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‘Continuum Of Harm’: The Military Has Been Fighting Sexual Assault In Its Ranks For Decades, But Women Say It’s Still Happening
As a noncommissioned officer in the Army, Jenna McGinnis often told her team members that she hated drinking and driving, and if they ever needed a ride when drunk, she’d come to get them.
“I would rather be woken up in the middle of the night to pick up a drunk troop if it means I do not have to watch another parent lose a child to drunken tomfoolery,” she said.
One night, while she was serving at Eglin Air Force Base, a major on her team called to take her up on the offer. It was midnight, but she jumped in her car and went to collect him. At the bar, the major was visibly drunk. “The bartender gave me a ‘you need to get him out of here now’ look,” McGinnis said.
Once he got in her car, the major began groping her. He continued to do so in the elevator to his apartment, even as she tried to push him away. When finally she got him home, he tried to pull her into his bedroom. “I ended up putting my elbow in his solar plex,” she said.
The next morning, ironically, the unit had SHARP training — a mandatory course in sexual harassment/assault response and prevention. But what was an uncomfortable situation for McGinnis didn’t seem to faze the major at all. He acted “like nothing happened,” she said.
McGinnis hadn’t decided whether or not to report the incident, but as she watched her assaulter laughing and chuckling with female airmen at the session, she knew she had no choice. “I’m thinking what if he didn’t call me, and he called one of them?”
A master sergeant uses techniques taught during the 18-hour Rape Aggression Defense course on a certified instructor, April 8, 2016.U.S. Army/Sgt. Patricia McMurphy
Unfortunately, that decision puts her in the minority. According to the most recent Department of Defense data, 14,900 service members were sexually assaulted in 2016 — more than 40 per day on average. More than two-thirds of those assaults went unreported, the Defense Department estimates.
Since the news of Harvey Weinstein’s alleged serial sexual misconduct broke last October, industries across the spectrum from media to agriculture have begun grappling with the prevalence and implications of workplace sexual harassment and assault. But in the U.S. military, where colleagues are comrades-in-arms and working is often a 24/7 full-life experience, the issue has long been a serious concern.
“The modern era of sexual assault and sexual harassment awareness in the military started with Tailhook,” said Col. Don Christensen, referring to the 1991 scandal that erupted after more than 100 Navy and Marine Corps officers allegedly sexually assaulted dozens of women and men at a conference in Las Vegas. A former JAG who retired from the Air Force in 2014 after serving as its chief prosecutor for four years, Christensen is now president of Protect Our Defenders, a nonprofit dedicated to ending sexual assault in the military. “There were clearly issues before then but that was when it was really brought into the national consciousness.”
“So many people said, ‘I don’t think this was worth his entire career’ or ‘he shouldn’t lose everything over one indiscretion.’ The response was about protecting him more than it was about taking care of me.”
In the decades since Tailhook, more high-profile incidents have come to light, steadily revealing the cultural and systemic problems that have enabled sexual harassment and assault to persist across all branches of the military. In 1996, 12 drill sergeants were prosecuted for alleged sex crimes committed at Aberdeen Proving Ground, and in 2003, a special investigation revealed that 12% of the women who graduated from the Air Force Academy that year were the victims of rape or attempted rape while at the academy. The Air Force was back in the headlines in 2012 when dozens of female trainees came forward to say they had been sexual assaulted during basic training at Lackland Air Force Base. Each story sparked a renewed focus on addressing sexual violence in the military.
“But once the story was no longer in the headlines, the focus went away and it went back to business as normal,” Christensen told Task & Purpose.
Some progress has been made. In 2004, the DoD created the Care for Victims of Sexual Assault Task Force to review the military policies for treating and preventing sexual assault. One result was the eventual establishment of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (SAPR) Office, which now serves as the single point of authority on sexual assault in the DoD. In 2013, the National Defense Authorization Act required increased training around sexual assault for military service members and required the branches to allow anonymous reporting of crimes.
“Each year since 2013, we’ve seen changes passed by Congress to the [Uniform Code of Military Justice], an acknowledgement that things aren’t where they should be,” Christensen said. “But we still haven’t gotten a major change.”
2013 also saw a spike in the number of reported sexual assaults, a change the military and some advocates have attributed to survivors’ increased willingness to come forward. The numbers have continued to go up, albeit more slowly. In 2016, the military received 6,172 reports of sexual assault, up 1.5% from 2015.
“Reports as a proportion of estimated assault have been rising over the past decade, and I think that’s reflective of the efforts SAPR has made to make reporting safer and more likely to produce benefits to the person who was assaulted,” said Andrew Morral, co-author of the 2014 RAND Military Workplace Study. “It’s working better for women than for men,” he noted.
But what do these numbers represent, and why do the majority of incidents still go unreported? To find out, Task & Purpose surveyed service members and veterans, asking them whether they had ever felt they needed to work harder to gain respect because of their gender or sexual orientation, whether they had been sexually harassed, and whether they had been sexually assaulted.
At the Day League Sexual Assault Care and Prevention Center, survivors create t-shirts during group therapy sessions as a way of healing from sexual assault and abuse.U.S. Army/Maj. Satomi Mack-Martin
We received a total of 147 responses from men and women across all branches and service statuses, with a variety of ranks ranging from E-3 to O-6. None of the respondents identified as transgender; 27 described themselves as members of racial and ethnic minorities. We also collected approximately 80 open-ended comments from survey participants (some anonymous and some not), and conducted in-depth interviews with over a dozen current and former service members who were willing to speak in more detail. The survey methodology was not scientific, so we are not publishing the percentages of respondents who said they had experienced harassment or assault in the military. Rather, we wanted to highlight sexual misconduct in the military using published data and the experiences of servicewomen who were willing to step forward with their stories.
According to DoD research, the two most common reasons for reporting assault were wanting to stop the alleged perpetrator from hurting others and wanting to prevent oneself from being hurt again. The most common reasons given for opting not to report an assault were wanting to forget about it and move on, not wanting other people to know, and feeling ashamed or embarrassed. One active-duty Army captain who asked not to be named said she felt all of those things after being sexually assaulted by a first sergeant when she was a private serving at Fort Stewart.
She was one of several soldiers the first sergeant regularly invited over to his house for pool parties and barbeques. One night, he asked her and another woman to join him for drinks in town. The other woman didn’t show, and while they were out, the first sergeant kept putting his hand on her thigh. “It wasn’t enough for me to get upset,” she said. “I was kind of like, stop it.”
Later, as he gave the private a ride back to her car, the first sergeant pulled over and began telling her how unhappy he was in his marriage.
Suddenly, “he reached across my seat and let my seat back as far as it would go, and he got on top of me,” she told Task & Purpose. He began attempting to give her oral sex. “I was telling him to stop, but when I saw he wasn’t going to stop, I kind of just froze.”
He stopped after a few minutes, allowing her to go home to her barracks, where she showered and cried until she fell asleep. At 4 a.m., she woke up to more than a dozen missed calls. The first sergeant was knocking loudly at her door. “I’m kind of like, I have to let him in because I don’t want everyone in my business,” she said. “I don’t want to cause a scene.”
She said she was silent as he apologized. But as soon as he’d done so, he pulled her to the edge of her bed and started assaulting her again, this time putting his fingers in her. Eventually, he left. She later found out that the woman who she had expected to meet them in town was never planning to come at all: The first sergeant had lied. Another specialist told her he had done the same thing to her, including the setup.
“As a black female, people do not expect you to be an officer. They’re not looking for rank on your neckline. They’re looking for rank on your sleeve.”
She decided not to report the incident, but word eventually got out among her peers. “People were like, ‘She shouldn’t have been there in the first place, she wanted it.’”
In 2006, Christine, a former enlisted Army mechanic who asked her last name not be shared, was assaulted one night during MOS training by an noncommissioned officer who had just “spent two weeks telling me about his daughters, his wife.”
“I woke up and he was on top of me in my room,” she said. A group of men from her unit who were smoking outside heard her shouts, rushed upstairs, pulled the man off of her and beat him up. She didn’t report the incident.
“I felt that him getting beaten up was a bigger punishment than anything he would have gotten through the system,” she said. “In my head it had been handled.”
Other victims of assault opt not to report their abusers for fear that doing so will get them branded “troublemakers” or prompt retribution from their chain of command that could limit their career advancement. A senior officer who asked that her name not be disclosed said she was anally raped by an American service member while serving in Iraq in 2006 but chose not to report it because she didn’t want to be sent home from the deployment. She told Task & Purpose she believes her career wouldn’t have progressed as far had she come forward back then. She also said she’s been surprised to learn, over time, how many of her high-ranking peers have been assaulted.
As the military faces scrutiny over sexual assault in its ranks, less attention has been focused on the wide array of behaviors that reinforce a culture in which assault is allowed to occur.
Not all of the survey respondents said they had been assaulted or harassed, yet the vast majority spoke about being sexualized at work and viewed as prizes by their male colleagues, being forced to navigate a narrow line between being perceived as a “bitch” or a “slut,” and often feeling like their rank was disrespected. Most of these women said the inappropriate comments and sexual harassment usually came from higher-ranking men, making them feel like they couldn’t speak up or push back without career repercussions. Many women said male colleagues routinely commented on their sexuality in workplace settings.
Participants seen at the #MeToo Survivors March & Rally on November 12, 2017 in Hollywood, California.Chelsea Guglielmino/FilmMagic
“Sexual harassment is quite common in the military,” said Morral of RAND. “Across all ranks and pay grades, 75% of women say it’s common or very common, and it’s super highly correlated with sexual assault experiences.”
A 2016 DoD survey on workplace and gender relations found that active-duty service members who have experienced “unwanted gender-related behaviors” are more likely to be sexually assaulted. In that survey, 21.3% of women and 5.6% of men said they had experienced a “sexually hostile work environment” in the past 12 months.
The DoD has identified a number of factors that contribute to a “continuum of harm” in which a profusion of seemingly lesser offenses such as sexist jokes and bullying create an environment in which assault not only takes place but is tolerated. These include high levels of workplace hostility, the underrepresentation of females in the workplace, and “an unhealthy enlisted and officer climate with respect to sexual assault.”
“There’s lots of evidence that tolerance of the use of words that are harmful can lead to an environment of harm and bolsters the likelihood of more harmful actions taking place,” notes Lydia Watts, CEO of the Service Women’s Action Network, an advocacy organization for servicewomen. “There needs to be a culture change in which those kinds of comments are seen as contrary to military readiness and troop cohesion and morale.”
Long before Jenna McGinnis was assaulted at Eglin, she had become used to the many ways in which servicewomen are sexualized and treated differently from their male peers.
“People were like, ‘She shouldn’t have been there in the first place, she wanted it.’”
Her first duty station was Hunter Army Airfield — home to 1st Ranger Battalion. When she arrived, she and the other female soldiers were told, “You’re not allowed to be around Rangers because they’ll make you whores,” McGinnis recalled.
“‘Don’t be the platoon ink that everyone can dip their pen in’ — that was one of my favorites,” McGinnis told Task & Purpose.
Not only were men she worked with not given similar warnings, they were encouraged to pursue the women as prizes. “There was a competition or pool everytime a new female soldier came to our platoon as to who would have sex with her,” she said.
Multiple women told Task & Purpose a nearly identical story.
Maggie Seymour, a Marine Corps major who’s currently in the reserve, said one of her bosses called her a “party girl” simply because she was not married and didn’t have any kids at the time.
“I told him that was somewhat unfair because I was in school at the time and in class four nights a week,” Seymour told Task & Purpose. But as a single woman, she was seen as a risk factor in her unit. “Someone once said, ‘You need to hurry up and get married and have kids’,” she recalled. “And I said, ‘Why?’ And they said, ‘So we can invite you to things.’”
35th Air Defense Artillery Brigade Sexual Harassment & Awareness Response Program (SHARP) team held the grand opening of the SHARP 360 training facility Jan. 17, 2018, at Osan Air Base, South Korea.U.S. Army/Staff Sgt. Monik Phan
Seymour said she was never sexually assaulted, but was eventually worn down by the “little” things, like her male friends making crude jokes about her breasts during work hours, in front of junior Marines.
It’s not that she believes every sexual joke is, by definition, sexist. Seymour said she herself has a “dirty” and “crude” sense of humor (“For example, the penis skywriting thing, I thought it was hilarious,” she explained.) It’s that she’s uncomfortable when those jokes are made at her expense in a professional setting.
“It’s tricky,” she said. “You can’t be sexual and respected as a woman, almost.”
When Katie, a first lieutenant in the Marine Corps, was a “brand-new enlisted,” she was made to feel uncomfortable by a martial-arts instructor who kept singling her out demonstrate with him on the mat and then asked her out repeatedly after class, even after she said no.
“I think back and I’m like dang, as a young Marine I didn’t even recognize that was an issue,” she told Task & Purpose (Katie asked her last name not be published). “People don’t realize that they’re crossing the lines because the lines get blurred consistently. It’s a learned behavior and you get desensitized to it.”
An active-duty Army captain who asked to remain anonymous because she’s still in the service told Task & Purpose in an interview that although she has never been assaulted, she has been on the receiving end of many “highly inappropriate comments” and harassment.
When she was a second lieutenant, for instance, a male captain in her unit joked about her virginity and repeatedly pulled on her bun. “I would be at my desk, sitting there minding my own business,” she said. “He would walk by and just grab my hair. He thought it was funny.” She said she “didn’t think to report it” at the time because she had become habituated to his behavior.
Coretta Gray, a JAG who left the Air Force as a major in 2014, said enlisted men often approached her on base to comment on her appearance. “They would say something about the way I looked, like, ‘You’re too pretty to be in the military,’ until I pointed out or they noticed that I am an officer,” she explained.
“As a black female, people do not expect you to be an officer,” she added. “They’re not looking for rank on your neckline. They’re looking for rank on your sleeve.”
For women of color and LGBTQ women, unwanted gender-based comments and incidents come with extra layers of complication.
A timeline of events and organizational growth is displayed in the hallway of the DeKalb Rape Crisis Center, now known as the Day League Sexual Assault Care and Prevention Center.U.S. Army/Maj. Satomi Mack-Martin
According to the DoD, members identifying as LGBTQ are more likely to experience “unwanted gender-related behaviors.” In 2016, the rate of sexual assault was 4.5% for service members who identify as LGBTQ, and 0.8% for those who do not. “It’s obviously a risk factor, or these people are targeted,” according to Morral.
Several women who identify as lesbian told Task & Purpose that they were sometimes treated like prizes whom men would try to “turn” or “straighten out.”
Lauren Kent, a former Army National Guard heavy truck driver, said men in her unit often felt more comfortable “throwing sexist language around” because she is a lesbian. “The guys thought I was on their side,” she explained.
Once, before a deployment, a fellow enlisted soldier offered her $100 to take a picture of another female soldier in the shower.
“I told him no, obviously,” she said. “I didn’t tell her, because I didn’t want to shatter her trust in her platoon-mates. I didn’t tell anybody. I wish I had.”
Because Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was still policy at the time, Kent said she didn’t feel comfortable pushing back against inappropriate comments for fear she might be outed. The policy, which was in effect from 1993 to 2011, prohibited homosexual and bisexual service members from disclosing their sexual orientation while in the armed forces.
“There was a competition or pool everytime a new female soldier came to our platoon as to who would have sex with her.”
“I had another soldier in my unit go to my commander and say, ‘You should investigate her because she’s the only girl not sleeping with anybody in the unit,’” recalled Christine, the former enlisted Army mechanic. On many occasions, she was forced to refer to her girlfriend as her boyfriend just to avoid violating the DoD policy.
Protect Our Defenders’ Christensen said true change in the military will only ever come with a cultural shift — one that needs to start with leadership.
“As long as general officers view women who work for them as part of the dating pool, we’re never going to have equality,” he said. “All too often that’s what’s happening, and when it does there aren’t many repercussions.”
He added that “an office atmosphere that makes it all right to sexualize women in the workplace sends a message to people who have been sexually assaulted to just be quiet. And it sends a message to those who are inclined to sexually harass someone that it’s okay.”
Changing the culture that breeds sexual harassment and assault will be difficult, Christensen and other advocates say. In the meantime, they believe legislative fixes are in order.
In 2013, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat from New York, introduced the Military Justice Improvement Act, a bill that aims to restructure how sexual assault cases are processed through the military justice system. Most notably, the law would take the decision of whether to prosecute serious crimes out of the hands of victims’ commanders. Instead, the decision would be left to professional military prosecutors.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. front, with, from left, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., alleged rape victim Samantha Jackson, and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, to urge the Senate to pass the bipartisan Military Justice Improvement Act, May 24, 2016.AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta
The bill has been blocked and re-introduced several times. Gillibrand most recently submitted it in November with 27 co-sponsors, including a handful of Republicans. It has also received the support of several high-profile veterans advocates groups, including Protect Our Defenders and the Service Women’s Action Network. In the wake of the Marines United Facebook scandal that broke almost one year ago, Gillibrand has been a leading voice for reform within the armed forces.
Christensen said civilians often underestimate the power dynamics of a military rank structure, which tends to put commanders on a pedestal. “You can’t just tell the boss to go to hell, you can’t not show up to work,” he said. “You know that to a degree much greater than in any other industry, this person is controlling your entire future. It’s almost like a master/serf relationship in some ways.”
Watts of the Service Women’s Action Network agreed. “There is an innate conflict of interest if the assault came from somebody in the unit or squad and the commander is the same commander of the assailant,” she said.
In a 2017 survey conducted by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, 40% of women military survivors of sexual assault said they reported their assault. Of those, 71% said they had experienced retaliation after reporting. Of all the survivors polled, 46% of women said they would have reported their assault if a trained military prosecutor, and not their commander, were in charge of moving forward with the case. In the DoD’s 2016 survey, 58% of women said they experienced some sort of retaliation or ostracism after reporting their assault.
Most of the women we spoke who did not report their assault said they would have been more likely to do so had their commanders not been involved.
When she reported the assault, Jenna McGinnis said her team leader peppered her with questions that made her wonder if she should have stayed quiet. “What was I wearing when I went to pick him up? Is the unit going to have to worry about my husband? Why didn't I go directly to the police? I had already been hesitant to report, so when my leadership came at me like this, it felt like I was the one that did something wrong,” she said.
Later on, McGinnis said she was ostracized by fellow soldiers and received little support from her command when it came time for her to testify against her attacker at a board of inquiry. “So many people said, ‘I don’t think this was worth his entire career’ or ‘he shouldn’t lose everything over one indiscretion,’” McGinnis said. “The response was about protecting him more than it was about taking care of me.”
“I had another soldier in my unit go to my commander and say, ‘You should investigate her because she’s the only girl not sleeping with anybody in the unit.’”
She believes the changes proposed by the Military Justice Improvement Act would have helped in her case, given the fact that her battalion commander “had no idea how to respond” to what happened to her. “There is a big difference between describing sexual assault to someone trained in sex crimes and describing it to a commander that operates in the military's current culture,” she said.
McGinnis left the Army as a sergeant first class in 2016, after 14 years of service.
“I just kind of quit,” said McGinnis, who now works as a civilian contracting officer. “I didn’t want to be part of an organization that would treat somebody like that.”
She believes her decision points to a bigger, systemic issue. “If an E-7 is willing to ETS five years before she can retire, maybe we have a problem.”
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