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Soldiers who say Army doctor sexually abused them plan to sue

The soldiers allege the doctor took them into a room alone, ordered them to strip naked and examined them without gloves.
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A group of soldiers at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., are preparing a lawsuit against the Army for alleged sexual abuse they suffered from an Army doctor. Photo by Capt. Brian Harris.

A group of soldiers is preparing a lawsuit that will ask the Army to pay $5 million per person in damages over sexual abuse they say they suffered at the hands of an Army doctor at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington.

In August, the Army preferred court-martial charges against Maj. Michael Stockin, an anesthesiologist at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, for abusive sexual contact, indecent viewing and other related offenses. In statements obtained by Task & Purpose, soliders claim Stockin forced them to be naked for routine exams and groped their genitals.

The doctor’s defense attorney Robert Capovilla called the criminal case against Stockin a “witch hunt” in a statement to Task & Purpose. Capovilla is defending the doctor in the criminal case, which is separate from the civil lawsuit. Capovilla said that several of the Army’s witnesses in the criminal case refused to testify in a preliminary hearing against the doctor, and that the Army has refused to produce law enforcement officers behind the investigation as witnesses.

The Army has not released the criminal charging sheet against Stockin, but Task & Purpose obtained Federal Tort Claims Act complaints filed as part of the civil suit. In one, a soldier described a January 2022 visit with Stockin, where Stockin insisted on conducting a sensory exam. In previous similar tests, the soldier said, a doctor would touch the soldier’s arms to gauge whether the soldier could feel the contact. In contrast, the soldier said Dr. Stockin ordered him to “drop trou,” indicating he should remove his pants. The soldier did so, leaving on his boxer shorts, but Stockin insisted they be removed as well.

Then using bare hands, ran his hands up the soldier’s legs and manipulated his penis. 

“The examination felt wrong to me, and I felt violated,” the soldier wrote. “I felt so ashamed that I was reluctant to tell even my wife for several days.”

Most of the soldiers who visited Stockin were seeking help managing chronic pain and general service-related wear and tear injuries. The soldiers said Stockin allegedly took them into a room alone without offering a chaperone and ordered the soldiers to strip until they were naked and performed sensory exams, often without gloves.

During the exams, Stockin would allegedly spend “extra time on their penis and testicles,” said Christine Dunn, a lawyer with Sanford, Heisler and Sharp spearheading the civil lawsuit. Stockin also asked invasive questions such as quizzing soldiers on the size of their penis. 

After one of the soldiers left Stockin’s exam, Dunn said, he tried to lodge complaints via his chain of command, alerting his supervisors to the visit. ”Nothing was done and he went on to be abused two more times,” Dunn said.

The Army’s criminal case against Stockin is separate from the lawsuit Dunn is seeking to pursue. In that case, Stockin recently waived his right to an Article 32 hearing, a preliminary step in the military justice process similar to an arraignment wherein prosecutors present evidence that might be used in a full trial. The charges have now been returned to Stockin’s brigade commander for a recommendation on disposition, according to LTC Jennifer J. Bocanegra, spokesperson for the base’s I Corps.

“Major Stockin made the decision to waive his right to the Article 32 hearing after each alleged victim refused to testify about the facts of this case and answer the Defense team’s questions,” Stockin’s defense attorney, Robert Capovilla, said in a statement. “The Government initially refused to produce as witnesses the law enforcement agents who conducted this witch hunt against Major Stockin claiming that those witnesses were not relevant.”

Capovilla said he learned that the Army planned on presenting additional information regarding the investigation a day before or at the Article 32 hearing, which he called “undoubtedly a direct attempt at trial by ambush.” 

That commander will decide whether the case proceeds to a full court martial. According to reporting by CBS News, charges against Stokin could include up to 39 victims.

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Most of the victims seeking to sue the Army for monetary damages in civil court are also part of the criminal case, Dunn said.

All of the soldiers involved in the civil lawsuit are men, Dunn said.

“It’s harder for sexual assault survivors, for men, to come forward. It takes a lot more for them to speak up because they worry about the judgment and the shame,” Dunn told Task & Purpose. “For these men especially, they were all soldiers. This was an Army doctor who ranked higher than most of them. There’s just a whole different level of power dynamic there and shame that these men feel.”

Three of Dunn’s clients are still on active-duty while four are now out of the Army. They allege abuse by Dr. Stockin that took place between 2019 and April 2022. In their formal complaints, the troops describe anxiety, depression and PTSD resulting from the abuse.

“It’s such an egregious abuse of trust and the doctors are in such a position of power over a patient,” Dunn said. “A patient is in a really vulnerable situation when they see a doctor, especially if they’re in a lot of pain. It’s an opportunity to really take advantage of someone who’s in a vulnerable state.”

One soldier noted that after his first appointment, Stockin added him on Snapchat using his personal phone number and direct messaged him, asking for photos of the soldier’s back procedures.

The lawsuit faces legal hurdles. Service members cannot generally sue branches of the military for injuries or damage resulting from their duties or service, under a Supreme Court ruling widely referred to as the Feres doctrine. The court found that military members have a distinctive relationship with the military under which legal liability is often unclear, and that veterans have a broad system of benefits and rights through the Department of Veterans Affairs through which to seek remediation for harm suffered on duty.

“Our argument is that this was not an incident to their service that being sexually assaulted can’t possibly be part of your service as a soldier,” Dunn said. “It’s very different than someone maybe who suffers a combat related injury and tries to sue the government for negligence.”

Dunn is pursuing one of the few legal tools available to hold the government accountable. Through the Federal Tort Claims Act, private individuals can recover monetary damages against governmental entities, in this case the Army, for negligent or wrongful acts.

Before pursuing a civil lawsuit against the Army, Dunn said her clients first have to first go through an administrative process of filing a complaint. The Army has six months to investigate the claim – which can be denied or settled. Then the six-month clock starts ticking again in order to file a lawsuit. 

“It’s a necessary step on the road to potentially being able to file a lawsuit but for now, it’s just the administrative process,” Dunn said. 

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