Sometimes as a journalist one thing leads to another and you suddenly find yourself going down a dark rabbit hole that you hadn’t planned to visit. That’s what happened to me recently when I was writing a piece about how the Veterans Administration’s mental health system and the military in general were failing women in need of care following sexual assault.
I interviewed a lot of women veterans who had suffered military sexual assault while serving their country for that piece and what I heard wasn’t pretty. Nor were the things they said about what had happened to them when they sought help, or when they tried to tell their stories. That’s the part that led me down the rabbit hole, because the truth is retaliation is rampant in the military against those who tell the truth about what happens to victims of abuse.
“It’s a culture of silencing,” one source who’d been warned not to talk to the media told me. “They take away your First Amendment right to free speech.” Then he called me, twice, in a panic. “Don’t use my name,” he said. “I still work for the VA.” Soon afterwards I got a call from another source who asked that I water down her comments. “My husband still gets his care at the VA,” she explained.
But don’t take my word for it. In May 2015 Human Rights Watch released a report called “US: Military Whistleblowers at Risk” in which it detailed retaliation for reporting sexual assault. “Military service members who report sexual assault frequently experience retaliation that goes unpunished,” the report said after its 18-month investigation in partnership with the human rights organization Protect Our Defenders. “Despite extensive reforms by the Defense Department to address sexual assault, the military has done little to hold retaliators to account or provide effective remedies for retaliation,” the report said, adding that “the Military Whistleblower Protection Act has yet to help a single service member whose career was harmed.”
Let’s put a human face on this travesty. “A Sergeant told me he would kill me if we ever went into Afghanistan because ‘friendly fire is a tragic accident that happens’,” a female soldier told Human Rights Watch. Another reported that she was assaulted by a cook whose colleagues harassed her so much she couldn’t eat in the mess hall. She “lived off of cans of tuna” for seven months. In another case a female Marine’s name and photo were posted to a Facebook page where other Marines could comment. “Find her, tag her, haze her, make her life a living hell,” someone wrote. Another soldier said she should be silenced “before she lied about another rape.”
Is it any wonder that one advocate I interviewed said she advises women who come to her for help to “get out right now because you life is on the line.” She told me “it’s not unusual for women to go missing” or to have their deaths called a suicide.
A study conducted by the Rand Corporation in 2014 revealed that 62 percent of women who reported unwanted sexual conduct to military authorities experienced some form of retaliation. The study also found that 35 percent of women reporting sexual assault suffered an adverse administrative action, 32 percent suffered professional retaliation and 11 percent were punished for infractions after reporting. It didn’t count the number of women who receive pseudo-psychiatric diagnoses like “Borderline Personality Disorder” which is often used to damage or end a victim’s career.
“These sickening stories of retaliation against survivors should make every American angry,” Sen. Kirstin Gillibrand (D-NY) has said. “We keep hearing how previous reforms were going to protect victims, and make retaliation a crime. Yet there has been zero progress on this front and this mission is failing. Survivors will not be able to get the justice they deserve until we change this business-as-usual climate without any real accountability and create a professional, non-biased and independent military justice system.”
Don Christensen, president of Protect Our Defenders, agrees. “When no one is held accountable for retaliation, it creates a hostile environment for all survivors, and sends a message to criminals that they can act with impunity. When a survivor who reports sexual assault is 12 times more likely to suffer retaliation than they are to see their rapist convicted, it demonstrates the military has a long way to go to fix this problem.”
After talking to so many brave women who have suffered terribly, first by being raped and then for telling the truth about it, I couldn’t agree more. That’s why I’ve written their stories here and elsewhere, which has led me to wonder occasionally if I will be retaliated against in some way. So if my column doesn’t appear next month please come looking for me. Maybe you should start with that ultimate black hole – a military brig – where someone who bears an uncanny resemblance to Al Capone may well be watching over me.