- Among the defendants are current and former Defense and Navy secretaries
- "They hated you for standing up for yourself," says plaintiff Elle Helmer
- Defense Secretary Panetta outlined new measures to combat such assaults in January
Eight current and former U.S. service members filed a lawsuit Tuesday alleging they were raped, sexually assaulted or harassed while serving in the military and were retaliated against once they reported the abuse.
Among the defendants named in the suit are current and former Defense and Navy secretaries and Marine Corps commandants.
"Although defendants testified before Congress and elsewhere that they have 'zero tolerance' for rape and sexual assault, their conduct and the facts demonstrate the opposite: They have a high tolerance for sexual predators in their ranks, and 'zero tolerance' for those who report rape, sexual assault and harassment," according to the lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court in Washington.
The suit outlines a pattern of abuse and portrays, in grim detail, the alleged experiences of the eight female service members -- two former Marine Corps officers, one active duty enlisted Marine, one former enlisted member of the Marine Corps and four former enlisted members of the Navy.
"At first it was easy to laugh it off," plaintiff Elle Helmer, one of the former officers, said about her superiors' advances.
"When you finally said, you know, I'm really not interested, I'd rather we be friends -- that's when you became the target. They hated you for standing up for yourself," she told HLN's Jane Velez-Mitchell on Tuesday night.
The lawsuit alleges Helmer was raped by her superior at his office in March 2006 after a required pub crawl.
She told reporters at the National Press Club in Washington earlier in the day that she hoped by going public other victims would be encouraged to speak out.
"It's the first time I've had a voice in six years, so pardon if it's a little wobbly," said Helmer.
She was joined by Ariana Klay, another former Marine Corps officer and plaintiff, who served in Iraq in 2008 and 2009.
In August 2010, Klay was "gang-raped" by a senior officer and his civilian friend at her Washington home, the suit contends. The officer allegedly threatened to kill Klay.
She reported the rapes and the officer was eventually convicted in a military court of adultery and indecent language, and given 45 days in military confinement, Klay said.
"Their stance was there were two that said it (sex) was consensual, despite the death threat. That's two against one. So by that logic, the more people you're gang-raped by the less your case is," she told Velez-Mitchell.
The Marine Corps responded to Klay and Helmer's allegations in a written statement Tuesday that said their respective cases had been properly investigated and handled.
"Federal law and judicial rulings require commanders in all services, including the Marine Corps, to balance needs of alleged victims with the constitutional rights of service members accused of crimes," it read.
According to the most recent Defense Department study, more than 19,000 incidents of unwanted sexual contact are estimated to have occurred in 2010, though less than 3,000 of those events were reported.
In 2010, less than 21% of reported cases went to trial. Of the 529 alleged perpetrators who were prosecuted, 53% were convicted, according to the 2011 Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, which is part of the Defense Department.
"As leaders of this department we are committed to doing everything we can to ensure the safety, dignity and well being of our people. One sexual assault is one too many," Defense Department spokeswoman Cynthia Smith said in response to the lawsuit.
As a result of the pending litigation, she was unable to comment directly on the allegations.
"Because sexual assault cases are some of the toughest cases to investigate and prosecute, the department has increased funding for investigators and judge advocates to receive specialized training," said Smith.
The lawsuit was filed less than two months after Defense Secretary Leon Panetta outlined new measures targeting sexual assaults against U.S military personnel.
In January, he promised increased funding to train military investigators and judge advocates about sexual assault cases, stressing the military has a "zero tolerance policy" for such crimes.
"Our men and women in uniform put their lives on the line every day to try to keep America safe," Panetta said then. "We have a moral duty to keep them safe from those who would attack their dignity and their honor."