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The Cost of Service: Sexual Harassment and Sexual Assault in the Military*

November 9, 2023

Veterans Day was established to honor America’s veterans, who served for their patriotism, love of country, and willingness to serve and sacrifice for the common good (Onion et al., 2023; United States Department of Veterans Affairs, 2022b). This day is intended to highlight the sacrifices of our veterans and it reminds me of the costs that I have personally incurred during my 16 years of military service. As such, I am forced to reconsider whether the reasons guiding my decisions were valid and if the sacrifices were worth it.  

In June 2011, I received an honorable discharge after four of years of active duty service. I chose to leave the military because I did not want to be sexually harassed and sexually assaulted anymore. I also did not want to carry the burden of fighting back on an issue where I felt I would be unsupported by both my command and peers. I told myself that I was not the right person for the job because I lacked knowledge of the issue, professional and social standing, and the mental fortitude required to make a significant difference. But if I had been truly honest with myself, I would have also admitted that I was scared of what would happen to me. So, why talk about it now after more than a decade has passed? The answer to this question is simple. I gave up and I regret it. The problem of sexual harassment and sexual assault in the United States military has continued to remain pervasive and undiminished. By leaving and doing nothing, I did a disservice for everyone who came after me and was affected by these problems. I cannot undo the choices that I made back then, but I hope that what I do now will be meaningful in some way.

Fall 2010: The distasteful comments and jokes were parts of almost every conversation. I found sexually explicit comments written on the bulkheads and entered on the electronic ship logs that were aimed at me. When I told someone about my experiences, they said they could find no evidence. A few days later, I was groped while on a ladder. The sailor smiled and giggled when I told him to stop.

Unfortunately, stories like mine are not unique or rare. Acts of sexual harassment and sexual assault against service members by other service members are so common that they are often regarded as occupational hazards of military service. In an address before the Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs, Congresswoman Shellie Pingree stated that according to the data, “sexual assault in the military is so pervasive, that it is consistent with the types of events consistent with military service” (House Hearing, 112 Congress, 2012).

Given that the Department of Defense (DoD) currently employs over 2.1 million military personnel, sexual harassment and sexual assault are problems of enormous scope and all service members are at risk (Breslin et al., 2022; Holland et al., 2014). According to the 2021 Workplace and Gender Relations (WGR) Survey, an estimated 47,712 military personnel experienced at least one incident of unwanted sexual contact in a 12-month period from 2021 to 2022. An additional 183,352 service members are estimated to have experienced sexual harassment over the same period (Breslin et al., 2022). While the data on military sexual harassment and sexual assault prevalence is susceptible to being viewed as an issue that affects relatively few individuals, it must be regarded with caution and context to truly understand the magnitude of the problem.

Winter 2008: In the months prior, I had endured weeks of being followed, cornered, and questioned by him. I never reported what he was doing because I did not know that his behavior had labels: stalking and sexual harassment. Also, I thought if I said anything, it would be regarded as a minor, interpersonal issue that I had to resolve on my own.

In the United States, sexual assault and rape are the least likely of all violent crimes to be reported to law enforcement (Thompson & Tapp, 2023). Additionally, research indicates that 70% of individuals do not report sexual harassment that occurs in the workplace (Feldblum & Lipnic, 2016). Consequently, prevalence data regarding sexual harassment and sexual assault are likely to be underestimated. For example, in fiscal year 2022, the DoD reported that 78% of sexual assaults were not reported to appropriate authorities (United States Department of Defense, 2022). Furthermore, the WGR prevalence estimates do not reflect victimization rates, which account for the fact that most individuals are victimized more than once. In 2021, 73% of military personnel who experienced sexual assault experienced multiple incidents over a 12-month period and often by the same offender (Breslin et al., 2022). Unfortunately, a misalignment between the perceived and actual pervasiveness of the problem is not only a barrier for addressing the immediate effects of sexual harassment and sexual assault on service members, but it also conceals the degree to which veteran mental health is affected.

Spring 2008: I had not expected to see him walking towards me in the hallway… and definitely not in this place. In that moment, everything got quiet and that person was the only thing that I could see. I veered closer to the wall to get away. I thought I was going to throw up. When a sailor asked if I was okay, only then did I realize that my distress was visibly apparent.

Service members who experience sexual harassment and sexual assault during the course of their military service are at risk for military sexual trauma (MST). The effects of MST have been shown to significantly increase the severity of poor mental, physical, and social health outcomes (Holder et al., 2023). For example, even after adjusting for other veteran-related risk factors, such as combat related trauma, MST is a significant, independent risk factor for suicide (Kimerling et al., 2016). This is problematic because suicide continues to be a concerning problem for veterans. Since 2001, veteran suicide rates have exceeded those of non-veterans, after adjusting for age and sex (United States Department of Veterans Affairs, 2022a). Explanations as to why veterans with MST experience significantly worse outcomes can be explained by betrayal trauma theory. This concept posits that an abuse committed within a close or necessary relationship results in a greater degree of harm compared to an abuse committed by a stranger because trust is broken (Monteith et al., 2016). Interestingly, this effect can also be noted even when the betrayal occurs separately from the acts of sexual harassment and sexual assault, themselves (Smith & Freyd, 2013).

Fall 2010: My division chief pulled me aside to ask if the sailor “had really done what I had claimed,” if it “was really that bad,” and if “I could just let it go” because the ship needed him to stand watch. The invasive questioning by my chain of command was bad enough, but the abandonment by my peers felt worse. The sailor was well-liked among the crew and, as a result, I had become a pariah. I was hurt and overwhelmed. I told the victim advocate that I would no longer participate in the reporting process, even though I knew it meant that I would continue working with the sailor.

In 2021, an Independent Review Committee (IRC) performed an assessment of the military’s treatment of sexual harassment and sexual assault, which resulted in the development of 80 recommendations. Since then, the implementation of several measures has occurred or are currently underway.  For example, in 2021, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2022 established sexual harassment as a specific offense under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (The White House, 2022). Additionally, beginning in December 2023, key decision-making authority will be transferred from commanding officers to specialized, independent military prosecutors in cases of sexual assault (The White House, 2023). However, while developing response efforts, such as these, are necessary, research suggests that a lack of sufficient and robust prevention efforts cause relatively more damage. Many service members who have experienced sexual assault felt that the military should have done something to prevent such incidents from occurring, but failed to do so (Smith & Freyd, 2013). Considering that the military is an institution that attracts perpetrators of violent acts (as cited in Holland et al., 2014), it would be negligent for stakeholders to wait for sexual harassment and sexual assault to occur before action is taken.

The legislative and executive branches are the parties responsible for all matters regarding military oversight (United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit Court, 2013). However, we must ask if significant changes are actually occurring at every appropriate level. Government officials are working to create laws and regulations in an effort to reduce sexual harassment and sexual assault. But who within the ranks is working to change military culture in this regard?  Are military leaders changing how they lead to prevent sexual harassment and sexual assault from occurring? Are service members of all ranks changing how they treat each other? I would surmise that an awareness of sexual harassment and sexual assault has, indeed, increased in recent years. However, the attitudes, beliefs, and actions of many have remained unchanged as service members continue to engage in damaging behaviors, which have been instilled through years of working in environments and with people who perpetuate the worst of military culture.

Military leaders need to ensure that they foster safe and positive organizational climates where sexual harassment and sexual assault are not tolerated. Leaders need to not only model appropriate behaviors, but they must also evaluate their own attitudes, beliefs, and actions to identify, acknowledge, and correct their own biases and behaviors. Furthermore, leaders must be able to take swift and appropriate action against all behaviors along the continuum of harm to the extent that they are evaluated on and held accountable for their roles in preventing and responding to sexual harassment and sexual assault within their own commands.  To do any of this, comprehensive training for leaders is required that is conducted for more than purposes of avoiding liability or to “check the box.” Without leaders as appropriate models, other service members will not be able to understand the expectations for their own behaviors and how it affects those around them. To change a culture, participation is required by all, but it starts with leadership.

I have had several people ask me if I would ever want my children to serve, as their father and I have done. The answer is always a resounding no. The mental health of veterans is of alarming concern as research indicates that the number of active duty personnel and veterans who served after 9/11 and died by suicide since 2001 is four times higher than those killed in action during the same period. MST is cited as a contributing factor (Suitt, 2021). While it is my duty as a parent to nurture and support the decisions of my children, it would also be negligent of me to encourage military service, so long as military culture’s tolerance and acceptance of sexual harassment and sexual assault remains steadfast. At the same time, in order to support my fellow veterans, I cannot choose to abstain from meaningful participation on this issue. It is my duty as a veteran to help change military culture so that sexual harassment and sexual assault no longer have a place within it. It is neither acceptable nor right that such experiences and the related, mental health impacts should ever be included as a cost of choosing to serve one’s nation.

For members of the Department of Defense Community affected by sexual assault, the DoD Safe Helpline is the sole secure, confidential, and anonymous crisis support service.

DoD Safe Helpline: Call 877-995-5247 or chat

Available 24/7, 365 days a year.

If you or someone you know is struggling or in crisis, help is available.

988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline: Call or text 988 or chat

Veterans Crisis Line: Dial 988 and press 1 or text 838255

Available 24/7, 7 days a week, across the United States.

*This blog contains themes and examples of sexual harassment and sexual assault. We encourage readers to prioritize their well-being by taking time and space to process this content as needed.

The views expressed in the Perspectives Series are those of the authors and are not written by the Global Alliance for Behavioral Health and Social Justice.


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