ARLINGTON, Va.—More than 40 people braved the freezing cold morning outside the Pentagon to advocate on behalf of survivors of military sexual trauma and to call for accountability, as well as culture change, in the military.
Organized by the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN) and supported by several organizations including Protect Our Defenders, the #MeTooMilitary demonstration focused on speakers who are survivors of military sexual trauma.
(Full disclosure: ConnectingVets collaborates with SWAN each month on a woman veteran feature profile.)
Speaking to the crowd, Lydia Watts, CEO of SWAN, said that for decades the Department of Defense has had a zero tolerance policy for sexual assault and harassment and that while concerted efforts have been made, the assaults still continue.
After citing statistics from a recent Pentagon report on sexual assault in the military, she said “There is a stigma that attaches to many survivors as soon as they report. Many service members have told us that once they come forward, they were diagnosed with personality disorders and forced out of the military.”
Watts questioned the incentive for reporting when it can cost survivors their career and cause retaliation, and “then even if a case is brought against your assailant, less than one in 20 cases will result in a conviction.”
“Military women and men are asking themselves, ‘where is our #MeToo reckoning?’” she said. “When do we see military perpetrators of sexual violence held to account?”
“There is a groundswell movement for the civilian world, let’s not allow the voice of military survivors be lost,” Watts added.
At the demonstration on behalf of SWAN was Heath Phillips, a Navy veteran and military sexual trauma survivor. Since he became sober in 2009 after being assaulted in the late 1980s, Phillips said he has been coming to similar events to speak out.
“To me, this is an issue that is constantly overlooked,” he said. “To me it’s not a gender issue, it’s an issue that needs to be addressed, that people need to take notice of, and society needs to start realizing they got to stop blaming victims.”
When he speaks at military bases, Phillips says he sees the difference from when he was in, but “it still needs to be improved.”
“They need to protect us and when you keep hearing story after story after story that they’re not protecting you, then it has to—something has to be done,” he said.
Nichole Bowen-Crawford is an Army veteran who deployed to Iraq and Kuwait and is a survivor of military sexual trauma. She also attended the event on behalf of SWAN to speak.
Bowen-Crawford came not only because the #MeTooMilitary movement is important to her, but because she is “passionate about making sure that no one in the military has to face retaliation when they need to report sexual assault. And that’s what’s going on right now.”
She said she also supports Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s (D-NY) bill called the Military Justice Improvement Act. The bill would “professionalize how the military prosecutes serious crimes like sexual assault,” according to the senator’s website, by having independent military prosecutors decide whether to prosecute.
Bowen-Crawford pointed out the courage that it took for people to come out to the demonstration and say ‘Me Too.’
“It’s something that’s very frightening and scary and not comfortable. But we’re doing it because it’s important and it matters,” she said.
One of those people was an Air Force veteran named Sue, who came forward and spoke to the crowd about how she was assaulted by a military neurologist at Charleston Naval hospital when she was seeking treatment after a brain injury.
“They let him go. There was a lieutenant colonel who was advocating for me. He apologized to me and went home and blew his brains out,” she said.
Sue said that the doctor was allowed to remain on active duty and later assaulted at least four other women in Bethesda before he was court martialed. His medical license was later revoked.
While she said she feels guilty about not speaking out and for the lieutenant colonel who supported her, Sue thanked the men who stand up for women who are assaulted.
During a press briefing, Pentagon spokesperson Army Col. Robert Manning told the press that they endorse the message of the #MeTooMilitary demonstrators.
“No one should have to tolerate harassment as a part of their military service,” he said.
The Department of Defense is working to stop sexual harassment and assault in the military, said Manning, and encouraged service members to report assault “so we can provide support services and hold offenders accountable.”
“We have a zero tolerance policy regarding sexual assault or harassment,” he said.