisal,' and 46 percent of both men and women in the military believe that sexual assault was 'not important enough' to report at all."
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta estimated that the actual number of attacks by service members on other service members was more than six times the reported figure in FY2010. Fewer than 17 percent of assault cases were prosecuted.
Paton thinks the military judicial system is the primary reason for the poor handling of sexual assault cases. Military lawyers are moved around so often that they might only see two or three rape cases before they’re promoted to the equivalent of a judge, and are just not competent enough.
“There wasn’t an overwhelming interest in prosecuting the cases, and they weren’t equipped when they were interested,” said Paton.
After a rare meeting with lawmakers on Capitol Hill in mid-April, Panetta announced that the military would take measures to ensure that sexual assault cases are pushed higher up the chain of command. He also said they would try to establish a Special Victims Unit. But without congressional support, it’ll be hard to effect change.
"It's not just the military culture,” Claire said at the Women in the World Summit in March, “but the larger culture that needs to change the way we look at victims.”
"I would like to see the Department of Defense and as a whole, the American public, acknowledge that women play a critical role in our foreign policy and military operations," Claire said. "We need to institutionalize that women need to be recognized as being critical and equal players in this arena."
She’s now working to make that a reality.
In the spring of 2006 Claire was deployed to Camp Fallujah in Iraq. The women lived in separate trailers from the men with Ugandan security guards stationed in between. The guards would often peek into the showers and harass the women. One night a man came up behind Claire when she was going to the bathroom and whispered into her ear, “I need you.”
Claire went to a senior official to complain that they desperately needed lights outside the bathroom trailer and his solution was to hand her a light bulb.
The PTSD and physical trauma that resulted from her attack were so bad that she returned home early for treatment. She received a medical discharge from the Marines on the same day that her contract ended in February of 2007.
That summer she married Josh and they traveled to Southeast Asia, Australia and Africa for almost two years.
In 2009, Claire was hired by the Army to become part of a small team of women that started the Female Engagement Team (FET) in Southern Afghanistan.
Because of her knowledge of the counterinsurgency Claire acted as a research manager and cultural advisor to a brigade.
Her role in Afghanistan was to engage with the female population—as part of hearts and minds philosophy—for a country that has been invaded for over a decade. Given the nature of counterinsurgency warfare, the U.S. military is in contact with civilians in war zones more than ever before.
After spending a year working with FET teams in Afghanistan, Claire was asked by a team of General Petraeus’ advisors to come to Kabul and help draft recommendations and policy on FETs. She then served as the principal advisor to General Petraeus on FETs and helped his staff draft an order for all forces in Afghanistan to train and employ FETs.
In Afghanistan, Claire was finally able to have the kind of military experience she had hoped for when she initially joined the Marines. She used her intelligence training to play a major role in advancing the position of women service members.
“It was redemptive,” Claire says.
Claire is currently a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in Washington D.C. where she interviews men in the Special Operations forces about their experiences employing women and the role of women in the military.
An excerpt of Claire’s fellowship proposal to CFR illustrates just how integral women are to the success of military conflict in places like Iraq and Afghanistan:
In 2009, a lone infantry platoon began conducting its counterinsurgency efforts in a remote capillary valley in the mountains of far Eastern Afghanistan. The platoon initiated their campaign by the book, spending months in an effort to learn the local tribe's politics and its sympathy to the insurgents. Yet None of their engagements succeeded in providing adequate understanding of the tribal dynamics to allow the platoon to combat the insurgency at its roots.
Not until the platoon began taking a female soldier and female interpreter on daily patrols did they finally learn the fundamental and otherwise un-discoverable fact that was to be key to their later operations. During an engagement with a woman of the village, the female soldier learned that for any man of the village to hold a position of prominence in the community, he had to marry a woman from Bajour, a district on the Pakistan side of the border and a stronghold of insurgent forces since 2001. Every military element that had preceded this platoon since the invasion had failed in their counterinsurgency mission because they never knew about the tribe’s connection to Bajour. This critical information, the key to a successful campaign, was learned in the course of an ordinary engagement with an unremarkable woman of the village. Once that information was acquired, the platoon and its parent unit were able to craft a far more effective strategy to separate the population from the insurgency.
A lift of a 1994 ban that prevented women from participating in ground combat has opened up 14,000 new roles for female members of the military.
Women currently make up 14.6 percent of total members in all branches of active-duty members but the Marines lag behind with only 6.8 percent of the service being women.
What’s more, the Marine Corps is still notorious for its culture as an old boys’ club full of aggression, heavy drinking and misogyny—it’s not uncharacteristic that a female Marine would fail to receive the support of her command, which is exactly what happened to Claire.
Her immediate reaction to the rape was, “I’m not going to be a victim. I’m not going to let this stop me.”
She returned to work within a week, only to find that her Commander had told the entire unit about the rape.
Completely humiliated, Claire put in for vacation time and sought out counseling from a rape support group in San Diego. She also requested that Dowson be transferred off of Miramar.
One day, Claire spotted Dowson going into the medical center—absolutely terrified, she urinated on herself. He still hadn’t been transferred so Claire's family lawyer called her commander and requested that she be moved to another base. The lawyer mentioned that he did pro bono work for the Commandant of the Marines and could solicit his help if needed.
Claire immediately received a call from her commander. “You’re bringing in the big guns now,” Claire remembers him saying, annoyed at her. The next day she was transferred to the Intelligence Section at the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Pendleton.
Dowson was an F-18 weapons systems officer, important enough that moving him would have been airing the Marines' “dirty laundry.” He also had a friend in the Judge Advocate General (JAG) office and Claire felt it was pretty clear that he was being protected.
At Camp Pendleton, no one knew about her assault and Claire was glad to return to work.
As an intelligence officer, it was part of her daily job to review classified information. A few days after Dowson was arrested Claire received an email from the 3rd MAW, her old command at Miramar, to inform her that her security clearance was revoked. Claire called the national agency in charge of authorizing clearances and was told there was a problem with paperwork regarding her father’s naturalization certificate—something Claire had taken care of months ago.
The entire time Claire says she was never contacted by a Judge Advocate General (JAG) about her rights or updates on her case though she continued to request information. She was told it would be a conflict of interest for them to speak to her. The only time a JAG contacted her was in 2006, for Dowson’s discharge hearing.
“Nobody had ever listened to me in the Marine Corps about what had happened. You had better believe I’m going to come down here and have my story heard,” says Claire.
Claire said the way that the military dealt with her was far more traumatizing than the actual assault.
But somehow she persevered and maintained her belief in military service.
Gretchen Means has seen a lot of rape victims, but Claire stands out among them:
“I’ve known Claire for a long time, I went to her wedding, I’ve seen her inside and outside this crime. I was always really super impressed with how engaged she was in getting through it. It wasn’t happening to her, she was happening with it. She was more in it than many other victims—many detach for sheer survival and end up getting more victimized.
“She did something that very few victims do; she got counseling and she got better in a way a lot of victims don’t.”
“Look what she’s done with her life. This took away her dignity and love of her country for a little bit, but look what she’s done; amazing stuff.”
Claire now has an nine-month-old daughter named Genevieve.
“I cant imagine telling my daughter that I didn’t want her to serve because it’s something that I still believe in so deeply. The other piece of military service, the flip side is that it gives identity and purpose to kids who literally would be completely through the cracks, and that’s just at the low end of the spectrum,” says Claire.
“Immediately after college, to have worked towards a purpose larger than myself, was so critical in helping me understand what I wanted to do and what values really did matter to me.”
Claire has now become completely disillusioned with the government that she once held in such high-esteem and aspired to become a part of. She places more blame for the issue of sexual assault on Congress and society at large rather than the actual military as an entity.
“Congress is still convinced that America does not want to see women in combat. Also, it’s politically toxic to start talking about women’s issues,” she says.
It has enraged Claire that the Trayvon Martin shooting has captivated public interest when hundreds of thousands of women in the military have been raped, something that’s rarely on the front page of a newspaper.
“Why don’t people give a shit? I don’t understand.”
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