As a 10-year-old girl, I watched my oldest sister enlist in the Navy, and, from that moment on, I knew I wanted to put on the uniform and serve. That dream came true when I enlisted in 2013. I was excited to be a part of something great that allowed me to be a leader and make a difference. I know I am not alone in this endeavor, as the Navy consists of approximately 346,000 sailors. Only 16 percent of sailors are women, and I was excited to be a part of that population, looking up to the trailblazers before me, such as Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, who retired at the age of 79—making her one of the oldest active-duty officers ever to serve—or Loretta Walsh, the first woman to enlist. I wanted to be like them.
Women have made momentous contributions and add immeasurable value to the U.S. military, but it comes at a cost. During Women’s History Month in March, many of us celebrate the barriers these women and others have broken. While their accomplishments are praised, most naval history overlooks the sexism, harassment, racism, and intolerance that women have endured over the years. I learned this personally while serving in uniform.
The most alarming fact is the ongoing cover up of sexual assaults, and the Navy’s poor handling of such cases, which results in severe trauma to service members, primarily women. I am one of them. In 2017, I was sexually assaulted by a fellow sailor at a command holiday party. Because of the annual training we received, I knew I could file a restricted or unrestricted complaint, but that was about it. When I ask people what happens after that point, their words typically falter. No one really knows, unless they are victim advocates, and even then, some do not know. I will tell you.
Two days following my assault, my husband, who also is active duty, was flown via helicopter off his ship to be with me as I sat in a cold room at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth filling out document after document. My chief learned of my assault and called me the day following my report and suggested I have a medical exam. Shaking, I made my way to the emergency room and mumbled to the woman that I needed an exam. I spent the next four hours being poked, prodded, swabbed, and examined. Pictures were taken of my body from every angle, and tears rolled out my eyes and into my ears as the doctor verbally noted the labial bruising I sustained during my assault.
I spent the next day speaking with NCIS agents for hours, three of us crammed in a dim gray room, as I recounted the events from a few days before. I spoke with my commanding officer and requested an expedited transfer from my command, as my attacker still worked there. An expedited transfer is advertised by the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (SAPR) program as taking only a few weeks, to get the sailor away from the situation as quickly as possible. It took three months for me to be transferred. I saw my assaulter on a weekly basis while I waited for orders. I will spare you the painful details of the tumultuous recovery process that I endured, alone, at Naval Hospital Jacksonville.
After two years, I was finally given a trial date. I spent four days in a court-martial being berated, slut-shamed, and victim-blamed. I was called a drunk and watched my parents’ silent fury as the defense attorney described the way I dressed and how I allowed myself to be in a compromising position. The sexual assault forensic exam I had received two years prior, possibly containing my assaulter’s DNA, had been lost. My underwear was blamed for my labial bruising. The one key prosecution witness was dismissed immediately, unable to testify on my behalf. It became a war on me rather than the man who assaulted me.
After four grueling days, the verdict came in. The all-male jury found my attacker not guilty. I spent the next hour sobbing in an empty office in the courthouse clutching my parents, begging to know why the jury did not believe me. That night I spent alone and attempted suicide via prescription drugs. I failed, and somberly flew back to Jacksonville the next day, my family unaware of my attempt to end my life.
Since the conclusion of my trial, I have removed myself from the SAPR program. I felt the program failed me completely, and I could not be part of something so flawed. I requested an appeal following the conclusion of my case, I wrote letters to my congressman requesting changes to the program, submitted an official inquiry into my case and the SAPR program, wrote to Navy Times asking to write an opinion piece on the Navy’s sexual harassment and assault policies. I received generic responses or no responses in return. It reminded me how alone I was in all of this.
I never discussed my assault while awaiting my trial; I was not allowed to. After the trial, I still did not speak of my assault until June 2020. I returned from deployment to see headlines about Vanessa Guillen, a soldier who was brutally murdered in Fort Hood following her sexual assault report.1 I read comments from friends, coworkers, and fellow sailors dismissing sexual assault in the military. Anger consumed me to the point that I fury-typed a post on social media highlighting my assault and the massive failures of the SAPR program. That reinvigorated my passion to fight—to not allow another sailor, male or female, to experience the pain and disappointment that I did. That fire was lit in others as well. Thousands of active-duty and retired sailors, airmen, guardsmen, soldiers, and Marines came forward with their stories, all painfully similar to mine. For the first time, I did not feel so alone.
The public was outraged, something for which I was grateful, as most injustices remain as such until the story goes viral and public pressure ensues. The I Am Vanessa Guillen Act was introduced in Congress to move the decision to prosecute active-duty service members for sexual assault and harassment charges to a third-party instead of through the military chain of command. Thousands of service members, including me, were given hope that these cases would move forward more justly in the future; hope that our assaulters would be convicted and that we would be allowed to succeed in the military, fulfill our duties, and inspire others with our dedication to service.
Parts of the I Am Vanessa Guillen Act were included in the most recent National Defense Authorization Act, and, as of 1 January 2022, commanders are no longer involved in military sexual harassment or assault investigations. Not only is the decision to prosecute sexual assault and harassment made outside service members’ chains of command, but victims are offered protection against retaliation.2
A strong Navy requires change. It requires a complete overhaul of the SAPR program using the ideas from real sailors who have used the program. A life-altering assault should not be diminished into a single annual PowerPoint briefing. The number of sailors affected by sexual assault is staggering. A 2014 Department of Defense (DoD) report concluded that of all military branches, Navy installations had the most reports of sexual assault. Naval ships in particular had the highest numbers, with one in six women reporting.3
It has only gotten worse with time. In its 2019 annual report on sexual assault, DoD stated that sexual assault reports had increased by 3 percent from the previous year, with about 6.2 percent of active-duty women and 0.7 percent of men reporting experiencing a sexual assault in the year prior.4 Using these rates, DoD estimates 20,500 service members, representing about 13,000 women and 7,500 men, experienced some kind of contact or penetrative sexual assault in 2018, up from approximately 14,900 in 2016.5
What makes the Navy stronger is those who keep fighting this fight, both silently and loudly. The women who push forward and do not allow themselves to be bullied, manipulated, or controlled. Those who continue to raise awareness and never back down. These survivors are the real strength in the Navy. I fought quietly for a long time, drawing strength as best as I could. Others and I are constantly pushing to change in the SAPR program, including faster transfers, speedier trials, and fair prosecution. I am hopeful that the recent changes to sexual assault prosecution in the Navy will make the service stronger, thanks to those who refuse to give up in the pursuit of justice.
1. Christina Morales, “‘An Empty Presence in My Chest’: Vanessa Guillen’s Family Calls for Change in the Military,” The New York Times, 6 July 2020.
2. Ren Larson, “New Law Named for Vanessa Guillen Will Revamp Military Investigations into Sexual Assault, Harassment,” The Texas Tribune and ProPublica, 29 December 2021.
3. Department of Defense (DoD) Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (SAPR), Department of Defense Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military Fiscal Year 2014 (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, 2015).
4. DoD SAPR, Department of Defense Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military Fiscal Year 2019 (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, 2020).
5. DoD SAPR, Sexual Assault in the Military Fiscal Year 2019.