A Closer Look at Sexual Violence Within the US Military

Sep 15, 2020
5:19 PM

Vanessa Guillén (Courtesy of US Army CID)

LOS ANGELES — On July 29, the Military Personnel Subcommittee held a congressional hearing to examine sexual harassment and retaliation in the Department of Defense and at Fort Hood on the heels of thousands of women sharing their stories of military sexual assault on social media under the hashtag #IAmVanessaGuillén.

For years, veterans have fought this battle against military sexual violence advocating tirelessly for military reform and they have done it away from the spotlight. They have formed grassroots coalitions, have been politically involved, have created communities and helped one another cope, heal, and not just survive but thrive. All of this while having to witness how the powerful military industrial complex that altered their lives goes on enlisting the youth of our nation. And not only do they continue enlisting but also knowingly continue to expose them to the sexual and often deadly soldier to soldier violence that exists within the United States Armed Services.

Members of Congress have also fought on their side to create legislation that will address these crimes and the behavior that fosters them. The Military Justice Improvement Act (MJIA) is one such bill that has been stalled by the Senate since it was introduced in 2013. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s MJIA bill is described on the Senator’s site as “a bipartisan and commonsense reform [that] moves the decision over whether to prosecute serious crimes to independent, trained, professional military prosecutors, while leaving uniquely military crimes within the chain of command.” Sound familiar? The bill was endorsed by various veterans organizations, including Protect Our Defenders. And yet, the MJIA bill was not even allowed on the floor for debate in 2019.

During her opening remarks, Chairwoman Jackie Speier (D) explained that she has been working on this issue for the past 10 years. She lamented on the fact that “for all that we have done not much has changed. We haven’t fixed it and until we get very serious about this, nothing is going to change.”

Vanessa Guillén’s disturbing death and her family’s unwavering fight for answers has pushed front and center once more the well documented horrors of violence within the armed forces. The sexual assault and subsequent disappearance and death of yet another soldier, Elder Fernandes, has tragically forced everyone involved to double down on this fight and really ask out loud, collectively, and with a burning urgency not only what is happening at Fort Hood, but what is happening with the entirety of the Department of Defense? And more importantly, how can we fix it?

Fort Hood has a horrific track record, as Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy himself confirmed in August: “The numbers are high here. They are the highest, the most cases for sexual assault and harassment murders for our entire formation of the US Army.” Fort Hood has been the scene of the crime for murders, kidnappings, rape, human trafficking rings, and mass shootings. But issues of violence are not specific to just Fort Hood. As Pam Campos, an Air Force veteran and seasoned strategist and advocate in the military and veteran community, told Democracy Now!, “This is not unique to Vanessa Guillén. This is not unique to Fort Hood. Rampant military sexual violence, corruption, impunity has been a decades-long issue that can no longer be ignored.”

 

It is evident that anything the military is currently doing to address sexual harassment and assault is simply not working. But you would not get that impression if you listened to the testimonies of Dr. Nate Galbreath, Deputy Director of the DoD’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office and Colonel Patrick Wempe, Command Inspector General of the United States Army Forces Command (FORSCOM). Galbreath used misleading statistics to state that sexual violence has decreased in the past 14 years. When Speier challenged him on this statement, Galbreath made the distinction between sexual harassment and sexual violence. Sexual violence has allegedly decreased according to his data while sexual harassment has increased.

However, when the Defense Department released a study on the military’s sexual prevention efforts in April,  Dr. Galbreath’s office admitted that “in 2018… we saw an uptick in the rates… especially women ages 18 to 24, during their first terms of service.” These are the E1-E4 ranks, these are the targets. Vanessa Guillén was 20, she was in this bracket. Dr. Galbreath knew this since April and yet during the hearing in July he attempted to paint a different picture, one of improvement. The study released in April is part of a congressionally mandated yearly report from the Pentagon.

“The Pentagon’s Office of People Analytics conducted 61 focus groups last fall, speaking to 493 service members ―including some local sexual assault and harassment prevention advocates— at eight installations.”

The information shared in these focus groups is extremely troubling.

When speaking on the inspection of the SHARP (Sexual Harassment Assault Response and Prevention) program and command climate conducted on Fort Hood in late June, Colonel Wempe, like Dr. Galbreath, also spoke approvingly of the base. During his testimony, he made it a point to mention that this was a last minute-inspection, suggesting that it would not give Fort Hood time to cover anything up. He then confirmed that Vanessa Guillén’s unit, the 3rd Cavalry regiment, was initially not part of the inspection.

Colonel Wempe went on to say this: “At Fort Hood, we observed the SHARP program needing to improve in certain areas but one which units generally execute to standard… We believe our inspection results provide an accurate assessment of the Sharp program and climate at Fort Hood… Fort Hood overall is meeting the standards prescribed by Army regulation and policies and the FORSCOM is committed to improvements.”

What I witnessed during this panel were two men equivocating for the military and therefore not able to take an honest look at the climate that has allowed for death and violence to take place. If Fort Hood is all over the news because of missing soldiers, homicides, suicide, and sexual violence, how can an inspection possibly conclude that it is “overall meeting the standards prescribed by the Army?”

‘Our Insider Threat’

The Army describes sexual assault and harassment as “Our Insider Threat” on its website. It states that such behavior and soldier to soldier crime is not tolerated and not consistent with the Army Values and the Warrior Ethos. Words on their site may say that such behavior is not tolerated but we learn that not only is it tolerated, it is accepted as normal.

The study released by the Defense Department in April included many troubling anecdotes from women and men alike in regards to the normalization of sexual harassment within the military. Apathy and binge drinking were also credited as major roles in this toxic environment. Colonel Wempe stated in the hearing that there is trust with upper levels of leadership but that it is at the lower levels where supervisors are not trusted. The research corroborates this. Many younger troops explained that mid-level enlisted leaders are the ones who most often fail “to set the tone and police unacceptable behavior.” Because sexual harassment is not considered a crime, supervisors apparently do not take it seriously. Junior troops notice this so they feel no need to change their behavior and this creates an environment where sexual harassment inevitably results in sexual assault.

To make matters much worse, as if they are not bad already, some supervisors and recruiters themselves are the abusers and they are methodical about it. As one Army SHARP coordinator told a focus group: “Seniors [are] grooming their subordinates and making those targets of opportunity happen… For instance, I’m a senior, I’m going to make you feel special, I’m taking you through the grooming process, then I’m going to invite myself or create a poker game at your residence, and I’m going to invite everybody. However, when I get there, I am going to target you. I’m going to get your spouse totally ripped, drunk, and they’re going to pass out, then I’m going to take advantage of you.”

Sexual harassment is part of the grooming process and should be treated as such but there is a current indifference to it which allows it to spread. Service members told the focus groups that “…leaders who allow inappropriate behaviors to persist and who participants perceived to not care about preventing sexual assault and sexual harassment create an unhealthy environment for coworkers, lower[ing] the standard for acceptable behaviors.”

If this is shared knowledge, then why is the military seemingly incapable of doing anything about it? We often hear that change comes from the top. If the top is not serious about condemning this unacceptable and criminal behavior, then what is the incentive for young leaders to change?

Almost Started Immediately

During the same committee hearing, we also heard from two Army veterans, Lucy Del Gaudio and Melissa Bryant. From them we learned that the sexual harassment almost started immediately. Bryant began her remarks recounting her days in 2000 as a 20-year-old cadet stationed at Fort Hood for a few weeks of training as part of ROTC. She shadowed the platoon sargent and spent time with him and other soldiers “joking around ignoring the occasional overt sexual comments.”

“I just wanted to fit in” she noted.

Bryant, member of a service woman led grassroots movement, asserted that “sexual harassment in the military is not only an epidemic of fear it is a national security risk, systemically degrading the integrity of unit cohesion thus reducing personal readiness.”

She went on to explain that the suffering does not end after the assault. It follows service members in the form for MST, Military Sexual Trauma.

When you think of veterans and mental health, many immediately think of PTSD, but we do not know that MST has its own section dedicated to it on the Veteran Affairs site. This is how serious of a problem it is. “An estimated 1 in 4 female veterans in the VA Healthcare report MST and nearly 40% of veterans who disclose MST to VA are men.” But MST has now entered the mainstream lexicon and civilians are waking up to the suffering of their service brothers and sisters, suffering that is growing exponentially.

MST leads to a host of mental health issues that affects a person’s ability to lead a functional life. Some of the symptoms listed on the VA site are substance abuse, mental health issues such as depression or numbness, feeling unsafe around people, behavioral issues as well as physical health problems. Many MST survivors also have difficulty identifying as veterans after such a deep betrayal from the military that they do not seek out help from Veterans Affairs: “Due to such a high number of women being victims of military sexual trauma, many feel resentment toward the military and often do not associate themselves with being a veteran.”

Some veterans are not even aware that they can seek help for MST from the VA.

Homeless Female Veterans

And now there is a growing population of homeless female veterans. According to a post published in by the VA Office of Research and Development, “From 2016 to 2017, the number of homeless female vets increased by 7 percent, compared with 1 percent for their male counterparts” with “the number of women identified by the program as homeless, or who accessed VA programs to end homelessness among female Vets, tripled to 36,443 in a five-year period ending in 2015. That figure, according to the center, is projected to rise by about 9 percent to nearly 40,000 by 2025.”

A study published in 2013 in which the prevalence of MST among homeless veterans was analyzed revealed that “of homeless veterans in VHA, 39.7 % of females and 3.3 % of males experienced MST. Homeless veterans who experienced MST demonstrated a significantly higher likelihood of almost all mental health conditions examined as compared to other homeless women and men.” MST increases your chances of PTSD. And non-white members are disproportionately affected by MST: “Homeless female veterans were significantly more likely to have experienced MST, to be younger, non-white, and single… compared to homeless male veterans.” And remember, these only account for those who report and who seek out help from the VA, meaning that the numbers could be greater.

Not Taking It Seriously

With all of the horrific information gathered from these findings, studies, focus groups, lived experiences and research one would think that the Department of Defense would take this seriously. That they would make a concerted effort to prosecute the junior troops who are engaging in such violence. It is incredibly difficult to believe that they cannot get a handle on this problem. That they are incapable of finding a way to mitigate the sexual violence, the “insider threat.” I do not believe they are incapable, I believe they simply just do not care. And maybe they care even less when the lives taken and the bodies violated under their watch are Black and Brown lives.

Are their criminal soldiers violent before they are recruited or do they become violent and desensitized to human pain once they are in the care of the military? Is American culture indifferent to the suffering of soldiers because they are not aware or because they think that it is an occupational hazard and comes with the territory? Or is this just another reflection of how American culture does not take sexual violence seriously? Yet another example of how abusers are protected and victims blamed and discarded?

When someone is assaulted within the military, they are not trusted nor protected as victims. They are seen and treated as problems to be silenced. Del Gaudio, also a member of a grassroots coalition, shared a powerful testimony during the July hearing in which she explained that like many others, she joined the military to “create legacy, to create equity, and to serve [their] country as patriots.” Del Gaudio enlisted after her father passed away and her mother could not afford sending two daughters to college. She was sexually assaulted in 1992 by a senior NCO. She was told that “reporting through her chain of command was the only option and nothing was done… that any pursuit for justice and accountability would ruin HIS career.” Imagine that: someone assaults you, commits a crime, and they are the ones who the military protects. In 1992, the same year Del Gaudio was assaulted, her “mentor, Diana Danis, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee about the same very topic.”

In 1991 during the 35th Annual Tailhook Symposium, 83 women and seven men were sexually assaulted at a Las Vegas Hilton Hotel. Del Gaudio’s mentor testified in 1992 in regards to Tailhook and 27 years later we have Del Gaudio testifying on the very same topic after Vanessa Guillén’s death.

“There is no safe reporting mechanism, there is no protection for our victims, there is no accountability for predators,” Del Gaudio said.

How can anyone feel safe reporting if they know that they will face retaliation for it and their abuser will face no consequences? Del Gaudio and Bryant ended their opening remarks requesting that a congressional investigation be opened into the death of Vanessa Guillén and Fort Hood among other demands.

“If this is going to change the DoD must take this issue seriously, zero tolerance means zero tolerance, military justice must be swift and it must be just,” Del Gaudio said.

Not Formally Reporting

Vanessa Guillén did not formally report her sexual harassment but she did confide in her family before she disappeared that her supervisor was stalking and sexually harassing her. Because the alleged harasser allegedly took his own life, we have only the words of the Guillén family to go by. The CID claims that there is no connection between the harassment and Vanessa’s death. Rep. Trent Kelly (R) echoed this during the hearing: “The sexual harassment and the murder are two separate things. They are not connected in any way and to suggest otherwise is just not true.”

Kelly was more concerned about hearing himself and contradicting the veterans than actually listening to the suggestions made by the veterans. This general attitude of not listening to the very people who know first hand how toxic leadership creates this environment is endemic. It is present in every system. If what Kelly says is true, if there is no connection, then was Vanessa Guillén being sexually harassed as intimidation to keep her from reporting even more sinister activity at Fort Hood? Was she brutally murdered because the intimidation was not working and she was never planning to report it?

We now know that Elder Fernandes did report his sexual assault and it did not help. Unfortunately, he is now one of the 28 Fort Hood soldiers who have lost their lives this year. I wonder what Kelly would say about the link there between Elder’s sexual assault and his resulting death.

Reporting sexual harassment or abuse within the military comes across as a situation where you are damned if you do and damned if you do not. If you report, you run the risk of facing retaliation which manifests in many cruel forms including even more abuse, death, or in some cases less than honorable discharge, which results in the loss of all veteran benefits. You are gaslit. You are told to get over it. You are made to believe that sexual assault is just the price of admission. You are asked if “you are sure it happened.” If you do not report, you internalize the abuse you experienced and you begin to develop behavioral and mental health issues as a result of the attack and of having to face your abuser day to day. You become a problem to your command while your abuser gets to continue preying on others, their career unaffected.

#IAmVanessaGuillén

The #IAmVanessaGuillén hashtag was created by U.S. Army veteran Karina López. López was part of a four member military medevac crew who saved the life of a North Korean defector back in 2017. She shared her story of MST on Instagram using this hashtag and was the catalyst for thousands of women sharing their own stories of sexual assault. Some for the very first time since it happened. Because of this, the Guillén case received attention it otherwise would not have. This opened the eyes of civilians to yet another system in which corruption and violence is unchecked because they are allowed time and time again to investigate themselves.

 

Charwoman Speier ended the hearing by declaring that she will be investigating Fort Hood and a month later that investigation has finally been opened. The committee will be “investigating whether an alarming pattern of recent tragedies at Fort Hood, Texas, may be symptomatic of underlying leadership, discipline, and morale deficiencies throughout the chain-of-command.” A September 8 letter sent to Secretary McCarthy asked that all information and documents requested be submitted by October 2. And so we will wait to see what the information reveals and what Congress actually does about it.

As Pam Campos reminded us, “Fort Hood is the largest U.S. military installation in the world and has also produced some of the highest-ranking, most notable names in the military.” Our “current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley himself, before being the highest-ranking officer currently in the armed forces, was a commander at Fort Hood.” The concern that these men cover for each other is very real and very valid.

“Rape culture, systemic racism, corruption and impunity has been really part and parcel in the Department of Defense for decades,” Campos sated.

It may be naive to believe that it can change and it is a reflection of the moral decay of the nation that some have accepted such heinous behavior as normal, but it is our duty to protect one another and demand that it does.

As Americans, many people are taught to never question the military or its leaders, to have blind allegiance and fawning respect for authority even while authority figures themselves break laws, abuse, and kill with impunity. It is no coincidence that the immigrant mother of a murdered soldier is the one who decided to take on the military.

Whoever killed Vanessa, whoever gave the order, did not count on the fierce love of a Mexican mother and the loyalty and dedication of her family, even after her death. And they are not alone. They call themselves Vanessa’s Army. Along with veterans and survivors, every day people are informing themselves, organizing and joining the demand for answers and accountability because if not them, then who? But this is a fight that must be led by the people who know first hand the reality of the military, of MST, of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Only then can any legislation be comprehensive enough to actually address the different layers of this complex violent problem. Veteran MST survivors were denied justice and they fight so that the same does not continue to happen. If this country and its leaders want to continue claiming that they care about their vets, then they need to start proving it.

No more empty performances.

We are now all watching.

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Lourdes Amezcua is a Mexican born, Los Angeles raised writer and artist. She graduated from UCI with a BA in English Literature, and is passionate about truth, growth, and healing. Instagram: @amezcuasiete.