The Tragic Case of Maria Lauterbach

The Tragic Case of Maria Lauterbach

Is This How We Treat Our Female Soldiers?

By John Lasker

Painfully, this is a question Mary Lauterbach of Vandalia has been asking since her daughter, US Marine Lance Corporal Maria Lauterbach, was brutally murdered in December of 2007 by a fellow Marine she had accused of raping her.

Maria’s story, no doubt, is well-known in the Dayton area. Especially after the Inspector General, in a report released last October, blasted the military for mishandling Maria’s rape case.

Besides the Lauterbachs, however, there are several other Ohio families whose military daughters died from “non-combat” circumstances and, like what happened to Maria, their tragedy was amplified when the military tried to tarnish the victim’s reputation and even blame the victim for their own death.

“It’s like a broken record, the same thing keeps happening over and over again,” said Mary Lauterbach about the growing number of female soldiers who suffer what the military calls a “non-combat” related death, which is usually followed by a “completely mishandled investigation,” she adds.

Lauterbach remembers how she told her daughter, “You owe it to your sister Marines to report what happened [the rape].” Now she is dedicated to keeping Maria’s legacy alive, and also the legacies of other female soldiers from Ohio, such as US Marine Stacy Dryden of Canton and US Marine Carrie Leigh Goodwin of Alliance.

Like Maria Lauterbach, Goodwin was sexually assaulted by another soldier, and when she tried to seek justice she was intimidated, ostracized and ignored by her commanding officers. Distraught and mentally besieged by military-prescribed anti-depressants, Goodwin drank herself to death.

Dryden was stationed in Afghanistan when the military says she died after “voluntarily” wrestling with a male sailor. Two years later, the military told Dryden’s persistent father, Scott Dryden, a different story -that his daughter — nicknamed the “Fiery Angel” — knocked the male sailor down first after he had insulted a group of Marines Dryden was with. The sailor responded by body-slamming her. She retreated to her barracks, but was found dead a day later from a head contusion. The sailor was never court-martialed, and the military refuses to say if he was punished at all.

Both Dryden and Goodwin weren’t perfect, because nobody is, and certainly the Pentagon can attest to this. Mary Lauterbach readily admits her daughter had problems too, as she craved attention and respect, especially under stress (a major issue with many young soldiers). But just because a soldier’s character isn’t pristine doesn’t mean you sweep their brutal murder under a rug in total disregard for the person and their grieving family, says Lauterbach.

“They circle the wagons,” she says about how the military handled Maria’s murder and other female soldier deaths. “They are trying to protect their reputation.” And the military is protecting its reputation while struggling to recruit upstanding soldiers for an all-volunteer military.

These days, some of the best and brightest recruits – and those who are least likely to go on a civilian-killing rampage – are women. It’s no surprise that women are joining the military as never before, a trend that accelerated during this past decade of wars, which was also a decade of no jobs.

In 1970, women accounted for 1.4 percent of all military personnel. Today, that number is nearly 15 percent, representing roughly 200,000 women.

Since 9/11, women have garnered two Silver Stars, the military’s third-highest decoration for extraordinary heroism while engaged in combat with the enemy, while one-hundred fifty US military women have died in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Indeed, the military increasingly relies on female soldiers, yet the Pentagon has been accused of fostering a culture of abuse as women in the ranks seek greater acceptance and respect.

Earlier this month, victims of “military sexual trauma” or MST filed another lawsuit against the military alleging brutal crimes. One victim in the suit charged she was gang-raped in 2010 at the US Marine Barracks in Washington D.C. The complaint also speaks to the culture of retaliation, as victims were referred to on facebook as “cry babies.”

This is why Lauterbach continues to re-tell the story of her daughter – to raise awareness about the plight of the female soldier and the issues they face, and she’s now in demand as a speaker at conferences supporting soldiers and veterans.

In a way, Lauterbach is turning her imperfect daughter into a pioneer. Because Lauterbach and her daughter’s legacy, and the legacies of Dryden and Goodwin, along with tens-of-thousands of female soldiers, stand at a crossroads with the US military as it decides whether it will continue to tolerate sexual discrimination and even rape within its ranks.

Here are the Defense Department’s (DOD) own numbers: Sexual assaults in the military are up 97 percent since 2006. The military estimates that 19,000 incidents of sexual assault occurred within the armed services in 2010, but that only 13.5 percent of those were reported, because victims in some cases either feared retaliation from commanding officers or believed nothing would come of a report.

The DOD’s numbers also reveal that the military is soft when prosecuting what is now being called military sexual trauma, or MST. In 2007, only 600 out of 2,212 sexual assault cases reported and investigated to some degree resulted in suspects facing any sort of accountability. And out of those 600 cases, only 181 were recommended for court-martial, the equivalent of a criminal trial. This means that in those sexual assaults reported and investigated to some degree, only 8 percent of suspects faced potential prosecution.

“The military is your family,” says Susan Avila-Smith, director of the Seattle-based Veteran Women Organizing Women (VETWOW), and good friends with the Lauterbachs. “When you go into battle we’re like brothers and sisters. We would die for each other. But these same people will come into your room and rape you, and grope you, and think nothing of it. It’s like incest, it’s as if your brother sexually assaulted you. Then they act like it never happened. They flat out deny it and if the female were to pursue [charges], the military family says you should keep quiet, you shouldn’t pursue this, it was probably your fault anyway.”

Full Disclosure

To fully understand just how uncaring were Maria Lauterbach’s commanding officers and the military investigators at Camp Lejeune assigned to handle her daughter’s rape case, Mary Lauterbach says to read the entire Inspector General’s (IG) report regarding Maria’s rape complaint.

The report is a microcosm of how the military has treated female soldiers who report sexual assaults, says Lauterbach. It’s a report that she feels has been underreported by both national and local media.

Hollywood portrays the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) as a group of well-chiseled, stealth investigators who never let a perp get away. But the Lauterbachs and other families who had NCIS agents investigate their military child’s death will tell you the NCIS investigators they dealt with are no LL Cool J’s, as they are either incompetent or sold-out to the military’s unwritten rule of keeping all in-house tragedies off the public’s radar.

For example, the NCIS agent who was assigned to handle Maria’s rape case broke numerous protocols and lacked any passion to help Maria. “She could not explain why some witness interviews took months and others [were] never conducted,” states the IG report.

As for the accused, then-US Marine Lance Corporal Cesar Lauren, the NCIS investigator whose name was redacted from the IG report and remains a mystery to the Lauterbachs, “never tested the validity of the suspect’s alibi.”

The NCIS agent also appears to have attempted to re-victimize Maria. According to the IG report, during their second interview, the NCIS agent challenged Maria on an incident that occurred a year prior when she was caught taking a small amount of money from a petty cash fund. What’s more, the IG believes during this interview the rape was never even brought up.

Not long after Maria made the rape allegation, she was punched in the face in the parking lot of her barracks by an unknown assailant. Maria insisted the assault was in retaliation for the rape accusation. Several witnesses reported Lauterbach had bruises on her face, but again, the NCIS agent, even though told of the incident, never reported it and never acted on it.

And after the NCIS agent completed just a handful of interviews, “Lauterbach’s rape complaint remained idle for almost seven months,” states the IG report.

Perhaps the greatest insult to Maria occurred long after she was laid to rest. IG investigators in 2011 tried to find out if the NCIS agent who essentially turned a cold shoulder to Maria and her rape charge was ever punished. “We were unable to verify if local NCIS leaders took any action,” stated the IG report.

The Dayton City Paper also asked NCIS whether the agent was punished.

“We’re unable to comment on that since it’s a personnel issue,” said Ed Buice, an NCIS spokesperson.

Incredibly, NCIS wasn’t the only culpable military office in Maria’s murder.

The Department of Defense says it takes the issue of rape in the ranks seriously, and points to the establishment of its Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO), which leads the DOD’s effort to prevent sexual assault, as a prime example of its diligence.

SAPRO has established a 24-hour global hotline, trained hundreds of Sexual Assault Response Coordinators or SARCs, and also initiated a public relations blitz across the armed forces. But the IG report suggests the millions of dollars spent to create SAPRO amounted to nothing after Maria made her allegation of rape. For instance, at Camp Lejeune, SAPRO protocols, such as monthly meetings to discuss rape cases such as Maria’s, weren’t in place even though it had been two years since SAPRO was up and running.

A Sexual Assault Response Coordinator or SARC was assigned to assist Maria after she filed her rape charge, but like the NCIS agent, they seemed not to care that a female soldier’s tragic fate was coming to a head.

The SARC did not enter Maria’s rape charge into a database that may have alerted others to her impending murder. And worse, Camp Lejeune has an Installation SARC overseeing the entire base, but he wasn’t alerted to Maria’s rape until after she was murdered.

Maria the Person

Anne Lauterbach is Maria’s little sister, and they were adopted together as infants. She knows her sister best, and in the aftermath of her death she tried in earnest to tell both local and national media who Maria was as a person, but for some reason the reporters she talked to kept writing about how the military wanted her to be portrayed.

“We spoke to People Magazine for an hour and a half, and we did nothing but talk about what Maria was like as a person,” says Anne, “but when the article came out, again, it was all about the trial and her death and negative things about Maria.”

Anne wants everyone who has followed Maria’s story to know that first and foremost, her sister’s heart was in a good place. At times, she was outgoing, other times she was shy. But for the most part, she was like any teenager – she was a borderline misfit who loved sports, music and friendships.

At Butler High School in Vandalia, she was a natural leader on the sports field and was a stand-out at softball, basketball and soccer. A fierce competitor, Maria helped the Butler softball team win its first district championship her senior year. She also found time to coach a pee-wee soccer team.

Maria’s tastes were diverse, like many from her generation. She was “obsessed with Shania Twain” for a time, says Anne, but she also embraced hip-hop and rap. Fittingly, one of her favorite television shows was Xena: Warrior Princess.

Anne also wants to make it clear that Maria’s decision to join the US military’s most feared and respected branch wasn’t some knee-jerk decision. In her first year of high school, Maria began pinning up military posters in her room.

Soon enough, says her sister, Maria was determined to take the greatest challenge and believed the Marines was the branch that offered this.

But there was another reason she enlisted.

“She wanted to make a difference. She wanted to make bad things good, and that’s was why she joined,” says Anne Lauterbach. “She wanted to go overseas [to Iraq or Afghanistan]. She told that to just about everybody she spoke to.”

Contact DCP freelance writer John Laskar at JohnLaskar@DaytonCityPaper.com

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