In #metoo movement, military women want their voices heard
In the wake of the #metoo movement, in which women have come forward in large numbers to speak out about their experiences of sexual harassment and sexual assault, some women veterans have pointed out that there was not the same type of response when the issue of sexual assault in the military came into the media spotlight.
"It would be a national disgrace if, at a time when everyone else is coming forward with their stories, the men and women who serve our nation are not heard," said Linda Schwartz, a former Air Force flight nurse who served as Connecticut's Veterans Affairs Commissioner and as assistant secretary for policy and planning for the VA in Washington, D.C.
The issue has come up in a public Facebook group called SERVICE: Women Who Serve, which has more than 5,500 members nationwide. In one post, a woman wrote that her post-traumatic stress disorder was activated by "all the talk about sexual abuse."
"Wish they were interested in our military women," she wrote.
The post garnered more than 100 comments, with several women agreeing with her about what they see as less interest in reports of sexual assault and harassment by women veterans and service members. Some talked of planning #metoo events specifically for female veterans, and there have been social media campaigns asking women veterans to share their #metoo stories.
Schwartz said she worries about the increased suicides among women veterans, who are committing suicide at 250 percent the rate of female civilians, according to the VA. A recent VA study found the rate of suicide to be higher among women who've experienced military sexual trauma. Victims of military sexual trauma also are at higher risk of becoming homeless, according to an April 2016 study.
In the SERVICE: Women Who Serve Facebook group, some members commented that the near-constant discussion in the news of sexual harassment and sexual assault was causing bad dreams and triggering bad memories of their own experiences of sexual trauma.
Last week, more than 200 women who work in national security, including the military, penned an open letter to the national security community, saying "We, too, are survivors of sexual harassment, assault, and abuse or know others who are."
"This is not just a problem in Hollywood, Silicon Valley, newsrooms or Congress," they continued. "It is everywhere."
They point out that while women make up 15 percent of active duty military personnel, women in senior ranks are promoted far less frequently than their male peers.
"Many women are held back or driven from this field by men who use their power to assault at one end of the spectrum and perpetuate — sometimes unconsciously — environments that silence, demean, belittle or neglect women at the other," they wrote.
They recommend establishing multiple, clear, private channels to report abuse without fear of retribution and mandatory exit interviews for all women leaving federal service, among other suggestions.
The Pentagon's most recent report on sexual assault, which ranges from wrongful sexual contact to rape, showed 14,900 service members reported being sexually assaulted in fiscal year 2016, down from 20,300 reports in 2014.
Still, overall, the number of military personnel who've reported sexual assault has increased, a sign, Pentagon officials say, that trust in the system is improving. However, that same Pentagon report found that nearly 60 percent of those who reported sexual assault say they have experienced some kind of retaliation.
"The unmasking of a general is not the same as Harvey Weinstein or Matt Lauer," Schwartz said.
In the military, commanders, not military prosecutors, decide whether to prosecute sexual assault cases. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., has led efforts in Congress to give authorization to military prosecutors to make those decisions, but has faced resistance from military officials and some of her colleagues. She's argued that the current system discourages sexual assault victims, who fear retaliation, from coming forward. Gillibrand recently renewed her push for the legislation.
"The business of the DOD is war, so there needs to be real consideration of creating a separate agency and removing it from the command structure altogether," Schwartz said.
She pointed to her own work to implement a provision in the 2014 Veterans Choice Act, which authorizes the VA, in consultation with the Department of Defense, to provide counseling, care and services to active duty military personnel who've experienced sexual trauma without a referral from a military doctor. The program was supposed to be implemented this September, "but I'm finding it's still mired in muck," she said, adding that there's been "a lot of obstructions, like who would pay for it."
The "most impressive" aspect of the program was that, if the perpetrator was in the victim's unit, DOD's Sexual Assault and Prevention Office could get the perpetrator removed from the unit so the victim wouldn't have to work with the person accused of assaulting her or him, Schwartz said.
She offered the example of a sexual assault happening on an aircraft carrier at sea.
"It's like being trapped ... and then having to live with that for years," she said.