By Ian Simpson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Eight current and former female members of the U.S. military allege in a lawsuit they were raped, assaulted or sexually harassed while in the military and were retaliated against when they complained.
The suit filed on Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Washington is the latest to allege widespread sexual violence in the world's most powerful military. It comes less than two months after Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced new steps to curb thousands of sexual assaults a year.
The lawsuit accuses military leaders of having a "high tolerance for sexual predators in their ranks" and failing to take steps to deal with the problem despite avowals to do so.
The eight women include a Marine on active duty and seven veterans of the Marine Corps and Navy. Seven allege a fellow service member raped or tried to sexually assault them, and an eighth said she was harassed while deployed in Iraq.
Defendants include Panetta and former and current Defense and Navy secretaries and Marine Corps commandants.
"No one should have to submit to being raped to be able to serve," Susan Burke, the women's attorney, said on the margins of a news conference.
Cynthia Smith, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said in a statement it would be inappropriate to comment on pending litigation but that sexual assault had no place in the Defense Department.
Under a policy announced in December, service members who report a sexual assault can quickly transfer from their unit or base, she said.
The Defense Department also has increased funding for investigators and judges to get training in sexual assault cases and is putting together a database to track cases, Smith said.
OFFICER ACCUSED OF RAPE
One of the women, Ariana Klay, alleged she was raped by a senior Marine Corps officer and his civilian friend in August 2010 at her residence near the Marine barracks in Washington.
Harassment and retaliation from her superiors after reporting the rape led her to attempt suicide, the suit said. One of the accused rapists was court-martialed and convicted of adultery and indecent language.
Klay, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and an Iraq veteran, had complained of harassment and abuse before the attack. She had requested a transfer to Afghanistan to escape it but was turned down, the suit said.
"The complicit actions of my superiors was more traumatic than the actual event," said Klay, who has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
In announcing steps to curb sexual assaults in January, Panetta said 3,191 such attacks were reported in the military in 2011. Since most attacks are not reported, the true figure might be close to 19,000, he said.
In December a federal judge in Virginia dismissed a class-action suit filed by 28 current and former service members for sexual assaults they said took place while they were in uniform.
The judge said previous cases and Supreme Court decisions have found against judicial involvement in military cases.
Burke, also an attorney in that case, has appealed the decision.
The new case could go to trial in about 18 months if it survives a likely request for dismissal by the Pentagon, she said.
(Reporting By Ian Simpson; Editing by Daniel Trotta)