Amid a jumble of letters, photos and military documents, Tina Clemans keeps a Ziploc bag containing her daughter’s blood-soaked hospital gown. It is a reminder of the savagery of one of two sexual assaults her daughter says she endured on a Texas military base last year.
Between April and July, Clemans said, her 21-year-old daughter, Myah Bilton-Smith, was raped twice at Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo, where she had been stationed for two months. But, Clemans said, instead of helping her daughter and finding the perpetrators, the Air Force tried to cover up the rapes by wrongly diagnosing Bilton-Smith with a mental illness and pushing her out of the service.
In an interview late last month, Clemans, who grew up in Cowlitz County and graduated from Kelso High School, said the Air Force also ignored a 2011 regulation intended to speed the transfer of sexual assault victims away from the bases where they were attacked.
As a result, Clemans moved from Vancouver to Texas last year to protect her daughter. What followed, she said, was a year-long struggle to keep Bilton-Smith sane and alive.
Clemans, 49, wrote to and spoke with an array of military officials, U.S. senators, attorneys and advocacy groups. She demanded her daughter’s military and medical records. She spent months battling the Air Force’s plans to discharge her daughter dishonorably, which would have denied her health and other benefits.
“My nickname at the base was Erin Brockovich,” Clemans said, referring to the dogged attorney’s assistant who unearthed a corporate environmental disaster and was famously portrayed by Julia Roberts in a movie of the same name.
Bilton-Smith’s experience was featured last month in a series by the San Antonio Express-News, which found that women in all military branches have been misdiagnosed with mental disorders and declared unfit for duty after reporting sexual assaults. Goodfellow base officials did not respond to an inquiry from The Daily News last week.
The Pentagon says it has adopted reforms intended to curb sexual assaults and help victims, but Clemans and other advocates have declared many of them inadequate. Bilton-Smith’s story, and the San Antonio Express-News series, have touched off a scramble in Washington, D.C., to address the problem of military rape. U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., announced that she met Friday with sexual assault victims in Seattle. Murray is cosponsoring a bill to require that a lawyer represent those who report sex abuse and that the military automatically refer sexual assault cases for general courts martial.
The Department of Defense estimates there were about 26,000 sexual assaults in the military between Oct. 1, 2011, and Sept. 30, 2012, yet fewer than 3,000 people reported sexual assaults.
“The intentions of some of these reforms may be good, but in practice they’re not working,” Nancy Parrish, the president of Protect Our Defenders, a victim advocacy group that helped Bilton-Smith, told the Express-News. “They’re not working because they’re not addressing the fundamental problem, which is the retaliation against the victims.”
Clemans said her daughter’s case shows why so few victims report attacks.
Bilton-Smith, who graduated from Skyview High School in Vancouver, joined the Air Force in 2011, partly because she wanted to become a radiologist and to pay for college, her mother said. Equally important, though, was that Bilton-Smith’s great-grandfather was a Marine, her grandfather was a member of the U.S. Special Forces, her uncle was a Navy pilot and her father was stationed in Italy with the Navy, working on nuclear submarines.
“She just wanted to follow along in the family footsteps of serving her country,” Clemans said. “That was taken away from her just because she was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
In December, Bilton-Smith was transferred to Joint Base Lewis McCord near Tacoma. In April, she received an honorable discharge with 50 percent of her benefits, which include some medical coverage and about $400 each month. Clemans said.
Clemans said her daughter wasn’t available to be interviewed for this story, but she gave her mother permission to speak on her behalf about the ordeal. Clemans said Bilton-Smith is spending time with friends and family and trying to heal.
Getting to this point, though, seemed impossible a year ago.
On the night of April 7, 2012, Bilton-Smith, who had just been admitted to technical school to become an intelligence analyst, called her father in Roseburg, Ore., said Clemans, who is divorced from Bilton-Smith’s dad. Bilton-Smith was hallucinating and wasn’t making a lot of sense. She told her father she had been raped. Clemans said her ex-husband stayed on the phone with Bilton-Smith until she spoke to an officer on duty.
Bilton-Smith was taken to a local hospital, but a rape was never reported and doctors never conducted tests to gather evidence of sexual assault, Clemans said. Rather, Bilton-Smith was locked up in the nearby River Crest mental hospital, where she was incorrectly diagnosed with bi-polar disorder and dosed with a litany of inappropriate medications, some of which caused seizures and temporary partial paralysis, Clemans said.
It was later determined that a man on the base gave Bilton-Smith a formaldehyde-laced cigarette — a common rape drug that causes hallucinations and blackouts — then attacked her.
Back in Vancouver, where she had been living, Clemans didn’t yet know that. Days went by with no one at the mental hospital telling her what was going on, she said. It was also days before Bilton-Smith, traumatized and drugged, mentioned the rape during a phone conversation with her mom from the mental hospital.
“My daughter’s first words were, ‘Mom, was I really raped? They’re telling me that I hallucinated it,’” Clemans said.
“I said, ‘Well, I think you’re going to know if you were raped, right honey?’ And she said, ‘Well, that’s what I told them.’ ”
Clemans flew to Texas. She said officials at the mental hospital told her she wouldn’t be able to see her daughter, at least not at first. “I said, ‘Well, I’m going to be camped out in your lobby.’”
Clemans described the mental hospital as “a prison.”
“They stuffed her in a room with someone who slashed her wrists in front of Myah,” Clemans said, adding that another roommate was shoving pencils under her own skin.
Bilton-Smith was inexplicably placed on suicide watch and forced to attend group therapy sessions “with men talking about violent ways to kill themselves and others,” Clemans said.
Eventually, Clemans said, she got to visit with her daughter in the hospital. “And she’s saying, ‘Mom, when can you get me out of here?’ Myah is telling me, ‘I don’t understand why I’m in here. And these people who did this to me get to go on with their lives.’ ”
Clemans said she gave up a media consulting job in Vancouver, moved to Texas and took a job with an Austin radio station. She began reaching out to base officials, who, she said, refused to provide “a humanitarian transfer” to another base for Bilton-Smith, despite a December 2011 regulation calling for such transfers in sexual assault cases.
Bilton-Smith was released from River Crest May 9 last year — about a month after she was admitted. Military officials allowed Clemans to stay with her daughter and care for her at Goodfellow for 10 days. Meanwhile, Bilton-Smith’s superiors returned her to duty on the base but blocked her from entering the intelligence analyst training program. Instead, she was given janitorial duties, Clemans said.
During this time, Bilton-Smith was suffering anxiety attacks and flashbacks of the assaults, Clemans said. “She’s sick, fighting diarrhea, vomiting, dizziness.”
In a May 16, 2012, email obtained by Clemans, a military official referred to Bilton-Smith derisively as “a basket case.”
Bilton-Smith was in and out of the hospital until July 25. Four days later, Clemans said, Bilton-Smith was raped again, this time by multiple men over the course of many hours. The attack started sometime after dark on July 28 as Bilton-Smith was returning from a smoking area. Clemans said that military records indicate her daughter was taken into a central headquarters building and raped in several rooms. The attack continued into the early hours of July 29.
Bilton-Smith was later found naked, unconscious and bleeding, Clemans said. Her skin was gray. Her lips were blue.
Following the attack, Clemans saved her daughter’s blood-soaked hospital gown and also took photos which, she said, show Bilton-Smith sustained a blow to the head and suffered bruises and bite marks on her body.
Clemans said her daughter was either unable to identify her attackers because of the blow to her head or she was too afraid to name them.
She said the head trauma may have left her daughter with permanent brain damage and that she may still require surgery. A CAT scan will reveal more, but the Department of Veteran’s Affairs has yet to approve the procedure, she said.
This time, Clemans said, doctors did conduct a rape examination, and the evidence was sent off to a lab in Colorado. The results: Bilton-Smith was raped, but no DNA was recovered that could identify her attackers. Clemans said she believes the military has closed its investigation into the attack.
Bilton-Smith, still assigned janitorial duties, had to clean the rooms where the rapes occurred. People on the base were harassing her about the rapes. Others were criticizing her for suggesting the base was unsafe, Clemans said.
Clemans, meanwhile, continued her campaign to get her daughter transferred off the base. She contacted advocacy groups such as the Military Rape Crisis Center and Protect our Defenders. She also reached out to U.S. Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.
During one phone conversation with advocate from the Military Rape Crisis Center, Clemans became desperate. “I said, ‘If we don’t get her off that base she’s going to be dead. ... They’re pumping her full of meds. She is not going to make it.’ She was so frail.”
In October, Collins sent a letter to the commander of the Air Force’s Air Education and Training Command, highlighting Bilton-Smith’s case and discussing “roadblock(s)” to quickly transferring sexual assault victims away from their attackers.
Despite the letter, nothing was done to transfer Bilton-Smith off the base, Clemans said.
It was only after the intervention of another Congresswoman, Niki Tsongas, D-Mass., who also has taken an interest in preventing military rape, that base officials transferred Bilton-Smith to Washington State in December. Clemans returned to Vancouver in April.
Clemans said she wants Congress to put an agency in charge of investigating sexual assaults — and take that responsibility out of the hands of military leaders, who, she says, are trying to hide the problem.
“Don’t tell me the system works,” she said. “Legislation is only as good as those who enforce it, and that’s not happening.”
Meanwhile, Clemans said she is still trying to discover the extent of the damage inflicted on her daughter, who can’t work because she still suffers panic attacks and other symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Yet, she said, her daughter’s pride and respect for military service appears unbroken. Clemans said she had recently stopped to fill her car with gas while taking Bilton-Smith to an appointment with the VA when her daughter spotted a homeless veteran. Bilton-Smith gave the man a cigarette and talked with him for a while. Then she disappeared into a nearby Denny’s and returned with a to-go box containing an omelette, hash browns and toast and gravy.
“There you go, sir,” Bilton-Smith said. “Thank you for your service.”