Part catharsis, part movement: #IWasWrong calls for changing how the military treats women

Matt Saintsing
April 24, 2018 - 1:04 pm

Air Force photo by Ismael Ortega / Released

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Some of the loudest voices now calling for change on how women are treated in the military, were at one time, part of the problem themselves.

In the week that veterans have posted experiences about gender discrimination in the military by using #IWasWrong, offenses range from men failing to speak up in the face of sexual harassment, to women leaders not providing other women in their command equal treatment and sweeping sexual assault under the rug.

Veterans are owning up to a wide ocean of wrongdoings. Experts are heartened by the hashtag, but also encouraging real changes to be made in daily interactions.

“It’s still early for the hashtag, but I hope it becomes a movement and encourages others to stand up and admit to when they made mistakes and to hold others accountable in the same way,” says Lydia C. Watts, CEO of the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN), an non-profit that advocates for the needs of military women.

“It would be nice to be hearing from people who are still in their roles of authority, not just veterans and retirees.”  

Nearly all of the hashtag’s posts have come from veterans, with just one retired General, Mark Hertling, weighing in on the subject. He did so without using the hashtag.

But Watts says it’s in the real-world where real changes occur, not online, and she encourages those who may still be in the military to “take inspiration from the posts that they’re seeing, and make changes in real time, in real life.”

The first-step, however, is a widespread acknowledgment that there is a problem, says retired U.S. Marine Corps Col. Scott Jensen, CEO of Protect Our Defenders. That’s part of what #IWasWrong is doing.

Jensen says people like him—white, male, heterosexual—have a lot of power in the ranks and he’s encouraged that some “aren’t sitting this one out anymore.”

“We want people to think differently,” he says, “And it’s way overdue.”  

But thinking differently is a tall-order. Asking troops at all levels to change on a dime is easier said than done, but the military is a highly bureaucratic organization that, to those of who’ve navigated it, see as a curse, but it can be a blessing when it comes to social change.

The force has proven slow to implement cultural shifts until official orders come down.

That’s what happened in 1948 when President Harry Truman had a remarkable impact on civil rights when he signed Executive Order 9981, abolishing racial segregation in the U.S. military.

Orders that come down through the ranks are implemented without regard for the feelings of the person carrying them out. Those of us privileged enough to serve in the military know that all too well. Not only is the military equipped to implement institutional changes, Watts says its the right thing to do since "as devastating as it is for civilians to have to leave their jobs, because of sexual harassment and sexual assault in the workplace, in the military you can't."

It’s said repeatedly at the highest ranks of the Pentagon there is a zero tolerance policy for sexual assault, harassment and retaliation, yet we continue to see high-ranking officials not living up to that ethos.

Sexual assault, harassment and other acts of gender discrimination are unfortunately prevalent in all of the services, one in particular sets itself apart in leading the pack: The United States Marine Corps.

U.S. Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Kurt Stein, among one of the most recent examples, was reassigned earlier this month after he called allegations of sexual harassment in his command “Fake News.”

Photo by Lance Cpl. Carlin Warren

Women make up just nine percent of the Marines, but data released in 2014 by the Defense Department and the Rand Corps puts the Corps’ rate of sexual assault for female troops more than 20 percent higher than the Navy’s total, which had the next-highest rate.

Former Marine leaders, both men and women, says the problem begins when recruits are introduced to the Corps in boot camp.

The Marine Corps is the only branch that still separates men from women in recruit training. That segregation, says Jensen, is the “old think” notion that separating women from men “will somehow protect (women) is just proven to extend a culture that is not supportive of gender integration.”

“And, it’s not having a positive effect on the Corps,” he adds.

Kate Germano, the former commander of the all-female 4th Battalion at Parris Island, S.C and co-author of “Fight Like a Girl”, says the Corps has “this very hyper-masculine culture and systematic obstacles to women as we recruit and train them.”

“From the day women join the Marine Corps, they’re treated differently, so there’s a double standard for their expectations and performance,” said Germano.

Men then see that double-standard and resent it, and they resent the women for “having it easier.” While women, on the other hand, also see the double-standard and are left wondering why they’re being treated less-than, given that anyone who joins the Marine Corps is looking for a challenge.

Having gender segregated boot camp, at its worst, accepts and encourages a culture of misogyny, and at best, looks at it with a blind eye, making it “very difficult for the one women in the unit to be the squeaky wheel when she observes things that are not right when it comes to gender,” adds Germano.

In other words, it’s easier for women to “just be one of the guys,” and to not “rock-the-boat,” by speaking up against discrimination.

That sentiment is echoed in #IWasWrong with women admitting they didn’t treat other women under their leadership fairly.

“The normal reaction is to go along and ‘be one of the guys,’ and the saddest part about that is you don’t realize until 20 years later that you were never really one of the guys, because you were never accepted,” says Germano.

The results are disastrous for recruitment and retention across all services.

In 2014, the Pentagon said less than 30 percent of 17-24-year-olds in the U.S. would not qualify for military service, and even fewer want to join. Limiting the chances women have to be treated as equals robs the military of half of the potential talent pool, and in an era where global military options aren’t likely to slow down anytime soon, the nation needs the best people from all walks of life, including talented women who want nothing more than to serve their country and be treated equally for it.

The U.S. military may be the finest fighting force the world has ever seen, but even with the most modern technology at its command, it still relies on its most important weapon: those who fill the ranks.