A sexual assault case of a male Navy sailor offending a female airman was all anyone talked about when I first checked into my A-school training after boot camp. Troops around me gossiped and said the airman was “a whore who had dick remorse” and made false accusations. 

No one could have truly known what happened besides the two involved, but the rumors around it painted the accuser as the problem. Leadership pointed out that this made the Navy look bad. 

Being brand new to the Navy, it set the tone for me on how victims who came forward were treated. Then, about a month into my new command, I received an anonymous screenshot of a conversation about two men talking about me.

“I want one or both sets of Carlton’s lips on my penis, I need to start this process,” the message read. 

Military sexual trauma cases have been removed from the chain of command — but there’s more work to do
Screenshot of text message directed at the author.

I immediately felt self-conscious and like I was a piece of meat being hunted. Being seen and respected as a professional now seemed impossible. Seeing how the command previously handled a military sexual trauma case, I doubted they would handle something like this any better. 

Reporting the text was not an option in my eyes. 

After a few weeks of feeling isolated and unable to share my anxieties with others, I finally found an outlet: drinking. Alcohol is a great way to make “friends” in the military. It is a great way to bond with others who are going through similar hardships or just want a break from the stressful day-to-day life in the military. Drinking helped me forget my insecurities and quiet my anxieties. 

I felt like I met a trustworthy group of friends until I was sexually assaulted by one of them while I was sleeping at a barracks party. The friend told me he was truly sorry and would have never done that if he wasn’t drinking. I believed him and kept quiet about it. I was about to leave for a new command and reporting the assault would have been a huge hassle that could have delayed my graduation date. I also felt I wouldn’t be believed because he was someone many trusted.  

Years later he raped one of my close friends. I felt personally responsible because I did not report him. Now, looking back, it is pretty obvious why I didn’t speak up, and who knows if he would have been held responsible. 

A fresh start 

When I received orders for a new duty station at Naval Station Norfolk, I felt excited to start fresh in a new place. Shortly after arriving at my new workplace, I found that many of my new shipmates had already looked me up on social media and had conversations about my appearance. I would later witness this process and hear those conversations first-hand about other female sailors coming to the command. This included “calling dibs” and trying to see if the new sailor was single. 

My fresh start was already taken from me. The same fears of not being taken seriously had started to come back. Alcohol continued to be my coping mechanism like many others who have experienced military sexual trauma (MST) and are more likely to abuse alcohol than those who have not, according to researchers from the Cincinnati Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

Along with a higher risk of abusing alcohol, research shows that many victims of sexual trauma in the military also suffer psychological issues, leading them to be revictimized and harmed again in the same way they were in the past.  

My story is not an outlier. As many as 1 in 3 women and 1 in 50 men in the military respond ‘yes’ when asked if they have experienced sexual trauma during service. 

But those numbers might not even encompass the entire problem. The military’s most recent estimated number of reports of unwanted sexual contact was 36,000 compared to 8,942 actual reports, according to the American Legion.

Why victims don’t report

There are many reasons why survivors of sexual assault do not come forward. To understand these reasons, it is important to know the psychology behind it. 

For one, survivors in the military are more likely to have to interact with their offender on a regular basis, Brandy R. Preston wrote in her dissertation on military sexual assault and trauma. 

“The threat is long-lasting and has severe repercussions for the survivor including institutional betrayal and institutional trauma,” Preston told Task & Purpose.

However, for most survivors, the “threat” is long-term as most rapists are within the survivors’ friend group, military unit, or someone they knew on base or in living quarters. 

Survivors are also more likely to place blame on themselves. They may think they shouldn’t have put themselves in that situation or they should have known better. This leads to internalizing the situation, not reporting, and delaying care.  

The fear of “retaliation from the chain of command, harassment from the accused, also the stress of dealing with the sexual assault because cases take a while to get resolved,” can add to a survivor’s stress, said Angela Martinez, a current Sexual Assault Prevention and Response team member for the Department of Defense. 

Survivors are more likely to endorse sexist beliefs about other women — a common side effect of the male-dominated military — due to the indoctrination that sexual assault is normal, Preston’s research found. However, this acceptance of sexist beliefs primarily acts as a mental and physical protective factor for women in order to decrease their odds of being on the receiving end of gender-based violence. 

An example of this would be where a woman in an all-male work center makes dirty jokes or agrees with sexist ideology while at work to appear “masculine” or “one of the guys,” Preston said. 

Overall, the mental load of surviving sexual assault can affect every aspect of someone’s life even after the military which includes their physical and behavioral health, access to care, and lifestyle.

Studies have shown that victims of MST have comorbidities like sexual dysfunction, chronic pain, pelvic inflammatory disease, some cancers, and gastrointestinal diseases.

They are also less likely to seek medical attention after an assault, to get VA health services, and more likely to delay preventative care, according to Preston’s research

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“Many survivors often can be revictimized by medical professionals due to feelings of trying to protect their bodily autonomy. This continuous experience of losing control can also affect survivors in pregnancy, delivery, and postpartum,” Preston said.

Due to the continual threat of sexual assault, military sexual trauma survivors may never leave flight or fight mode. This long-term stress permanently changes the brain which is referred to as “fear circuitry” where the prefrontal cortex (the decision-making part of the brain) and cortisol levels in the brain are highest. 

Preston concludes that because of a continuous state of fight-or-flight, survivors have issues with decision-making and a lower self-awareness of physical safety. 

“Due to the normalization of rape culture in the military, this could be their way of coping with what happened to them while also being in the same environment that perpetuates these behaviors in an effort to believe that this behavior is ‘normal’ and eventually can lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms,” Preston said.

How to break the cycle

The DOD requires annual training on sexual harassment and assault which all personnel must complete. The yearly training is often lumped in with several other mandatory lessons on topics like cyber security or suicide awareness. This leads to click-through training and young men and women who do not understand how to apply the training in the real world. The training is also outdated and may benefit from being tailored to each workplace it is being conducted at.

Martinez, the DOD coordinator, said that sexual assault prevention and response teams should be able to make their own training since the current DOD curriculum is “so generically put together.” 

“For the 40-hour class, we still use videos from the ‘90s. Material needs to be updated to reflect the current time period. Especially in the 40-hour class — you’re only allowed to use what is provided by the Navy for the class,” Martinez said. 

DOD training covers topics like definitions of sexual assault, the effects in the workplace, bystander intervention, and prevention and response. It also tackles concepts such as how behavior can be influenced by our environment and which attitudes and behaviors can be indicators of sexual assault. The course aims to teach individual skills about healthy coping mechanisms, communication, and responsible alcohol use. 

Although these are all incredibly crucial parts of training, there is still a need to make this training effective. Most, if not all, training is given through PowerPoint and has little interaction — making it hard to connect with on an emotional level. It also does not cover the main issues around why a victim may not report. 

“There is no emotional or humanistic connection or component to the training and doesn’t really talk about the varying situations to reporting that has people constantly confused about reporting processes and even makes the process confusing for survivors,” Preston said.

We cannot depend on annual training to fix all of our issues. It also starts with shifting the culture that leadership sets at each place of work: allowing zero tolerance of inappropriate behavior and conversation and making the military a more professional environment where we can all feel comfortable doing our job and victims feel safe coming forward. 

We can assume that many of those in leadership positions are aware of sexual assault issues, but there is a huge disconnect between the realities our troops are facing. 

When sharing my story of sexual assault on LinkedIn, I received the following comment from a retired Air Force Commander of the 46th Test Squadron, Jason Doster.

“In my 20 years of military service, this type of thing [sexual assault] is way overrepresented in media vs its prevalence. Also, a lot of the ladies play into this narrative for personal gain.”

Now, he may be an outlier, but it is alarming to see someone in this position have such an ignorant stance on an issue as huge as sexual assault. 

How do you think he would have handled my case?

Leadership needs to acknowledge sexual assault and harassment is a serious issue and officials should work to counter-act, prevent, and understand the underlying sexist biases that cause it. 

Women serving in the military is a relatively new phenomenon when we look at the history of war. Making space for women in a predominantly male culture has been a struggle. We need to believe survivors and not feed into the ridiculous narrative that anyone has something to gain from coming forward about military sexual trauma. In reality, it has quite the opposite effect. This can be done by listening to survivors and understanding what leads to these hostile situations.

Proper care and treatment of survivors are essential to breaking the cycle of military sexual trauma. Most victims are alienated and treated as a disruption to the workplace. Oftentimes they will receive new orders and have to leave their current support system instead of the perpetrator. The situations are not explained to the survivors’ new leadership at their new duty station leading to a less than optimal environment to heal. 

As of December 28, 2023, sexual assault cases have formally been removed from the U.S. military chain of command. Instead, criminal cases involving murder, domestic violence, and more will go to the service’s Office of Special Trial Counsel where trained lawyers will handle cases independent from a command’s involvement.

This is a huge step forward and will give service members confidence when coming forward about crimes committed against them. By not having to go through the chain of command, victims are more likely to feel comfortable coming forward and confident in receiving justice. 

As mentioned earlier, one of the biggest reasons victims do not report is fear of retribution from their leaders. However, allowing an outside party to determine cases will eliminate that reason if this process is followed properly. It is a great step forward but not the end of this fight! 

If you’re thinking about suicide, are worried about a friend or loved one, or would like emotional support, the Lifeline network is available 24/7 across the United States. Reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by calling or texting 988 and you’ll be connected to trained counselors.

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