Commentary

How Army culture dismisses its female service members

The Army, specifically Fort Hood, has been in the spotlight due to the recent events surrounding the disappearance of Spc. Vanessa Guillen — and it’s not going to change anytime soon. What we are seeing is the surfacing of the issues regarding consent, power dynamics, and the inability of junior and senior leaders to foster an environment of true equity. We are seeing the equivalent of a military #MeToo movement; leaders should take note.

Consent in the general population is the understanding of an enthusiastic “yes” response — which is not the equivalent to not saying “no.” As professionals, both military and civilian alike, the idea of consent must be understood that it is a multifaceted issue. Consent and power dynamics go hand-in-hand; there is no true consent with someone of a significantly different rank or position. If an NCO and a junior enlisted soldier have a “consenting” relationship — the NCO is guilty of abusing a power dynamic for sexual gratification. Consent is not valid if the individual receiving consent is in a position that holds power over the one giving consent. While the fraternization regulation is relatively clear in what is and is not acceptable, there are countless examples of senior NCOs making moves on junior officer/enlisted alike; senior officers face scandal after scandal of fraternization, and still nothing changes.

Mellisa Mendoza places white roses at a mural for Army Spc. Vanessa Guillen in Austin, Texas, on July 6, 2020. The mural was created July 4 and 5 by artists Fili Mendieta and Arturo Silva. (Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman via AP)
The unbearable cost of losing the silent war within our military

Military culture is shaped by the worst behavior its leaders are willing to tolerate, and myriad violations of a sexual nature have been tolerated as “the price of admission” for far too long, says the author of this commentary.

Mandatory SHARP briefs have become nothing more than a yearly check in the box where leadership attempts to convey the open-door policy with a “don’t touch other people” and call it a day. But what most leadership fails to understand is that it’s not the junior enlisted we need to worry about — it is our own bosses and peers. Yes, bystander intervention is important, and this is not a dismissal of the necessity of teaching it. But how do you tell your soldiers to intervene when the sexual comments are coming from their first-, second-, or third-line leadership? How do you hold your formations accountable when the accountability likely needed most is within the inner circle?

We all can accept and understand the concept of sexual assault being associated with power, not sexual attraction; however, the two are inherently linked. Physical attraction will precede any form of power exerted; commentary, looks, and subtleties will precede any direct form of assault. When individuals are allowed to get away with the small issues, a sense of autonomy and power is born; and with it, the belief that they will not be held accountable for their actions. When a male NCO (or officer) is making comments to a junior enlisted female, she is left with a choice: do I say something, potentially risk not getting believed, anger him and be labeled a stuck-up liar/bitch; or do I grin and bear it, hoping it goes away? Those of us who trust the institution or who have been fortunate enough to have progressive-minded leadership would say, “report it.” That’s the Army answer, absolutely. But what happens when the leadership seems like a tight-knit circle and the victim is left feeling as if her leadership won’t believe her?

Offerings sit in front of a mural of slain Army Spc. Vanessa Guillen painted on a wall in the south side of Fort Worth, Texas, July 11, 2020. (LM Otero/AP)
Offerings sit in front of a mural of slain Army Spc. Vanessa Guillen painted on a wall in the south side of Fort Worth, Texas, July 11, 2020. (LM Otero/AP)

What happens when it’s no longer an NCO/junior enlisted dynamic, but it’s a junior officer/senior NCO dynamic? The power dynamic technically would be in favor of the officer; but the reality of such a dynamic would fall under the guise of mentorship. A SNCO who takes the junior officer under his wing — and a junior officer new to the Army who is eager to learn and prove herself.

Female service members are failed by the Army daily through these types of interactions. And it is easier to smile, fake laugh and move on. Because yes, the vast majority of men will not respond violently. But that is not guaranteed for every man. We are taught from the very beginning of our lives to walk with our keys in our hands to use as a weapon, carry pepper spray, take self-defense courses. But how do you teach female service members to always be wary while simultaneously trusting these men with their lives? Sexual assaults in the military are significantly underreported — and why? Is it because the Army isn’t doing enough? Is it because there are people in high rank who abuse their power and leave the victims feeling helpless? Or is it simply because the Army programs are well intentioned but ultimately misguided?

The Army needs to consider how SHARP is implemented at the unit level, how SHARP issues are handled, and if there are changes that need to be made. The SHARP brief that treats every soldier equally is wrong — leadership needs to have a separate brief, and it needs to come from higher. Every single NCO and officer needs to understand that they are held to a higher standard, and discussions need to be centered around power dynamics, and how their actions can have a direct impact on unit cohesion, morale, and performance of their soldiers. Leaders need to feel as if they are consistently under a microscope from higher when it comes to how they interact with others. Leaders need to know the signs of abuse — because that’s what it is. Long term sexual harassment and assault are abuse; they should be treated as such. Soldiers need to be empowered to call out behavior of those who outrank them, and trust that there will not be blowback. Leaders need to understand this concept: SHARP might be misguided, but ultimately it is on us to set the standard.

There will be male service members who read this and respond defensively, and I hope it is because those men have had the benefit of good leadership. Others will read it and roll their eyes — ”everyone’s so sensitive these days.” And to those men: yes. Yes, I am sensitive about issues that affect a majority of the female population in the military. I am sensitive about sexual assault and harassment. This commentary is nothing more than a recommendation from a junior officer who spent time enlisted prior to commissioning. But it’s the words of a female service member who has suffered a sexual assault at the hands of a senior NCO; it’s the words of a leader who had a peer abuse his position. It’s the words of someone who wants her soldiers to know and have trust that leadership is held to a higher standard. It’s the words of someone who could have been Vanessa Guillen.

Lt. Kaitlyn Abbott is a chemical officer in the Virginia National Guard attached to the 116th IBCT, where she was enlisted prior to commissioning in 2017 from Christopher Newport University. She and her husband currently reside in the Hampton Roads region of Virginia.

Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, haltman@militarytimes.com.

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