Kimberly Wellnitz said she enlisted in the Marines and left a small town in Minnesota to protect and serve her country, but while she was in the service, she was sexually assaulted by her commander. Now, she’s going public with her painful story.
“I’ll never forget his room -- the smell, what I felt,” said Wellnitz.
Wellnitz is a veteran of the Iraq War, a former Marine and she speaks candidly of her demons: anxiety and depression.
“When I smell someone like him, or see someone who drives a truck like him, I immediately freeze and just go, 'I got to get away,’" Wellnitz said.
For Wellnitz, the most terrifying event of her service career happened in a place where she was supposed to feel safe.
"I'll never get that one piece that he stole away, that he stole from me,” Wellnitz said. “I'll never get it back. I know that."
Wellnitz said she was sexually assaulted while stationed at Camp Pendelton in California.
“Right to my face, he said, 'Do you feel like I raped you?’" Wellnitz recalled.
Her attacker was a fellow Marine and a supervisor who handcuffed her to a bed, Wellnitz said. Two other female Marines also accused the same man of attacking them, but base commanders charged Cpl. Ross Curtis with sexual misconduct instead of a more serious rape charge.
“I never felt like I got my justice," Wellnitz stated.
A military court martial found him guilty, and he was demoted a rank but never served any time. In fact, he was allowed to keep working in the same area as Wellnitz.
"When I was at my lowest low, I couldn't move. I couldn't think. I had nightmares, I couldn't sleep,” Wellnitz remembered.
After she got out of the Marines, Wellnitz moved to Mora, Minn., to restart her life. Then one day, she got a phone call from a police detective in southern California who was investigating Ross Curtis.
“My gut dropped,” Wellnitz said.
After Curtis left the Marines, he volunteered as a drill instructor at a youth camp where he met two girls -- ages 13 and 15 -- who eventually came forward and told police that Curtis molested them.
“He told me all this,” said Wellnitz of her conversation with the detective. “I’m like, ‘Oh my God.’”
Curtis was able to work near young girls because no one knew about his sex crime history in the military. In fact, there’s no requirement for the military to maintain a sex offender registry and hare it with either law enforcement officials or the general public.
The Los Angeles detective discovered Curtis’ record -- and was able to contact Wellnitz -- after interviewing Curtis’ ex-wife.
Though Wellnitz did testify at his trial in California, she said she wishes that her experience would have protected the two girls from harm.
“I wish I would have done something more,” Wellnitz said. “I wish I knew what I could have done that would've saved those two poor girls."
Curtis was convicted in that case and sentenced to 12 years and 8 months in prison -- a harsher punishment than the one he received for his attacks on Wellnitz and the other two female Marines. Still, a former Marine Corps captain is now trying to bring the military up to speed on sex crimes to try and prevent scenarios like this in the future.
“The military is decades behind the times when it comes to anything related to sexual assault or sexual harassment," sad Anu Bhagwati, who now leads the Service Women’s Action Network.
SWAN is trying to change military culture regarding sexual assault -- including the practice that allows commanders to decide if sex crimes are even prosecuted.
"If you could imagine in the corporate world, if an employer were to adjudicate a criminal complaint between two of his or her employees, it would be considered absurd -- but that's the case in the military," Bhagwati said.
In 2009, more than 3,200 sexual assaults were reported in the military, but it’s estimated that another 13,000 went unreported out of fear of retaliation.
"You don't want to be labeled as ‘that girl.’ Oh, that's the girl that turned in so and so because she said he raped her," Wellnitz said.
In the Minnesota National Guard, about 27 sexual assaults were reported last year, but the guard said it takes the reports very seriously and has set up programs to help victims.
"It's a tough topic that we are facing head on, and we do want our soldiers and airmen talking about this," said Lt. Col. Kevin Olson.
That’s why Wellnitz said she is going public with her story in the hopes that it will help bring change.
"I'm sick and tired of hearing about all these sexual assaults and rapes,” Wellnitz said. “Everything that's going on in the military, and nothing is being done."
The military said it is taking steps to encourage more victims to report assaults. They now have an option to do so anonymously while still receiving medical help and counseling, but that option means no investigation will be conducted.