Michelle Johnston, 30, of Aurora, Colo., was a Navy gunner and one of two women in her unit. She says she was verbally and physically abused while serving in the Navy. (Marc Piscotty for USA Today)
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, speak to reporters during a news conference about a bill regarding military sexual assault cases on July 16. (Charles Dharapak/AP)
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COLORADO SPRINGS, COLO. — A recently graduated cadet remembers waiting for her accused rapist at the Air Force Academy to be brought to justice. A former sailor, now living in Denver, talks of being sexually harassed by shipmates and eventually forced to leave the Navy after she reported a subordinate’s rape. A male sergeant, based at Fort Carson, speaks of seeing participants in a gang rape get away with it.
As the military tries again to deal with an epidemic of sexual assaults, these three servicemembers have witnessed the problem firsthand. They know what happens when those who are victimized try to report assaults. They have seen commanders look away or worse.
The Senate is drafting its annual defense bill this month, including a provision that would strengthen how the Pentagon handles sexual assaults and harassment. Military leaders oppose a plan that would remove discretion from commanders to overrule juries in some of these cases, but a tougher proposal offered by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., is gaining bipartisan support.
They, and those trying to help victims, all agree on one thing — these problems won’t be fixed until the commanders of those committing the assaults no longer have the power to decide who is punished. In the military, for crimes from DUI to sexual assault, the commander, under the advice of a lawyer, decides whether a case will be handled administratively, through non-judicial punishment, such as a pay decrease or reduction in rank; or whether it will go to trial and what the charges will be.
“In the civilian world, the boss doesn’t get to decide if you’ve been raped,” says Georg-Andreas Pogany, a former Army sergeant who works in Colorado Springs to connect servicemembers with mental health resources.
Recent congressional hearings featured generals promising change and outlining programs created to fix the issues, but those in this military community say that’s not enough to solve the problem. For the past 20 years, the military has confronted periodic sexual harassment and assault scandals, and reports show the problems have gotten worse. Ten years ago, 12 percent of the Air Force Academy’s female graduating class said they had been sexually assaulted and 70 percent said they had been sexually harassed. Last year, the Pentagon estimated that about 500 men and women were assaulted each week.
From 2010 to 2012, Pentagon records show, there was a 35 percent increase in sexual assault and harassment cases in the military.
“This is what they do every time,” Pogany says. “They take responsibility. They create new programs. They switch leaders around. All you’ve changed is the external facade.”
Soldier advocates at Fort Carson, Colo., including Pogany, say they’ve been chased off post for bringing attention to the women who are ostracized, punished and booted from the Army after being raped.
“They need to get help thinking about this differently,” says Janet Kerr, the interim executive director of TESSA, a Colorado Springs domestic violence and sexual assault agency. “There are so many ingrained, preconceived ideas about women’s roles and victims. It’s a long process.”
In the past two months alone:
■ An Army general at Fort Jackson, S.C., was suspended on charges of adultery after an alleged physical altercation with his mistress.
■ A member of Fort Hood’s Sexual Assault Response Team was accused of running a prostitution ring.
■ The head of the Air Force’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response was arrested for allegedly approaching a woman in a parking lot and grabbing her breasts.
■ A West Point rugby team was benched for sexist e-mails.
Last year, the Pentagon said 3,374 servicemembers reported sexual assaults, up from 3,192 in 2011. This reflects a steady increase over the past decade. Of the cases reported in 2012, 96 went to court-martial. The Pentagon estimated that about 500 men and women were assaulted each week last year. The Defense Department estimates that 14 percent of military victims report their assaults. The Defense Department’s Sexual Assault Prevention Office found that 64 percent of convicted sexual assault perpetrators were discharged from the military.
'Nothing can save me'
When the Air Force cadet reached her senior year, much of her time at the academy had gone by easily and happily, she says. Then she began dating another cadet. After about a month of hanging out together, he invited her to an empty room.
“I was verbally resistant,” she says. “I don’t like this. I don’t want to do this,” she told him.
He raped her anyway, she says.
Rape counselors at TESSA confirm her story. USA Today does not name or include other identifying information about victims of sexual assault without their consent.
The cadet didn’t report the rape for months. The male cadet admitted afterward that he had wanted to hurt her, the female cadet says. Turning to friends, she heard it wasn’t the first time it had happened.
After her assault, the cadet found a female officer who tended to take women dealing with sexual assault under her wing. The woman was not in her chain of command. “My immediate chain of command was all male,” she says. “It would just be nice if they would provide a safe environment where the girls could come forward.”
When she took time off for counseling, she felt as if she had to provide excuses to the other students, as if she wasn’t pulling her weight. Still, “in counseling, I learned he would become a predator,” she says. “I didn’t want anyone else to have to deal with this.”
After months, while still a cadet, she finally reported the rape.
She still had to go to class with him, see him at the dining hall or at the school’s one mail room. “We did have a no-contact order,” she says, “but with the exception of classroom work. I never knew when I was going to turn a corner and see him. And he knew where I lived.”
Though the cadet’s commanders had been supportive, they couldn’t keep a secret, she says. “Others really aren’t supposed to know, but word definitely spreads,” she says. “One day, I realized people were looking at me differently.”
When she heard about the string of leaders who were supposed to help victims, but instead were being investigated for allegedly creating victims themselves, it left her worried about her career as a female officer.
“At this point, it’s like nothing can save me,” the former cadet says. “It’s shocking.”
The cadet’s story is anything but unusual, according to TESSA’s Kerr. Understanding what happened in any specific case is not enough.
There also needs to be a civilian understanding of military culture, she says. A woman who is raped in the military can’t quit her job to avoid contact with the perpetrator, an available method of escape in the civilian world. She may live in the barracks with the perpetrator and his friends, and she may deploy with them to a war zone, where safety hinges on trust.
In the military, the chain of command decides when a person may eat, when he or she may go on vacation, where he or she may live, whether he or she will get a promotion and what job he or she will perform while deployed.
When a woman is assaulted in the military, as in any other disciplinary matter, it is ultimately reported to her boss. But first, the news travels up a long chain of command, often made up of men. In 2010, men made up 84 percent of the commissioned officer corps, as well as about 91 percent of first sergeants, or a company’s top enlisted rank. If any one of those men have an issue with the victim or is friends with the assailant, that can change the way the assault is reported, as well as how both the victim and the assailant are treated.
Victims can report an assault anonymously, as well as outside the chain of command, so he or she may receive counseling without facing the stress of reporting an assault. But that brings no punishment and may not stop the assaults.
'We don't have to listen'
Take, for example, the five-year career of Michelle Johnston.
When Johnston joined the Navy in 2001 as a gunner’s mate, her recruiter told her it was a combat-rated position that had been open to women since 1993.
From the start, the men on her team told her she wasn’t good enough, that she shouldn’t be there. She says that as she made rank, shooting up to sergeant in three years, her subordinates said, “We don’t have to listen to you.”
“They’d handcuff me and lock me up,” she says. “I just thought it was hazing. After a month or two, I realized they hated me.”
Once, they dumped urine on her. They complained that she was the reason they could not have pinups in the office, but they’d watch porn in front of her on office computers, she says. They told her she was fat and ugly. When friends tried to defend her, they accused them of having sex with her or of being weak — “like a woman.”
“I didn’t feel like I was safe,” Johnston says. “I felt like I was on my own. I didn’t report it because everyone already knew.”
When some of the guys did strongly stick up for Johnston, “there was a shift.”
“Just one person wrote two of them up,” she says. “One of them shut up super-quick. The other had to defend himself in front of a board of peers.”
It didn’t go any further than the disciplinary review board, and she had no one else to report it to. “I don’t think I ever talked to an officer,” Johnston says. “When you’re that low, you don’t go talk to people. There were no women directly in my chain of command.”
In fact, it took her a while to understand she was experiencing Military Sexual Trauma, an official term used by the Department of Veterans Affairs to refer to sexual assault and/or harassment. “I just thought I was a wuss for not being able to take it,” she says.
When she returned to her room after work, she immediately went to sleep. When she couldn’t sleep, she would drink as much as two bottles of wine to try to pass out. She slept with the lights on because she had become afraid of the dark.
“All I would think about was those guys,” she says. “It never occurred to me that it was MST. Now I realize it was depression.”
At Johnston’s next duty station in Spain in 2005, things went well until one of her sailors was raped. The woman was a seaman and the man a petty officer. In fact, he was one of her best-liked sailors, someone who did his job well, Johnston says. While on duty by themselves one day, the woman said, the petty officer raped her.
“I wish I had never encouraged her to report it,” Johnston says. Within an hour of Johnston’s report to the Equal Opportunity Officer, “I got a call from my petty officer saying, ‘Shut the (expletive) up. Your career is over.’”
Investigators encouraged Johnston to say her sailor had lied about the incident, she says. Other petty officers in her unit took the seaman back to the scene of the assault and asked her to repeat exactly what had happened as part of the investigation. “They re-victimized her,” Johnston says.
Johnston went to the unit’s sexual assault officer. “There was a JAG (Judge Advocate General) dude there, and I knew from the expression on his face that he wasn’t going to be able to do anything.”
A week after she reported the assault on her sailor, Johnston felt so hopeless that she overdosed on medications.
Six months after she attempted suicide, her chain of command asked her if she wanted to get out of the military. “I said, ‘I’m strong. I can do this,’” she says. “They were like, ‘No. We’re going to kick you out.’
“I do think it should have been taken out of the chain of command,” she says. “You never know how someone’s going to be treated. Someone gets a DUI, and the command says, ‘We’re going to keep your DUI hush-hush,’ or ‘Nope, it’s going civilian.’ Rape is the same. If you rape someone, you should be out of the military.”
Johnston received an administrative discharge with a personality disorder. TESSA confirmed her story. In the fall, she plans to attend Denver University for an advanced degree in social work.
Pogany, the former sergeant who helps veterans find mental health counseling, says that is a common way to handle rape cases. About 31,000 servicemembers were forced out of the military on personality disorder discharges from 2001 to 2010, according to a report from Vietnam Veterans of America. VVA obtained the data through Freedom of Information Act requests. Personality disorders, such as schizophrenia or narcissism, usually appear by a person’s late teens, and the military screens for them when a person enlists.
An administrative discharge allows the military to dismiss a servicemember with no benefits. And it allows them to quickly fill that slot with someone who can deploy. Investigations have shown that many of those discharged really were dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, and Congress has called on the military to stop the practice. Pentagon spokeswoman Cynthia Smith says it is “uncommon” for a person to be discharged from the military after the “initial years” of service, and they can’t be eligible for disability because of post-traumatic stress disorder. They must be diagnosed by a psychiatrist or doctoral-level psychologist, she said.
Pogany says the practice continues.
“The women are ostracized, retaliated against, shuffled out with no benefits, and the perpetrators go scot-free,” Pogany says. “The women are either crazy or they’re liars, but either way, they can be pushed out on a personality disorder.”
Part of the problem may come from the method created to fix it: Generals must quell the number of assaults on base. If they don’t, it’s a black mark on them.
“If there are five rape cases in four months, that’s looking really bad for the commanding general,” says Robert Alvarez, a former Marine and psychotherapist who works with wounded service members. “So they don’t prosecute. But it totally discredits the victim — it’s double damage. And if you allow people to get away with something, the problem never goes away.”
Erica Laue, a therapist at TESSA who recently served as a victim’s advocate at Fort Carson, says Johnston ran into a common wall in the military: Servicemembers have to have each other’s backs at all times, and that’s compounded when the aggressor is someone everyone in the unit likes.
“Even when they’re trying to help, the commander still has to manage everyone else,” Laue says. “You have to understand personal politics.”
In addition, those choices are left to “commander’s discretion,” which means he or she may decide whether the assault is treated as a criminal case. Instead, Laue says, there should be automatic support for both the victim and the accused while keeping the perpetrator in check, and there should be consistency in how the cases are handled.
“Remove the adjudication process from commander’s discretion,” she says. “It’s a crime that needs to be processed and dealt with.”
Feelings of helplessness
Even the men involved in these cases can feel helpless.
A Fort Carson staff sergeant deployed to Kuwait says one of his first experiences when he joined the Army 14 years ago involved a female recruit who grabbed him inappropriately and tried to kiss him. The military immediately booted her out, he says.
“At that moment I thought the Army would always handle those guilty of misconduct, especially of the sexual nature, as swiftly as they did her,” he says. The military police officer, who asked not to be named because he did not have permission from his unit to speak on the matter, was quickly proved wrong.
At his first duty station, he says eight men in his unit raped a female soldier in the barracks building next to his barracks. He gave investigators a statement about what he’d seen at the beginning of his guard shift the next morning.
“The girl was apparently extremely intoxicated and was brought back to a room by a guy she was with at a club,” he says. “She passed out, and then he allowed his friends to have their way with her. ... In the end, nothing happened to any of the soldiers, and the girl was never the same again.”
That was just the first case. Often, he says, when a female soldier said she had been assaulted, she would be treated as if it were her fault or she were lying about it.
“As much as I hate to admit it, it seems as though the leadership often starts off assuming the soldier is lying about the assault,” he says. “That’s the worst part. As leaders, we are responsible for the welfare of our soldiers, and they should have the benefit of the doubt.”
Because they do not, he says, he knows of cases where a woman has been assaulted or raped but “refused to report it because they felt they would be labeled, harassed or that it would affect their career.”
During a deployment to Iraq, the sergeant saw female soldiers work the same jobs as the men — basically pulling patrols in support of infantry units — and he saw them lose their lives in that service.
“I’ve talked to my soldiers, and they feel that the only real way to combat sexual harassment/sexual assault is to severely punish those that commit these acts,” he says. “Sentence them to time in a confinement facility, strip them of all of their pay and benefits, discharge them and force them to register as a sex offender once they are out of the military. Also, these cases should not be dealt with by senior members of the chain of command.”