By Melody Mercado, Des Moines Register
On a Saturday evening in October, U.S. Army veteran Camerina Gonzalez Lizzaraga went for a run. When she got home, she said goodnight to her family and went into her room to sleep.
Her family was spending the weekend together in Des Moines. It was the first time in a long time everyone had gathered since the beginning of the pandemic. Although Gonzalez Lizzaraga was withdrawn, she had seemed happy, said her brother, Loreto Gonzalez Lizzaraga.
The next morning, when Camerina Gonzalez Lizzaraga hadn’t come out of her room, her sister, Milagros Gonzalez, didn’t think anything of it. Her sister had been sleeping a lot during the day because she struggled to sleep at night. It had been that way since she was discharged from the U.S. Army in March 2021, Milagros Gonzalez said.
But Gonzalez Lizzaraga wasn’t sleeping late. When Milagros Gonzalez went in to check on her around 1 p.m., she found her sister had died. Gonzalez Lizzaraga was 33.
Camerina Gonzalez Lizzaraga, an Ottumwa native, served in the U.S. Army from October 2011 through March 2021, when she was honorably discharged.
An autopsy concluded the death was an accidental overdose caused by “acute amphetamine toxicity.”
Her death brought an end to Gonzalez Lizzaraga’s battle with the Army. Although Gonzalez Lizzaraga wanted to serve her country, she had found herself fighting the military system at the end of her life. A year and a half before her death, she was sexually assaulted by a superior, she had alleged in a formal complaint, and then things unraveled.
“I would be very angry if anybody says that I’m anti-Army or not patriotic enough because I’m filing complaints,” she told the Des Moines Register in 2020. “Me voicing these concerns is the exact opposite.”
The alleged assault, one of nearly 8,000 that service members reported that year, left her shaken. What happened next, including her discharge from the Army in March of last year, made it worse, she and her family said.
“It just seemed like there was nothing else that she could do for herself. … It almost seemed like she gave up,” Milagros Gonzalez told the Register.
An Army spokesperson said the military did what it could to support her.
“The Army community was saddened to learn of the loss of former Specialist Camerina Gonzalez,” Lt. Col. Terence M. Kelley said in a March statement. “While she was an active duty soldier, the Army took extraordinary measures to provide her the care and resources she needed, including offering her health care in the civilian sector and granting exceptions to policy to place her in an environment where she felt more comfortable. We continue to encourage all those experiencing difficulty to seek assistance.”
‘I am a victim of sexual assault’
The alleged assault followed a pattern of inappropriate behavior by the accused officer, according to Gonzalez Lizzaraga. She said the officer often sought her out around Maryland’s Fort Detrick — while she was working as a biomedical equipment technician, at the gym and during physical training.
“He would find ways to make encounters happen,” she said. “He would even chase me into rooms where nobody else was around and he knew I had no way to exit out of that room.”
As a result of the alleged harassment, she initially filed a sexual harassment complaint against the officer in February 2020. Gonzalez Lizzaraga had been in the Army since 2012 and, before her experience at Fort Detrick, said she had never encountered harassment in the military.
When her commanding officer failed to address the alleged harassment, Gonzalez Lizzaraga filed an official complaint with her command chain and with the Department of Defense’s hotline.
Several weeks later, on March 24, 2020, Gonzalez Lizzaraga alleged that she was raped in her barracks at Fort Detrick by the same superior she had accused of harassing her.
She alleges that the superior followed her home and forced himself on her. His body was so heavy that she passed out. The next day she woke up with bruises on her arm and her pants halfway down her legs, she said.
After the alleged attack, Gonzalez Lizzaraga said she drove to a Walmart in Baltimore County and called 911. Records show she was transported to Greater Baltimore Medical Center with a fever of 102 degrees. She was diagnosed with an acute pelvic infection, bladder infection and anxiety.
On March 27, she was transferred to Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where she said she stayed for two weeks. During that time, Gonzalez Lizzaraga said she repeatedly asked for, but was denied, a sexual assault forensic exam.
In May 2020, Gonzalez Lizzaraga filed a victim reporting preference statement to military officials.
“I have decided to report I am a victim of sexual assault and I understand that my command, law enforcement, and other military authorities will be notified,” she acknowledged in that filing.
The alleged attacker, whom the Register is not naming because he has not been formally charged, declined to comment to the Register in 2020.
After her report, Gonzalez Lizzaraga told the Register that she felt looked down upon by her peers, faced retaliation from her superiors, and was forced in and out of military hospitals.
“You feel like a caged animal because the whole time you’re making complaints, thinking you’re going to be heard, but instead they’re constantly retaliating against you,” Gonzalez Lizzaraga said.
Fearing additional retaliation, Gonzalez Lizzaraga, with the help of U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa, was transferred to Fort Riley, a military base in Kansas, in July 2020.
In September 2020, several weeks after being transferred to Kansas, Gonzalez Lizzaraga was assigned to the behavioral health unit for 19 days. During that period, she said she was told several times by medical staff to sign a document stating that her allegations of sexual assault and harassment were false. She refused and was released into a soldier recovery unit on the base, she said.
“Making these complaints are costing me everything and I’m still doing it,” Gonzalez Lizzaraga said in the 2020 interview. “I don’t know if it’s foolish to believe in something, but I believe I have strong conviction in what I have to say is important so that’s what drives me to keep speaking out.”
Gonzalez Lizzaraga’s account of her treatment prompted Iowa leaders of the League of United Latin American Citizens to hold a news conference on Sept. 25, 2020, demanding justice and transparency in her case, saying she had suffered continuous retaliation and had repeatedly been denied access to a civilian attorney.
Kelley, the Army spokesperson, said in a statement to the Register in March of this year that Gonzalez Lizzaraga’s case had been closed.
“After reviewing all the evidence, an experienced Army Prosecutor determined there was no probable cause that any sexual assault had occurred,” the statement said.
The accused officer retired in October 2021, Kelley said.
Discharged after a ‘pattern of misconduct’
Despite wanting to stay in the Army, Gonzalez Lizzaraga was discharged on March 16, 2021. According to her official separation documents, she was honorably discharged after a “pattern of misconduct.”
The Army’s investigation did not conclude she was raped, Kelley told the Register. Instead: “The Army prosecutor did find probable cause to believe that SPC Gonzalez made a False Official Statement, and referred the matter to Fort Riley for appropriate administrative action.”
In March of last year, when Gonzalez Lizzaraga arrived back home to live in Des Moines with Milagros Gonzalez, she was a shell of herself, constantly worried whether she would be able to make a living, her family said.
Her appearance had changed. Her long hair was gone — Gonzalez Lizzaraga had shaved it all off before being discharged. She wore all black. Stressed and anxious, she continuously lost weight, Milagros Gonzalez said.
“She thought the discharge brought a negative light to her and that it would keep employers from hiring her,” her sister said.
Although she had an accounting degree, Gonzalez Lizzaraga didn’t find a job in her field. Instead, she found work at Katecho, a medical manufacturing plant in Des Moines, while driving for UberEats on the side.
At the time, she was facing misdemeanor charges for an incident that occurred while she was home in November 2020. According to court documents, she became angry at a local brow waxing studio after being charged a cancellation fee and destroyed a cosmetic display.
Then in May 2021, she was arrested for interference with official acts after Des Moines police officers found her walking “in the street with a big rock.” She allegedly refused to cooperate with officers and claimed “they were looking at her sexually.”
Milagros Gonzalez said her sister told her she had been walking to pick up her car at a local Walmart and people were yelling obscenities at her from their cars. She got scared and picked up a couple of rocks for protection.
“She said, ‘It feels like everyone knows me … everyone knows about me and it’s because of them,'” referring to military officials, Milagros Gonzalez said.
She’s portrayed as a ‘troublemaker’; soldiers are advised to stay away from her
When news of Gonzalez Lizzaraga’s death reached Fort Riley, it didn’t sit right with former Staff Sgt. Kathy Matthews and a fellow noncommissioned officer. So they reached out to Milagros Gonzalez with information about her sister’s time at Fort Riley — details that Matthews called “disturbing.”
Before Gonzalez Lizzaraga arrived at Fort Riley in July, both Matthews and the noncommissioned officer told the Register, a first sergeant held a meeting with the cadre to “tell them to stay clear of” her.
“They literally said, ‘Hey, this crazy b**** is coming here and she SHARP violates everyone, so any male that talks to her, she’s going to SHARP violate you,'” the noncommissioned officer told the Register.
SHARP, which stands for Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention program, is the official reporting tool used by every branch of the U.S. military. Personnel can report allegations of harassment or assault by filing a victim reporting preference statement, as Gonzalez Lizzaraga did in May 2020.
Matthews told the Register that the July meeting painted a picture of Gonzalez Lizzaraga as a “troublemaker” and prompted people to avoid her. The noncommissioned officer agreed, saying it made people afraid of her and that he did not want to interact with her for fear of being accused of sexual harassment or assault.
But one afternoon, the noncommissioned officer was assigned to oversee some repairs in Gonzalez Lizzaraga’s barracks, a shared living space with several other soldiers. For about four hours, while the repairs were being completed, he talked with Gonzalez Lizzaraga and the others.
He said he was nervous their interaction would be followed by an accusation of harassment, since that was the pattern the soldiers had been warned of. “And it never came,” the noncommissioned officer said. “I said to myself, ‘What’s the truth here?'”
Records show she was followed on base. Former soldier says ‘it was all suspect.’
In an interview with the Register in September 2020, Gonzalez Lizzaraga detailed being watched and followed everywhere she went both on the base at Fort Riley and off the base as she went shopping and ran errands.
The noncommissioned officer told the Register that he had been tasked with following her both on and off the base, and he noticed other on-duty soldiers doing the same. Matthews said she escorted Gonzalez Lizzaraga several times on the base and recalls being required to fill out a memorandum every time she escorted her or came into contact with her.
“It was all suspect,” Matthews said. “I’m telling you they didn’t do that to any other soldier.”
The noncommissioned officer said he followed Gonzalez Lizzaraga in a government van and filled out a log about what she did every time he followed her. He compared it to stalking.
Records obtained by the Register, dated from September 2020 to March 2021, show detailed accounts from soldiers about Gonzalez Lizzaraga’s whereabouts.
A log from Sept. 21, 2020, details Gonzalez Lizzaraga’s day from the time she traveled on base to run errands until she returned.
“SPC Gonzalez leads us up the hill towards Ellis Heights Housing Area and successfully loses us in that neighborhood due to excessive speeding,” the log says. “We eventually find her vehicle parked at the Shoppette by Clothing & Sale.”
That same log notes that another soldier was “afraid of SPC Gonzalez.”
Other logs describe the contents of text messages she exchanged with others on base, and one detailed the results of overhearing a phone conversation she was having with her sister
“SM called her sister w/personal cell phone. She told her sister that she was at the Ft Riley ER with cadre from the SRU, and was waiting to be seen. Finished the phone call in Spanish, unable to understand what she said,” a Sept. 25, 2020 log said.
Kelley said in April of this year that soldiers followed Gonzalez Lizzaraga to ensure her safety, and leaders had discussed the reasons with her.
“To address the concerns of herself and her commander, the Fort Riley Soldier Recovery Unit implemented accountability measures, including permitted locations and scheduled check-ins. This is a routine policy for Soldiers deemed to be high risk,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “If Spc. Gonzalez left her assigned duty location without permission, Soldier Recovery Unit leaders followed her to ensure her safety.”
Policy also dictates that squad leaders contact soldiers in the recovery unit at least daily, he said.
“If Spc. Gonzalez did not check-in as scheduled, Soldier Recovery Unit leaders would attempt to find her, beginning with her assigned residence,” Kelley said in an email.
In December 2020, Matthews was given a no-contact order, similar to a civilian restraining order, for Gonzalez Lizzaraga after speaking with her one day in the office. The no-contact order prevented Matthews from contacting Gonzalez Lizzaraga or responding to her. Matthews said she asked why the no-contact order was given, saying there was no legitimate reason for it.
As one of the only female leaders trained in Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention procedures, Matthews said she thinks she could have helped Gonzalez Lizzaraga. But she wasn’t allowed to. The no-contact order wasn’t lifted until February 2021, according to military records obtained by the Register, after Matthews had filed a complaint with her command.
In a place where Gonzalez Lizzaraga was supposed to heal and get care, the system failed her, Matthews said.
“That’s why they let her go back to Iowa with no supervision, nobody to watch over her or care for her … it’s because nobody cared for her. They just got sick of her,” Matthews said.
“They failed that goddamn soldier … they failed her,” Matthews said.
Expert: What happened was textbook ‘for how to run out survivors’
According to a 2021 report from the Department of Defense, 7,816 service members reported being sexually assaulted in fiscal year 2020.
A more comprehensive survey on sexual assault released in 2019, based on detailed surveys of troops, found a 38% increase in assaults from fiscal year 2016 to 2018, according to a data analysis by USA TODAY.
An analysis of Department of Defense reports by Protect Our Defenders, a national human rights organization advocating for military sexual assault survivors, states discharge is common for those who report their assaults, with one-third of those reporting assaults being discharged within seven months.
Gonzalez Lizzaraga was discharged about 10 months after reporting she was assaulted.
Erin Kirk, co-founder of Not In My Marine Corps, a grassroots organization advocating for survivors of military sexual assault, told the Register that Gonzalez Lizzaraga’s story is not unique.
“It’s so sad to say, but what they did to her is textbook. They might as well have a manual for how to run out survivors,” Kirk said.
Within the military system, soldiers have two options when making a sexual assault report: restricted and unrestricted.
Restricted reporting allows the person to confidentially disclose the alleged assault and receive medical treatment, without triggering an official investigation.
Unrestricted reporting also gives a soldier access to medical care but additionally alerts law enforcement and command that the soldier has filed an official complaint and launches an official investigation.
Unrestricted reporting can put a target on the person’s back because command knows who made the report — and that can lead to retaliation, Kirk said.
Discharges for misconduct have been on the rise for those who report sexual assaults, according to a report published by Human Rights Watch.
In Gonzalez Lizzaraga’s case, being discharged for a pattern of misconduct means she had to have at least two instances of misconduct during an enlistment period.
Matthews said Gonzalez Lizzaraga was written up several times by her chain of command for not showing up to formation. She said Gonzalez Lizzaraga told her that she did not feel comfortable going to formation with “a bunch of men,” so she often stayed in her barracks instead.
Kirk believes that Gonzalez Lizzaraga could have been experiencing PTSD related to her trauma. Human Rights Watch also states that “symptoms of trauma may also impact performance and lead to a misconduct discharge.”
“Men who have PTSD from battle are lauded as these heroes … and they keep them for 20 years … 30 years and use them as examples of resilience,” Kirk said. “But a woman that’s been violently raped and assaulted who comes forward and needs mental health and help is like damaged goods. It’s a dirty, dirty double standard.”
In 2021, President Joe Biden and Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III ordered an independent review of sexual assault in the military, following pressure from advocates after the disappearance and murder of Fort Hood Spc. Vanessa Guillen in April 2020. Her family believes she was killed by a soldier who had harassed her. The soldier killed himself while being questioned by authorities.
That review resulted in 82 recommendations related to accountability, prevention, climate, culture, victim care and support.
One of those recommendations was to remove the power to investigate and prosecute sexual crimes from the direct chain of command. The National Defense Authorization Act, signed late last year, established independent military lawyers to prosecute sexual offenses and other serious crimes. But the law did not entirely remove such decisions from the chain of command. Critics say that leaves too much authority with commanding officers who do not have legal expertise and hold great sway over soldiers’ careers.
Former Master Sgt. Cory Wilson, who was in charge of implementing the Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention program at Colorado’s Fort Carson in 2011, told the Register that sexual assault allegations often get buried. “I watched how chain of command would get this information and literally sweep it under the rug at all levels,” Wilson said.
‘I wonder what they did to her. I feel like I’m never going to know for sure’
Gonzalez Lizzaraga’s death has left unanswered questions for her family, Milagros Gonzalez said. She had tried to talk to her sister about what had happened, but she wasn’t ready to open up.
Although she had become withdrawn, Gonzalez Lizzaraga made sure to give gifts to her family on their birthdays and Christmas. But at the same time, she would tell her sister that she wasn’t doing well. Milagros Gonzalez said she felt as if her sister knew she wouldn’t live much longer.
“It felt like she knew, and that she was preparing us, in a way,” Milagros Gonzalez said. “I wonder what they did to her. I feel like I’m never going to know for sure.”
Gonzalez Lizzaraga was buried with military honors in her hometown of Ottumwa.
Her tombstone says: “Amada hija, hermana, y tía” — Beloved daughter, sister and aunt.
Camerina Gonzalez is buried in Ottumwa at Shaul Cemetery. She died on Oct. 3, 2021.
This piece was written by Melody Mercado. It was edited by Rachel Stassen-Berger. Reach Rachel at [email protected].