Last week, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta lifted the ban preventing female soldiers from officially serving in combat -- a decision that raised the urgency on efforts to address the festering crisis of sexual assault within the U.S. military. That crisis -- which claimed more than 50 victims of sexual assault a day in the latest year of Defense Department data -- is the subject of the Oscar-nominated 2012 documentary Invisible War. In this series, The Huffington Post invites victims and advocates to speak out about sexual assault in the military.
I was especially inspired by Massachusett's Congresswoman Niki Tsongas' piece in the Huffington Post, "A Cultural Change Is Needed." Shortly after testifying in front of an almost empty House Armed Services Committee hearing room, on my way to an old Air Force pal's house, I learned that the combat exclusion policy on women in the military was lifted. I was ecstatic because this is a piece of that culture change that is necessary to help us gain the respect that we deserve and work hard for. This organizational change will in fact put us on equal footing eventually by allowing us the opportunity to be full-fledged warriors as opposed to support and in some cases even morale. Let me be clear, while important, current reforms will not fundamentally solve the epidemic of rape and assault within our military. It will not address the culture of blaming the victim while failing to prosecute perpetrators. And, we must remember that according to the Department of Defense's own data, 56 percent of victims are male. This crime is about violence and abuse of authority not sex. The military justice system is broken. It elevates an individual commander's discretion over the rule of law. And it is encumbered with bias, command conflict of interest and abuse of authority, which precludes justice. Forty percent of female victims report that the perpetrator was of higher rank and 23 percent in their chain of command.
I was a bit aghast and disheartened by the small number of HASC Committee members that were present during the second panel testimony that included, CMSgt Cindy McNally, USAF Ret., and myself, a medically retired TSgt from the USAF. I was medically retired after 14 years of service due to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that manifested as a result of not only the barrage of sexual assaults and gender discrimination I experienced throughout my entire career but the continued retaliation that took me by complete surprise because I reported criminal activity to my Chain of Command and was now considered a "troublemaker."
Although I was disappointed that the military leadership testifying in the first panel and most of the HASC members were not present during Cindy McNally's and my testimony, that did not deter me. The only disappointment for me was that I didn't get the chance to answer multiple questions from multiple HASC members. I was really looking forward to educating them in its entirety based on my own experience and the experience of the countless victims and family members we work with in my role as a National Victim Advocate with the Military Rape Crisis Center. But, regardless of whether they were there or not, CSPAN and other media outlets were, which reminded me of the beauty of the checks and balances in place in this country, something that I love about our Constitution and our current form of government. The media plays an important role in this process because a free press can and will reach the American people, who will one day hold both Congress and the Department of Defense accountable for 25 years of failing to effectively address this crisis.
After being chosen to represent Protect Our Defenders (POD) speaking before the HASC, I must admit that it was a very validating experience after basically getting fired for being raped. It gave me a sense of peace that I would never have achieved had I allowed both the military and our society to silence me into shame. This was a duty that I took seriously because I was not just speaking on behalf of myself but I was speaking on behalf of the thousands and thousands of both male and female survivors who have been harmed by the military's sexual assault epidemic, culture of retaliation, and broken justice system. In my advocacy work with the Military Rape Crisis Center and POD, I work with active duty, veterans, civilians, and family members in their pursuits for help, legal advocacy, justice, and safety.
Unfortunately, we did not hear from the victims of the Lackland sexual abuse scandal because, according to Chairman Buck McKeon, their testimony might impact current and future legal proceedings. Nor did we hear from the whistleblowers. The fact is active duty personnel are required to go through their Public Affairs Office to get permission to speak to anyone. In addition, if the basic training recruits would like to save their career, they are safer by remaining anonymous throughout this process. Unfortunately, because of the current Chain of Command approach in dealing with these crimes and the lack of confidentiality in that system, wherever the victim is stationed, their new Chain of Command will likely find out they are a victim of sexual assault, which may potentially put them in danger or cause further physical and/or emotional trauma. The culture of fear and retaliation is real. I pray that the Lackland victims are in fact being taken care of emotionally because the USAF victims that we work with are experiencing the same exact ill treatment that I did 16 years ago.
The culture of fear goes beyond those assaulted. The victims of sexual assault who remain in the military become fearful that someone else may abuse their authority. After all, who would believe them if they were assaulted yet again, as is the case for many others and me. In addition, due to the culture of victim blaming, good soldiers sometimes become fearful if they associate themselves with the victim that they may be falsely accused. Even though, according to a number of credible reports, only around 8 percent of rape and assault cases are false. This fear is amplified by the rumor mill regarding the victim and efforts to discredit them, in addition to the victim's reluctance to talk about the traumatizing experience. In some cases, the victim is not only retaliated against but they get isolated, marginalized, and become an outcast because of this fear in a small setting like a squadron.
While I was serving, it was taboo to talk about sexual assault, and it still is. I too was retaliated against for reporting the crimes. Yet neither of the perpetrators lost their military careers. One was transferred to Headquarters where he could finish out his 20-year career honorably, the other one was honorably discharged from the Maine Air National Guard and he turned around and joined the New Hampshire Air National Guard. So my efforts to protect other potential victims from these two escalating predators, was futile because I was not able to warn the public of their potential danger. The military justice system disproportionately protects the rights of the accused over those of the victim, especially when they take into account the "good" service and perceived credibility of the accused and often higher ranking soldier. It is no wonder that less than 14 percent of victims report the crime. Victim blaming, retaliation, errant medical diagnoses, and the end of a career one loves are just some of the reasons.
Although I feel that the members on our panel at the Congressional hearing should have been able to testify first, it helped me immensely to hear the testimonies of both General Mark Welsh and General Edward Rice. General Welsh definitely appears to be genuine in his pursuit for justice but his pursuit for justice depends on a Chain of Command who has to date failed in this mission. Whether it is bias, conflict of interest, bad behavior or a desire for quick resolution, the effect is the same, the military justice system repeatedly fails the victim. Commanders and even higher-ranking officers are given complete autonomy to determine whether an investigation takes place. In addition, we here instances where victims hesitate to move forward to report the crime due to intimidation. Instances where victims are told that due to underage drinking they themselves will be charged if they move forward to report the assault. And victims are often reminded that their claims are "alleged," a case of "he said, she said," which really means, you can't prove it, we don't believe you, you have no case. In these common examples justice is not served and the predator remains unpunished to commit the crime again. It's important to remember, though in the minority but in my case and a significant number of others, perpetrators are in your Chain of Command or someone of higher rank.
I would like to note that it was obvious to me that General Welsh is clearly appalled by the rising rates of sexual assault in the military, specifically the United States Air Force. He said two things that really struck me. He said he could not imagine why victims of a crime as heinous as sexual assault would not report the crime and he also mentioned that binge drinking appears to be a problem that is contributing to this issue. First General Welsh, if you would have stayed to listen to my testimony I would have told you why we are so afraid to report. I was physically beaten by one of the perpetrator's friends after reporting. This person still honorably serves in the Maine Air National Guard as a Senior Non-Commissioned Officer because the crime occurred off base. Secondly, if you would listen to the testimonies of other survivors, both male and female, you would quickly learn the pattern of predatory behavior in the military and the deeply rooted culture of retaliation against a victim who reports this violent crime. Lastly, as Representative Mike Turner so rightly stated, this is not an issue, this is a crime. Binge drinking is not the problem. Alcohol is the weapon of choice of predators used to incapacitate their victims. And more often than not, if the perpetrator is unable to incapacitate the victim through the use of alcohol, they sometimes use drugs to successfully incapacitate the victim or abuse their authority by threatening to adversely affect their career. Because so few are brought to justice, predators within the military become proficient and unafraid. Alcohol and drugs are but two of many crafts they employ to commit the crimes with impunity. The common victim-blaming statements used to minimize the crime are: she was drunk, she is a slut, she wanted it, it was consensual, she liked it rough, etc. Most of these crimes are perpetrated against recruits and those of lower rank whose lives and safety are dependent on those in the Chain of Command. All it takes is one bad Command to ruin a good soldier's career.
Like the checks and balances that are currently in place for civilians, all we are asking for is the same. While civilians have various routes of redress to get justice for the crime perpetrated against them, service members are too often dependent on one person's individual discretion. And too often the bias, conflict of interest, relationship with the accused, low regard for the victim or indifference is contributing to the current sexual assault epidemic. If the Commander for whatever reason sweeps the crime under the rug, this erodes the trust within in the unit which is vital to mission readiness and cohesion. And unlike civilians, our support systems are not easily accessible and often we can't escape the predator or quit our job. By law, we are not able to just walk away without serious consequences including the illegal act of committing AWOL (Authorization without Leave).
And as Congresswoman Tsongas stated, "By tolerating military sexual assault, the military is depriving itself of valuable assets and squandering resources in a way that we simply cannot afford." This statement rings true on so many levels. It is this deep-rooted cultural failure that is destroying the lives of those who have been a victim of this mostly unpunished crime. It adversely affects our society as these predators already live in our communities and when they depart the military, they move into our neighborhoods.
This is costing the taxpayers of America unnecessary financial burdens. We Americans are paying for disability benefits for PTSD that results from the prolonged exposure to sexual assault and retaliation. The VA estimates that over half a million veterans suffer from Military Sexual Trauma. And by kicking the victim out we are losing good troops who have been provided with some of the best training in the world. I would much rather be serving my country then dealing with the invisible wounds of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder made worse by a culture that punishes a victim who had the courage to report the crime. Instead, we are paying for predators to complete their military careers and collect their retirements. We are quite literally paying for predators to commit crimes that have been perfected and crafted while serving in the US Military.
We also recognize that there continues to be, even since the passage of the Defense STRONG Act in December 2011, serious "implementation" issues with sexual assault policy in all branches of the military.
For those of you out there who may be a victim of sexual assault within the military and you don't have a victim advocate that you can turn to or you are concerned about confidentiality issues, please contact the Military Rape Crisis Center (www.stopmilitaryrape.org). We are the largest NGO that offers support for MST Survivors, free of cost. We will stand by your side throughout the entire process. All of our victim advocates are MST survivors and understand the unique needs of Active Duty members and Veterans suffering from MST. We want to give you the knowledge of how the military and Veteran's Affairs systems' work so you can make informed decisions whether continuing with a successful career or even in some cases leaving the service with the benefits you deserve. Because we know that MST affects family and friends, we offer our services to you as well free of charge. And finally, regardless of the status of your military discharge, you are eligible for services. We can work together to make a plan that will help you get healthy and we will also help you and support you through the military's justice system should you decide to report or otherwise need help modifying your inaccurate records.
Until the military leadership and Congress face the core issue -- a broken and conflicted military justice system -- this epidemic will not end. In December 2011, the courts in agreeing with the military's argument deemed rape "incident to service," otherwise known as an "occupational hazard." Had I known this piece of information prior to joining the service, I would not have joined. We want you and all Americans to join us so that you can pursue your dreams free of unpunished rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment, and gender discrimination. Please join us at We Support the STOP Act and sign our petition help us take the reporting, investigation, and prosecution of violent crimes out of the Chain of Command. @STOPActHR3435.
If you want to join our advocacy efforts, please visit Protect Our Defenders @ProtectRDfnders.
If you would like to learn more about the military's sexual assault epidemic and broken justice system, please watch The Invisible War documentary @Invisible_War.