September 5, 2013 | Violence Against Women, War and Peace

“It’s time for the rape apologists to move aside.”

5 lessons from the woman who's helping stop sex assaults in the military.


Panayiota Bertzikis was proudly serving her country in 2005 when she was brutally raped by a fellow Coast Guard member. Although she complained to her superiors, the Coast Guard never conducted a serious investigation, says Bertzikis. That daunting experience led her to found the Military Rape Crisis Center in 2006. For years the group was one of the few voices advocating for military rape survivors as well as a source of support and counseling. Here, Bertzikis, now a civilian, shares what she’s learned along the way:

1. What gave you the courage to speak out about your own rape?

"When my own Coast Guard victim advocate jumped on the victim-blaming bandwagon and my career was threatened, I lost all hesitation and became very vocal. The more severe the retaliation for reporting a rape became, the more I knew I had to speak out—not necessarily for me but to change military policy and protect my fellow shipmates."

2. Greatest triumph so far?

"The much-needed attention that rape in the military has been receiving lately. There was actually a time right after my rape when I thought that what had happened to me was an isolated incident. The public outrage has brought new legislation, policies and funding to help end this epidemic."

3. Biggest goal right now?

"Getting legislation that would take sexual assault out of the chain of command. We've worked with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) on the Military Justice Improvement Act and Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) on the Sexual Assault Training Oversight and Prevention Act. Most, if not all, survivors we've worked with say they do not trust in the current military judicial system."

4. What makes you optimistic?

"There are certainly people within the military who are as frustrated with the military's response to sexual assault as we all are. It is now time for the top brass and all the rape apologists, naysayers and those who do not have survivors' best interest in mind to move aside and let us start making real progress."

5. Who inspires you?

"All my clients. Each day I hear the most appalling cases of sexual abuse and am always in awe of the survivors' resilience and love for the service and country."