Sexual assault in the military:
the system is still the problem
By Anna Conkey Dec. 10, 2015
Lynn—a woman who prefers to not reveal her full name—had been in the U.S. Navy for three years when it happened.
In San Diego, June 2012, she and her roommates hosted a party that involved many coworkers and copious amounts of alcohol.
At some point in the night she went to her room and fell asleep. Later, two men were seen going inside: one was a senior chief, E-8, the other a master chief, E-9—the two highest ranks for Navy enlisted members. Lynn was an E-4 at the time.
She woke up the next morning with the realization she had been raped.
Sexual assault is a major issue for the military. There were over 6,000 incidents of sexual assault reported during the 2014 fiscal year, according to the 2014 Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (SAPR) annual report.
SAPR policy states that it is the intent of the program and the Department of Defense to encourage the reporting of sexual assaults. By the 16 percent increase of reported assaults in 2014, compared to 2013, it seems to be working. However, it is doubtful the public will ever know exactly how many sexual assaults actually occur in the military each year.
“There is no way of really knowing how many sexual assaults there are because we don’t know how many cases go unreported,” said Jennifer Zeldis, the public affairs officer for the Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) Corps.
According to SAPR policy, there are two ways of reporting sexual assault. The first is restricted reporting, where the victim’s name is not released, but he or she is given treatment for physical and emotional injury, as well as the option to later change the case to unrestricted. A report is considered restricted only if the victim seeks help from a Sexual Assault Response Coordinator (SARC), a Victim’s Advocate (VA) or healthcare personnel.
The second option is unrestricted reporting, which immediately launches an investigation into the incident if it is reported to anyone besides a SARC, VA or healthcare provider. It is also the only way victims can try to bring justice to their assailant.
However, according to victims who reported sexual assault, details about assault cases may be leaked and circulated throughout a service member’s command—despite military claims that details are limited to those with a right to know.
In 2014, 59 percent of those who reported sexual assault perceived social retaliation after reporting, and 40 percent perceived professional retaliation, according to a Survivor Experience Survey in the 2014 SAPR report.
Lynn never reported her assault. She said she did not want to deal with the drama it would cause if everyone found out.
“It just causes more heartache for you than it does for the people that actually committed the crime,” Lynn said. “The whole ship finds out and you pretty much get moved off the ship. Higher-ranking people treat you differently. I’ve just seen it from other people, so I didn’t want to deal with it.”
Lynn’s recollection sums up why many cases of sexual assault are never reported. Victims are ostracized, blamed for the perpetrator’s actions or even threatened with penalties.
Chantelle, a woman who also wishes to keep her full identity unknown, had been in the Army for three years when she reported a sexual assault in 2012, while stationed at Fort Lewis, Wash. Like Lynn, she was also an E-4.
A staff sergeant, E-6, came by her workspace during a drill at 1:30 a.m., and asked for a soldier to help move equipment at a warehouse. Chantelle was selected to go because everyone else was cleaning—even though military procedures state a male and female soldier are not allowed to travel unescorted.
While driving to the warehouse, the sergeant pulled into the woods, turned off the lights and locked the car doors. When he refused to acknowledge her requests to go back, Chantelle prepared herself for the worst.
“The only thing I had on me was a pen. So I grabbed it and took the cap off—just ‘cause I was scared—and he leans over and tries to kiss me, and I say, sir, really, can we go back now? He was like, I’ll take you back when I’m ready.”
When Chantelle heard this, she tried to escape the truck, but the sergeant grabbed her belt and tried to slip his hand down Chantelle’s pants. She managed to turn and stab him several times with her pen before unlocking the door and stumbling away into the woods.
She later flagged down a passing car and was taken to a hospital. Military police was called, however, because there was no penetration—thus no DNA—it was her word against the sergeant’s. Although he had pen marks on his arm and collarbone, he tried to claim that Chantelle had attacked him; that she had gone crazy.
“They tried to pin it on me,” Chantelle said. “I didn’t get charged, luckily, but they tried to because I stabbed him with the pen. Even though it was self-defense.”
Chantelle’s case automatically went unrestricted when she told the person who picked her up off the road that she had been assaulted. While the investigation was taking place, soldiers in her battalion found out about the incident, and rumors spread. Many of them stopped talking to her.
“I just felt like a target, like every time someone looked at me they were thinking, ‘Oh my god, she’s such a slut, she’s such a liar,’” Chantelle said. “They knew that I didn’t know that person, but people still talk. Even with black and white evidence in front of you, people will still talk.”
She said she also felt like a target because of the way her command handled the investigation. One example was their policy of escorting her to counseling, conferences with investigators, and trials.
“When I was being escorted, I felt like I was being put on the spotlight,” Chantelle said. “Instead of making this as low-key as possible, I felt like they were making it out there more, for everyone else to see. I felt so uncomfortable.”
The investigation concluded after nearly six months, but Chantelle said she never expected it to take that long. She was told it would a take a couple of months, but was not prepared for it to last almost half a year.
“Originally my plan was not to get out, but after seeing how I was treated and how their system was working, I didn’t want to be in anymore,” Chantelle said.
Chantelle ended her service three months early because she said she could not deal with the stress. She had been assaulted five months prior to this incident—to a lesser degree—but what she had experienced both times was enough to convince her there was something seriously wrong with the system.
When investigations to the second incident concluded and punishment was doled out to the staff sergeant, he ended up being dismissed from the Army. However, he was convicted of assault, rather than sexual assault.
“There’s a lot of favoritism,” Chantelle said. “If they like you, of course they’re going to back you up. If they don’t know you or don’t like you, you’re pretty much out of luck.
You would think that being in the military it would be a lot easier and more comfortable to report things like [sexual assault], but it’s not,” Chantelle said. “It’s almost like they take it and slap it back in your face, as if it was your fault.”
The Need for Trustworthy Advocates
Chantelle said the civilian therapist she went to was the only person who made her feel like the incident was not her fault. She was originally assigned a military VA, but later insisted her therapist attend the investigations and hearings with her instead.
“The Victim’s Advocate for me was a female [sergeant],” Chantelle said. “The reason I wasn’t comfortable with her, at least part of it, was because she was military. I felt like because she was in the military she might have heard something, and might have looked at me a different way, as opposed to my counselor who was civilian.”
Lynn said something similar: she believes the military should not handle sexual assault and it should be outsourced to the civilian sector. She did not report because she did not trust the military options for reporting.
“I think the Victim Advocates are a bunch of bull because a lot of them are higher ranking officials too,” Lynn said. “I remember the chief that was the VA on the ship, and he was friends with a lot of the higher ranking ones. Trying to tell him that one of his friends did that would be just—it wouldn’t go good. I just think they’re a little bit biased, I don’t think it should ever be anybody who’s on the ship, or anything like that. They have their own little system to everything, instead of bringing it to the civilian side, and I think it should all be civilian sided. I don’t think it should have any military connections to it.”
Ursula-Claire Gnan, a former VA who recently finished her military service, said advocates are provided from a variety of backgrounds and ranks, since sexual assault can affect people of all ranks, genders and ethnicities. She said there may be glitches in the system, however, just having the VA program in place is a big step for victims.
“Overall, the fact that the program is even in place is a good thing,” Gnan said. “Back in the day we didn’t have resources like that to go to. It’s definitely something that could use improving, but overall the fact that it exists is a big deal.”
As a VA, one issue Gnan noticed is that victims have continued interaction with their assailants while investigations are ongoing.
“The fact that a lot of the victims were forced to be on the same ship as their attackers for a period of two or three months while the investigation is going on—that is not something that would be tolerated in the civilian world,” Gnan said. “That was definitely something that bothered me, so I know for a fact it bothered the victims.”
In August 2014, California signed into law a policy that allows military sexual assaults to be addressed in civilian courts—depending on what the victim wants. However, this law is not in effect nationwide.
“We are working on new policies,” Zeldis said, “but ultimately we have to wade through Congress to change the laws.”