On a cold Monday in January, Nichole Bowen-Crawford, an Army combat veteran, found herself outside the Pentagon recounting the most traumatic experience of her military service: A higher-ranking sergeant sexually assaulted her while they were on tour in Iraq in 2003, she said. When she confided in a supervisor, she was advised to keep quiet.
“Senior male soldiers advised me to not report, saying that my career was more important than this,” Bowen-Crawford told a small crowd of demonstrators who had gathered to demand more transparency from the military on sexual misconduct and to protest the retaliation that survivors face.
Sexual assault and harassment have plagued the U.S. armed forces for decades, but until recently survivors have largely been afraid to speak out. Protections for service members are weighed against other defense concerns and often fall short, critics say. The military justice system has come under fire for its internal process for adjudicating these cases, and reform efforts have stalled or failed to curb abuse.
Now, a growing chorus of active-duty and retired service members are hoping to finally bring the #MeToo movement that’s sweeping other institutions to the nation’s largest employer.
“This is an opportunity for military women to ask: Where is our #MeToo reckoning?” said Lydia Watts, head of the Service Women’s Action Network, a nongovernmental organization that helped organize the Jan. 8. protest outside the Pentagon. “When is it our moment where offenders will be held accountable? Is it going to be taken as seriously as it’s being handled in the civilian world?”
Just last year, the Marine Corps was rocked by scandal when investigative reports revealed that photos of naked service women were shared on a closed Facebook group called "Marines United" with tens of thousands of U.S. and British Marines. After the story sent shockwaves through the ranks, the military undertook a number of reforms, including a bill banning "revenge porn.” But far greater change is needed, advocates say, and service members are now speaking with fresh urgency.
“The #MeToo movement is transitioning and gaining hold in the military,” said Erin Cuomo, one of the founders of #NotInMyMarineCorps, a group of active-duty and veteran female Marines started in the aftermath of the Marines United scandal. “We’re seeing across services that women and men are more educated about the issues and are speaking up for themselves.”
“They still say ‘zero tolerance,’ but the bureaucracy isn't fixing it.”
The movement remains small and the challenge ahead massive, said retired Col. Scott Jensen, who led the Marine Corps’ behavioral programs during the Marines United scandal. He cited the military’s elaborate bureaucracy and male-dominated culture as two key factors resisting reform.
“We need to get at that culture and demand that the leaders of the services change that thinking and be vocal about changing those mindsets within their ranks,” said Jensen, now the CEO of the nongovernmental organization Protect our Defenders. ”I'm tired of old-timers who blame women for having the audacity to want to serve their nation and make a difference.”
Advocacy groups like SWAN and #NotInMyMarineCorps do work with Pentagon officials on sexual misconduct prevention, but their potential policy impact is limited. Fundamental reforms in the military must come from higher up or through Congress.
“They still say ‘zero tolerance,’ but the bureaucracy isn't fixing it,” Jensen added.
A Department of Defense spokeswoman, Maj. Carla Gleason, said, “We remain focused on promoting a climate where sexual assault is not tolerated or condoned — not just because it is illegal, but because it is counter to our core military values.” She added that nothing had changed significantly under President Trump.
Voices like Jensen have a point. The number of sexual assaults reported at the Army academy just about doubled in the last academic year, the Associated Press reported Wednesday, though the rise reflects an increase in reporting in addition to an increase in incidents.
A total of 14,900 service members across all military branches experienced sexual assault in 2016, according to the most recent military data, with many service members assaulted more than once. That’s down from 20,300 service members who experienced assault in 2014. But because many victims fear retaliation, as Bowen-Crawford did, the vast majority of assaults go unreported. In 2016, 83 percent of victims did not report, according to Defense Department estimates.
Critics say the problem stems from the military's overwhelmingly male-dominated culture and its justice system, which relies largely on prosecuting sexual assault through the chain of command.
“The legal system as it's designed puts a commander in an unbalanced position where not only does a commander have to lead these people but also has to then be the prosecutor who decides who's going to go to trial and what kind of charges and what kind of legal action is going to be taken,” Jensen said.
14,900 service members across all military branches experienced sexual assault in 2016.
Advocates, policymakers, and veterans say the response to Marines United was akin to putting a band-aid on a gushing wound. In order to curb the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment, they say, the Department of Defense has to address a fundamental aspect of the military justice system: whether the decision to prosecute remains in the chain of command.
With one in four assaulted women and one in three men assaulted by someone in their chain of command, it's believed that allowing commanders to have this responsibility stifles reporting because of fear of retaliation and lack of trust.
“They try solving everything and there's one thing,” said Heath Phillips, a Navy veteran and sexual assault survivor. He thinks the Pentagon should work with survivors more closely to better inform its policies and future reforms. “I'm glad that people try and solve things, but try bringing in the people who are also affected on this,” he added.
Several key measures to address sexual misconduct in the military have stalled in Congress in part because of disagreements among leading lawmakers on the severity of the issue and whether reforms would have a positive impact.
“Before there was #MeToo, there was silence.”
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat from New York, introduced the Military Justice Improvement Act in 2013, which would, among other things, remove the commander’s ability to prosecute certain cases and instead place the responsibility on an independent military lawyer. The reform would effectively remove what advocates say is one of the biggest roadblocks to reporting: fear of retribution from your direct supervisor.
“We’ve seen scandal after scandal come out over the recent months showing just how pervasive sexual assault and harassment is in the military and how little the military is doing to stop it,” Gillibrand said in an interview last week. “Congress should finally be out of excuses to continue protecting the status quo that harms our service members and protects predators.”
Despite bipartisan Senate support for the MJIA, the bill was blocked twice. The opposition to Gillibrand’s efforts was varied, pointing to another difficulty in addressing the issue at a national level — no one’s quite sure which path to take.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, for one, passed her own military sexual assault and sexual harassment reform bill in 2014, but led Senate opposition to the MJIA, concluding that prosecutions would decline if commanders were stripped of their ability to launch a court-martial, her office told VICE News.
Senior military leaders also opposed the ideas behind Gillibrand’s reforms, citing morale and efficiency.
“Removing commanders from the military justice process sends the message to everyone in the military that there is a lack of faith in the officer corps,” Gen. Martin Dempsey, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress in a letter challenging Gillibrand’s bill. “Conveyance of a message that commanders cannot be trusted will only serve to undermine good order and discipline.”
On Wednesday, the military’s top officials echoed that sentiment at a hearing on senior military leader misconduct, calling the removal of commanders from the military justice system on certain cases “absolutely devastating.”
Although the military has resisted major reform efforts at the legislative level, Bowen-Crawford hopes the emerging culture will empower more survivors to speak up and encourage transparency in the military.
“Before there was #MeToo, there was silence,” she said.
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Cover image: BJORN LARSSON ROSVALL/AFP/Getty Images