Fort Bragg, N.C. — A Fort Bragg soldier was sentenced Thursday to 50 years in a military prison for the 2009 rape of a woman on post.
Army Spc. Aaron Michael Pernell, 23, pleaded guilty Wednesday to one count each of rape, aggravated sexual contact, attempted aggravated sexual contact, assault consummated by battery and burglary in connection with the Dec. 12, 2009, attack on the woman, who lived in the Ste. Mere Eglise neighborhood on Fort Bragg.
Col. Gary Brockington, the military judge overseeing the case, could have sentenced Pernell to life in prison.
Pernell will be eligible for parole after serving 10 years in prison. He has already served 312 days in prison, authorities said. In addition to the prison sentence, he is being given a dishonorable discharge and must forfeit all pay.
He was being held in the Cumberland County jail for now, but is expected to be transferred to a military prison, probably Fort Leavenworth.
During his sentencing hearing, Pernell said that his behavior was "completely unacceptable" and that he hoped the victim could find comfort in his punishment.
"I can only hope that, after I serve my sentence, I can someday see my daughter again, and see her grow up out in the world," Pernell said.
His daughter turns 2 years old in January.
He told Brockington during his court-martial on Wednesday that he broke into the home through an unlocked bathroom window at about 2 or 3 a.m. He said he found the woman sleeping with a baby and a small child and then outlined the assault in graphic detail.
"I told her, if she failed to do these things, she and her family would be subjected to death," he said, adding that he began to choke her when she refused to comply. "I caused her to come to a point where she was beginning to lose consciousness."
Pernell listened Thursday as his victim took the stand during his sentencing hearing and recalled what happened that night.
The woman said she woke up to a hand that smelled like beer over her mouth.
"He started to strangle me. I tried to fight him as hard as I could," the woman said.
The woman said that her 5-year-old son walked downstairs during the incident. She said she is sure he saw what was happening.
"It was awkward. (I was) ashamed that I couldn't protect them from seeing what they saw," she said.
Throughout the attack, the woman said, she cried "uncontrollably."
"I asked him how he (would feel) if he knew someone was doing this to his daughter. He said, 'Shut up,'" she said.
The woman said Pernell told her to go upstairs and take a shower to wash off the DNA. Then, she realized her daughter was still downstairs.
"I couldn't imagine what he was doing to my daughter," she said, while sobbing.
She is still plagued by nightmares of the attack.
"Every night. They're very vivid. I basically relive the entire rape over and over," she said.
The woman’s husband was serving in Iraq at the time of the attack.
"I just felt like my whole world just crashed," he said about learning of the rape.
He said Thursday that he moved his family on post because he thought they would be safe while he was away.
"Here on post, somebody can do that to my wife, that's like the biggest slap in my face," her husband said.
Since the attack, the family has moved to New York to be with the woman’s family.
The woman's husband said it is difficult to put on the same uniform as Pernell.
"I can't be the soldier I used to be. That's what hurts the most," her husband said.
Prosecutor Maj. Robert Stelle made closing arguments and said "it's impossible to imagine the terror – the sheer, utter terror – that this woman experienced during those moments and those hours."
"And in front of that 6-month-old child, he raped that child's mother. It's despicable, despicable conduct," Stelle said.
Two other homes in the same neighborhood were burglarized on Dec. 10 and Dec. 23 last year, but Brockington acquitted Pernell of the crimes after hearing from the two homeowners Wednesday.
After he was detained by military investigators on Jan. 28, and an agent with the Army's Criminal Investigative Command has said, Pernell told the investigators that "Jason," a voice inside his head, instructed him to attack the woman.
"I myself would not commit these crimes. The voice in my head makes me do bad things," agent Jarrad Williams recalled Pernell telling investigators.
Family members have said that Pernell returned from a 15-month deployment to Iraq in 2006 as a changed, troubled man.
Pernell's mother, Brenda Pernell, said Thursday that her son wanted to join the Army since he was a little boy. His father, David Pernell, said he adopted Aaron Pernell in 2000 after marrying his mother. He described his son as a "wonderful, happy-go-lucky kid" who grew up in a "good, close-knit family."
Brenda Pernell said she would be there for her son following his sentence.
"Absolutely. I will always be there for him. I'm his mom. He's my son," she testified during the sentencing hearing.
Aaron Pernell's wife, father and sister also testified on his behalf during the sentencing.