Lt. Col. Michele Papakie was standing in an emergency room in Afghanistan in 2010 with a female soldier who had been sexually assaulted and clearly traumatized when a male colonel walked into the room.
"[He] says, 'What's going on here? I have a war to win. Let's make this quick,' " Col. Papakie said. "I was floored."
Col. Papakie, 44, of Brush Valley, Indiana County, joined the military 27 years ago, right out of high school, because it was a family tradition inherited from her father and grandfather.
She works as the inspector general for the 171st Air Refueling Wing of the Pennsylvania Air National Guard and as a full-time communications professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. But she also spent six months in Afghanistan in 2010 working as a sexual assault prevention and resource (SAPR) officer for the Army.
In those six months, Col. Papakie said, she worked with 25 cases of sexual assault.
"[Afghanistan] was life-changing," she said. "I used to just say it was hot and dusty because I didn't think anybody could relate to what I was talking about anyway. It was challenging. It was exciting, but it was also depressing because my job there, I was just exposed to a lot of really ugly things."
The Department of Defense recently reported that an estimated 26,000 troops experienced "unwanted sexual contact" in 2012, an increase of 37 percent from 2011. As a SAPR officer, Col. Papakie was a victim's advocate for soldiers -- male and female -- who reported a sexual assault. She would hear their stories and help them find support, often drawing on her own experience of sexual assault 10 years ago to help them feel safe.
"I would go on and on about how much courage they had [in reporting the assault] because I knew how hard it was to do that. ... There was a lot of fear, a lot of tears, a lot of honesty," she said.
The increasing number of victims has prompted action in Congress, with the House passing on June 14 the Defense Authorization Act for 2014 that would include new provisions about sexual assault in the military. The legislation would strip commanders of the authority to dismiss the finding of a court martial and require any service member convicted of sexual crimes to be dismissed or dishonorably discharged.
Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, also works in the U.S. Navy Reserve Medical Service Corps as a psychologist. He said his military service informed him as he voted in support of the bill.
"I certainly am aware of some of the problems that occur from other sailors I have dealt with and have come to me with concerns," Mr. Murphy said. "Many times in the past climates they have felt if they brought their concerns to a commander they would be ignored."
Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, voted against the defense bill but said he supported its amendments on sexual assault. The bill drew fire from the Obama administration and other Democrats for high levels of spending and other issues, and President Barack Obama has threatened to veto the bill if it arrives in his office in its current form.
The bill now moves to the Senate, where a defense subcommittee is expected to produce a version.
"Clearly the people in charge of the various branches of the service, whatever they've been doing to address this issue, they need to completely rethink that," Mr. Doyle said.
Many of the generals Col. Papakie met while in Afghanistan wanted to address the problem seriously, she said, and her six-month snapshot of active duty gave her faith in the advocacy and training the military is doing to prevent sexual assaults.
"I think we're finally turning a corner where we place the blame where it belongs, on the perpetrator," she said.
But not everyone in the military is around that corner yet, she said. The first time Col. Papakie sat down with a command sergeant major in Afghanistan, she asked him to describe the culture of sexual assault in the area.
"He said, 'If these women would wear [training] uniforms that fit ... then this wouldn't happen,' " Col. Papakie said. "I was dumbfounded that somebody in senior leadership thought that way. I called him out and said, 'What? I don't care what a woman wears. It doesn't give anybody permission to put their hands on her.'"
Col. Papakie's 23-year-old son Derek Papakie has continued the family military tradition, joining her in the 171st as a medic. Even after her time as a SAPR officer, she said the military is still a career she supports.
"[For parents,] I think their son or daughter is safer in the military than they are at a college campus," she said. "The same things happen on a college campus, and students are much more naive than we are in the military. We learn about being good wing men and watching out for that, we go through bystander training. ... I don't know that we teach our college freshmen that."
Like Col. Papakie, Petty Officer 1st Class Kelly Barncord, 28, is a SAPR in the Navy. She's also a local recruiter and a scholarship coordinator for future sailors.
In the six months that she has been living in Irwin and stationed in the Pittsburgh command, Petty Officer Barncord said she has not had a single report of sexual assault from this area. But her experience in SAPR training and her place in the military as a woman prepare her to answer questions about sexual assault on the recruiting end.
"I haven't had any applicant or future sailor ask us about [sexual assault] at all," she said. "Usually those kinds of questions come from the parents ... especially when it's a father with his daughter joining."
When she does hear those questions, she explains the regular training and policies the Navy has in place to the family.
"You can't say it doesn't happen, because it does," she said, but "by the time we're done, we're usually all on the same page, very comfortable."
While Col. Papakie also felt confident in her work spreading awareness on sexual assault prevention and reporting among the troops in Afghanistan, she said changes like those being discussed now in Congress are still needed.
"I think when someone has committed a sexual assault in the military, they need to be discharged," Col. Papakie said. "I think too often someone is found guilty of sexual assault and it's like, 'Well, he has such a great track record of being a leader, let's forgive him this time.'
"It's the perception among women in the military that despite all our best efforts, it's still a good old boys' club," she said.
Megan Doyle: email@example.com or 412-263-1953.