(CBS News) NEW YORK – Jennifer Norris has always described herself as a good soldier, a hard worker, and someone who stayed out of trouble.
At 24, the Bethel, Maine, native was looking for a bit more structure in her life while aiming for a graduate degree, so she went to her local military recruiting office and enlisted in the Air Force.
Her dream of serving her country was marred by countless incidents of sexual harassment, three attempted sexual assaults, and one rape.
The most violent attack occurred just weeks after Norris enlisted, when her recruiting officer invited her to what she believed was a party for fellow recruits at his home.
“I was excited to go and meet other new recruits,” Norris said in an interview. “And I showed up at his house, and he proceeded to immediately start pressuring me to want to drink.”
Because she had driven, Norris did not consume any alcohol, but believes he put something in a glass that made her pass out.
“When I woke up, the whole house was dark. Nobody was there, and he picked me up, my basically powerless, lifeless body, and carried me into a bedroom, and he raped me,” Norris said.
She did not file a formal complaint.
“Because I hadn’t even started my career yet. I wasn’t about to go in and say the recruiter just raped me,” Norris said.
Norris went on to become a Technical Sergeant handling satellite communications. But she says she was subjected to repeated sexual advances by another superior officer and was afraid to report it.
“It’s the retaliation,” Norris said. “I was scared to tell the commander, who it seemed like he was best friends with this man.”
Norris points out, once you’ve committed to the military, you can’t just walk away.
“We can’t quit,” she said. “We are basically stuck in the situation unless someone in that chain of command helps us get out of it.”
Former Marine Anu Bhagwati is the executive director of the Service Women’s Action Network, which advocates for civil rights of the 15 percent of U.S. military personnel who are women.
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“There’s very few deterrents within the military to predators, to commanders who are negligent. In the civilian world, you have more access to redress as a victim,” Bhagwati said. “In the civilian world, you can use the civil court system to sue your employer for damages. That is the biggest deterrent to discrimination and harassment in the workplace in the United States of America. That is not available to U.S. service members, and it’s a crying shame. “
According to the Air Force’s own figures, there were more than 790 cases of sexual assault and harassment by service members reported last year, up from 614 the year before.
In 2011, there were also 883 reports of sexual assault and harassment in the Navy and Marines and 1,695 cases in the Army.
Most cases involved one service member allegedly attacking another, usually a woman.
Despite more than 3,000 reports of sexual misconduct for the third year in a row, only one in four attacks is reported. The Defense Department estimates the actual number of incidents is around 19,000 a year.
Norris told her story to the House Armed Services Committee last Wednesday, calling the “thousands and thousands of male and female survivors” victims of “the military’s sexual assault epidemic.”
Forty percent of female victims identify a perpetrator was of higher rank, and 23 percent say it was someone in their chain of command, Norris told the committee.
At that hearing, General Mark Welsh, the Air Force Chief of Staff, told members of Congress: “The Air Force goal for sexual assault is not to lower the number. The goal is zero.”
Welsh announced that he was designating 60 Air Force attorneys to handle these complaints and was stationing one victims’ advocate at every base.
In a written statement to CBS News, the Air Force added: “Sexual assault is a crime and it violates our core values. Every allegation will be thoroughly investigated and commanders will consider the full range of disciplinary and administrative measures to include courts-martial while protecting the Constitutional rights of the accused.”
In 2004, the Pentagon established Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office to combat sexual assault in the military, but the number of annual incidents keeps climbing.
“Congress continues to hold hearings, and nothing changes,” said California Congresswoman Jackie Speier, a member of the House Armed Services Committee.
Speier has proposed legislation to take sexual assault investigations out of the military chain of command and have cases reviewed by independent panels comprised of civilians and military experts.
Speier said, “The victims often times are treated like they are pariahs, and they are ostracized, they are marginalized and over the course of very few months, often times they are diagnosed with what’s called a personality disorder and involuntarily discharged from the military.”
That’s what happened to Jennifer Norris, and after her 14 year Air Force career ended sooner than planned, she considered suicide.
“We had a gun,” Norris said of her and her husband, Lee. “I wanted to use it, but my husband stopped me.”
Norris’ attackers were never punished, and all were eventually honorably discharged with full benefits, she said.
Norris now works with Protect Our Defenders on behalf of service members victimized by sexual assault and harassment, and for a military rape crisis center.
She doesn’t have children, but does not believe she would encourage a daughter to pursue a military career.
“Not in this lifetime,” Norris said. “My daughter would not join the military, knowing what I know.”