Jennifer Norris, United States Air Force
The STOP Act, Sexual Assault Training Oversight and Prevention Act, would establish an independent professional legal entity separate from the chain of command of the Department of Defense. Until very recently, sexual assault investigations were under the control of and conducted by the Commander. The Commander had the power to decide to pursue justice or not and to what level he elevated it. Leon Panetta, Secretary of Defense, has recently declared that he is taking the power to investigate out of the hands of the Commanders and giving it to an O-6 or higher in the Chain of Command. My initial reaction is that there is an automatic conflict of interest with that and that the investigation can still be stifled if kept within the Chain of Command. The STOP Act would help to provide a form of checks and balances and put the case in the hands of a professional so that the investigation is handled appropriately. It is imperative that these cases be handled effectively in order to prevent further emotional and physical harm to the victims of such crimes.
In my efforts to educate the public via mostly social media, my fellow advocacy peers and I have come across rape apologists. My initial reaction is that these vocal dissenters of justice are the perpetrators themselves but after seeing so many various reactions to the topic, I am led to believe that there is a widespread misconception out there about the crime, the perpetrators, and the victims of sexual assault. For some reason, the white elephant in the room is that most claims of sexual assault are bogus reports. Today I was reminded by a fellow soldier (not the norm) that victims of rape claim rape to avoid charges of adultery. Who would know about that aside from the rapists and those unfortunate victims who happen to get caught up in this web of destruction? I never would have imagined this kind of response to a person who had the courage to report this crime. My day was somewhat planned until I woke up to this kind of mentality once again.
Instead of turning the other way and doing nothing, I decided to take this opportunity to educate others about the issue since there really is no arguing with idiots. At this point, it isn’t about what the rape apologists have to say; its about the truth. The truth is that most reports of sexual assault are not bogus reports. If there are any cases of bogus reports, they are definitely not the norm and don’t even compare to the number of sexual assaults. By the DoD’s own estimates there are roughly 3,192 sexual assaults reported a year in the military. These DoD estimates are staggering. Although Secretary Panetta estimates that the number is closer to 19,000 a year; most of them go unreported. And for those who have been victims of sexual assault or rape in the military, you understand clearly why one would be hesitant to report. It has devastating effects on your career, and in some cases reporting this crime is a career ender.
Although I pressed charges against two of the four perpetrators I crossed paths with within the first two years of my career, justice was still not served. I thought at the time that justice was served but after seeing how things played out and learning more about the issue, I see that my case clearly falls into the typical way that sexual assault investigations are handled in the military. The threshold for punishment is one of pity for the perpetrator because of how the report might affect their career, therefore they are not dealt the punishment that fits the crime. I must preface by stating that my Commander handled the situation pretty well. Unfortunately, this is not the norm. I have read countless stories about military rape victims who have sought justice only to be met with disbelief. In addition, they are treated like the enemy afterwards and their lives become a living hell. Not only are they forced to work with their rapist but they are forced psychologically to handle a situation that no one would wish on their worst enemy. Imagine the psychological trauma that results from getting raped by a fellow soldier and then having to work with or for that individual the next day.
In my case, one of the men who was sexually assaulting me was my NCOIC (Non-Commissioned Officer in Charge). He was my boss therefore he had the power to tell me what to do and when to do it. I was an E-4 and he was an E-7. He had the power to make me a “warehouse manager” in an effort to isolate me so that he could prey on me when we were alone. If he told me to work in the warehouse that day, then I worked in the warehouse. If he told me to do anything, I had to do it because otherwise it was, “disobeying a direct order” or “disrespect to an NCO”. I knew that if I did not comply with him that he could affect the outcome of my promotions, temporary duty assignments, work responsibilities, and general overall health. I was totally enslaved to this man because I didn’t want to risk the harm that came from reporting a sexual predator to the chain of command. Eventually, I didn’t have a choice but to report but it was not until after I was completely broken.
I went from “superior performer” to I don’t give a crap. I went from I want to retire with the military to I want out of here as soon as I can. I went from being happy and energetic to being totally sad and completely wiped out emotionally. I never imagined in a million years how negatively this would affect my psyche. I now understood why it is illegal and considered a crime to touch another person’s body, force yourself on another person, and/or make derogatory, sexual, belittling comments to another human being. I felt like my hard work and efforts meant nothing. I felt like I existed mainly for the purpose of the perpetrators pleasure. I felt like no matter how hard I worked or how much I learned that none of it mattered. It was like banging my head against a brick wall. Others noticed how hard I worked but the one person that controlled my career just happened to be a sexual predator.
For those who have been in the military, you understand how important the Chain of Command is. You also know that it is required that you report to your Chain of Command and attempt to resolve all issues at the lowest level possible. So what do you do when the person who is assaulting you is in your Chain of Command? I was approached by a Senior Non-Commissioned Officer (E-7), outside my Chain of Command, who noticed that I had changed. He observed that I went from loving the military to not caring about anything. After being approached by this professional man who genuinely cared, it opened the flood gates. I finally broke down after months of attempting to handle the situation on my own with no success and told him what I had been dealing with on an almost daily basis. I was scared of my boss and no longer wanted to be subjected to his abuse and assaults.
My NCOIC purposefully set me up to be alone with him. And, his predator ways escalated over time. After assigning me to tasks that put me in isolated positions, he would then show up and make his move. For example, I was the warehouse manager, so he assigned me to clean up and organize the warehouse. I welcomed the challenge of the work but dreaded the isolated moments that he took advantage of. He grabbed me, pushed himself on me, groped me, and tried to force me to be physical and intimate with him. I would fight him off and fight back. I professionally, assertively, and angrily told him not to touch me on numerous occasions. He would not take no for an answer and he would get angry with me after I rejected his advances. I was told that I should feel privileged that he was interested in me, that I was a bitch, and that he didn’t want me anyway because I had small tits. So in addition to having my body violated, I was belittled and yelled at because I would not comply with his demands. This didn’t happen once or twice. This happened on numerous occasions, if not daily at times. He escalated over time and became more angry, sneaky, manipulative, and forceful.
Had this man not had control over my career, I would have ceased the behavior sooner. But because I was trying to safeguard my career while politely (and not so politely) trying to reject his advances, I was always scared that he would abuse his power. He had the power to write me up, talk bad about me to leadership, and hinder promotion, in addition to taking advantage of me. I felt like I was under his complete control and I worked every day trying to be perfect so that he could not use anything against me. Unfortunately, because he started to escalate and exhibit his behaviors in front of others, and no one said anything, it made me feel even more alone. I felt like I had nowhere to turn. I couldn’t turn to my Chain of Command because he was in my Chain of Command. I did not even think about reporting the sexual assaults to my Commander because the Chain of Command was so adamant about resolving issues at the lowest level possible. I also knew that if I reported this man for sexually assaulting me that my career would be over. And, in fact it was.
Everyone in my Chain of Command was informed after I reported the assault. It was protocol to keep my supervisor, the Chief, the Officer-in-Charge, and the perpetrator informed at all times. The Commander knew everything and it was his responsibility to keep the others in my Chain of Command informed with what was happening with one of their troops and the Superintendent of Maintenance. It was humiliating. And, instead of being supported through the process, I was judged, isolated, and basically run out. During the investigation, I was transferred out of the squadron. I agreed to the transfer because I could no longer handle being under the control of my NCOIC or in the same room with him. He had assaulted me on so many occasions that I was traumatized. I never knew when I was going to be put in a position where I had to fight him off. All I could think was why can’t I just come to work and work? Why do I have to deal with this? How do I make it stop?
The enacting of the STOP Act would provide me with a place to turn to, someone to advocate for me, and emotional help. Although my Commander did the best he could to investigate the situation professionally, it put all parties involved in a difficult position. Most crimes are investigated by professionals who went to school to learn the art of investigation, forensics, and crime scene analysis. Commanders have a full-time job with their existing responsibilities, let alone investigating a sexual assault claim. At the time, there was no help for me. It was so unbelievable to me that I would get assaulted by another in uniform, prove this, and not be offered any kind of mental health services. As a matter of fact, I had to pay for these services out of pocket. And because I was having such a hard time coping with the assaults, coping with the long, drawn out investigation process, and then coping with the retaliatory behavior by others in the Squadron, I was devastated. I had no choice but to turn to a professional for help. I had never been exposed to this kind of behavior and quite frankly didn’t even know what it was.
The STOP Act will hold perpetrators accountable, investigate the crimes, prosecute fairly, and provide checks and balances in the system. If this felony crime wasn’t so devastating, we would not have to create a special office to handle it but it is. It is not only devastating to the victim but to the Squadron or Unit as a whole. Morale was turned upside down after I reported the crime and the Commander launched an investigation. It was a small unit and the rumor mill started almost immediately. I was so ashamed of what had occurred that I was not interested in talking about the situation with anyone. Quite frankly, it was embarrassing and I wanted to put it behind me and move on. Unfortunately, others became fearful of me because they were not aware of what truly occurred. They were told that they had to be careful around me, that I was a troublemaker, and that I was a traitor. I never expected that response. I never expected that I would be betrayed in that way.
I would have preferred that the investigation be handled outside the Squadron. I would have preferred that the case be handled discreetly. I would have preferred that I was offered mental health services. I would have preferred that both of us leave the squadron to prevent one or the other from talking about the circumstances in order to gain support. Removing the investigation from the Chain of Command would have changed the entire dynamic of the situation. The STOP Act emphasizes an importance on human rights, discourages criminal activity, encourages professionalism in the investigation, ensures the best possible outcome for a conviction that holds up, and prevents others from becoming a victim of that perpetrator as well. Criminal investigations are handled by the professionals in the civilian world, there is no reason why they shouldn’t be handled by professionals in the military as well. The STOP Act would create a legal entity that specializes in the investigation and prosecution of these predators. The STOP Act would hold predators responsible and accountable for their criminal activity. Sexual assault and rape is not only a felony crime but it is a human rights issue. The STOP Act will protect our defenders too.
Jennifer Norris currently works with the Military Rape Crisis Center as its Maine Director.