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Fighting Back Against Sexual Assault In The Military


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Last month, the U.S. Air Force released its report on a sexual assault scandal that's shaken the military. Investigation suggests systematic abuse of young female recruits at Lackland Air Base and training facility in San Antonio, Texas. So far, two commanding officers have lost their jobs.

Roughly a dozen instructors face charges ranging from rape to inappropriate relationships with recruits. The Air Force general in charge described the Lackland case as serious but localized. Critics say it's emblematic of a much wider problem. The Department of Defense estimates as many as 19,000 sexual assaults within the military in 2011, the majority of those unreported.

If you're in uniform or used to be, what needs to be done to reduce sexual assaults? Give us a call 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Later in the program, an argument that AP classes in high school are a scam. But we begin with Nicole McCoy, a former Lance Corporal in the Marine Corps who left active duty seven months ago.

She was sexually assaulted several times while in the Marines. She now works to support other victims and joins us from member station WSTX in San Antonio. And thanks very much for being with us today.

NICOLE MCCOY: Thank you for having me.

CONAN: And this is your story.

MCCOY: Back in 2008, I had joined the Marine Corps and within almost exactly a year I was raped while in Afghanistan while I was at work. Continuously had to work with the same guy. He held a 9 millimeter to my head and told me that if I told anyone he'd kill me. And then I left Afghanistan after a couple months, still never told anyone.

I met my husband and in January of 2010 I was raped while in a hazmat course. And I went back and told one of the Marines that I was there with and I had told him what happened. He said he would contact my staff NCO. The staff NCO told me I needed to wait until I got back to my duty station, as they didn't have any uniform victim advocates where I was.

So when I got back then they told me that I missed the deadline. So I just continued on with life and almost exactly a year later - actually, no, it wasn't a year. It was only a couple months. I got married and then got sexually assaulted by my platoon sergeant. And when I was speaking with one of - well, actually, about five or six different Marines about what to do, finally my sergeant ended up telling the guy who assaulted me that I was going to report him.

Which turned into the entire command knowing, without me even starting a report yet. A female staff NCO told me that I needed to report it. It was better that if I did. And, you know, eventually he would get caught. If he didn't get charged now he would later on down the road. He didn't get charged. And then a few months before I left the Marine Corps in 2011, my best friend had sexually assaulted me as well.

And they said that he was just he said/she said and there was no evidence pointing that he did anything. And he ended up becoming a repeat offender. And he did something else to a girl that was exactly what he did to me. He got charged for a second one, and I had assumed that it would become logical that they reopen my case since they were identical and he would get charged for two different things.

But they left mine alone as if it never happened. And they just charged him and then he got discharged, after a while, for it. And here I am today.

CONAN: Hmm. A couple of things I have to ask you about and I'm sorry about that.

MCCOY: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: But one of them, when you said your platoon sergeant wasn't charged, in other words, you filed charges or were accusations but he was never recommended for court martial or any...

MCCOY: He didn't get absolutely anything. His command knew I was going to be reporting this before I even got anywhere to report it.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

MCCOY: And they told him this is your story. You do not know her. You've never met her before. You know nothing. And that's what he stuck with. And the investigators would tell me he's been sweating in interrogation, he's dropped 10, 15 pounds, he's ready to crack. But magically, a dead end showed up and they just dropped it, ignored it.

And the reason I think they did it is because my husband was stationed elsewhere and they brought him over to me, and then once he got here, then they just dropped everything. They never spoke to me about my case again. A couple months later I went and asked about it and they said the charges were dropped. And they had claimed they told me.

CONAN: Yeah. And after the first two you say, well, all right, then go on with your life.

MCCOY: Yeah.

CONAN: How do you go on with your life?

MCCOY: I had figured it was just like any sorority and frat - that you had to, you know, some people have done some messed up things to get into a sorority and frat and I figured it was the same thing. You had to do, you know, this had to happen to women in order to be considered one of the guys or a part of this big gun club.

You know, that you had to do - this had to happen for you to be accepted by these men that you work with on a daily basis.

CONAN: And you've obviously spoken with other women who you knew in the service. How common was this? Are you alone?

MCCOY: No. No, not at all. I mean, there's not just women but there's a lot of men that have gone through the same thing. You know, and it's - I've met so many people. I meet people almost daily that go through this. Some people are still active duty. I had one lady contact me and she didn't know what to do. They weren't moving her away from the guy who assaulted her.

She had to constantly skip, you know, her training class in order to get dropped just to be moved out of the same classroom. You know, it's still happening now, and it's sickening because the president of the United States knows this is going on. The Secretary of the Navy and Secretary of Defense, plus every single, like, commander knows this happening but they're not doing absolutely anything to prevent it or to help the victims.

And you would think after all these large cases, like Lackland Air Force Base and two other Class A lawsuits against the Secretary of Defense and Secretary of Navy, that they would buckle down on this and prevent it. But instead, it seems to be just as bad, if not worse.

CONAN: Well, joining us now is NPR's national security correspondent Larry Abramson who's covered the event at Lackland Air Base. Nice to have you with us. He's with us here in Studio 3.


CONAN: And listening to the specifics in that case, listening to what we're hearing now from Nicole McCoy, is there widespread awareness that this problem is this bad?

ABRAMSON: I think there is widespread awareness and unfortunately I've heard - I won't say the same story before - but I've heard similar stories from other women who felt like they were basically outnumbered. It was up to them to prove that something happened rather than, you know, it being up to somebody else to prove that it didn't happen.

And, you know, procedures not being followed that you would expect in criminal cases, gathering of physical evidence, things like that. In a lot of cases I think that people feel that there was a decision made in the command this was not going to go forward. And of course, that's the big difference between the regular world and the military world, is that somebody in command has to basically say this case is going to go forward.

Or they'll decide on which kinds of charges to bring and even if there is a prosecution sometimes only an administrative punishment will be brought.

CONAN: So a discharge might be the result, as opposed to 20 years?

ABRAMSON: Well, or it could even be, you know, confinement to quarters or reduction in rank or something like that. And then the person would be allowed - which is not an option in the civilian world. And I think, in some cases, some commanders clearly feel that's the appropriate response.

You know, on the other side, rape and sexual assault is one of the most difficult crimes to prosecute in all venues, whether in the civilian world or in the military world. And the question is whether the Defense Department has brought to bear the same sorts of resources that a police department would, especially when you have these reports coming over and over again. We have decades and decades of sexual scandals and sexual assaults being reported in the military. We have, as Nicole said, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta saying there is zero tolerance for this going on, and the question is whether or not they have brought the resources.

CONAN: Zero tolerance, let us take the case at Lackland Air Base, then, as an example. Are these cases going to be handled administratively? Are these cases going to be brought up before courts martial?

ABRAMSON: Many of them have. Twelve of the defendants at Lackland are already facing charges, and in a couple of cases, we've seen serious prison sentences handed down. Luis Walker, whose trial I witnessed, part of anyway, got 20 years in jail for allegedly raping and also having inappropriate conduct with a number of trainees.

And we have another case that is going to trial in February that could lead to 53 years in jail. We have other cases where the conduct was less severe, and we saw more of the administrative kind of punishment, but in those cases, I think, many people felt that this was a situation where a drill sergeant basically was having a romance, which is not allowed, with a trainee, and so, you know, going to prison was not really appropriate.

CONAN: Nicole McCoy, before we let you go, what have you been doing in the seven months since you left active duty?

MCCOY: In the seven months, I left, I started a petition on change.org/militaryrape, and that's just starting to request that active-duty members who are convicted of this, there are some that are still serving in the military that have been convicted one way or the other, whether it be administrative or just a legitimate slap on the wrist: Hey, we spoke to you about this, don't do it again.

And they're still serving in the military right now, and I know of one person that I haven't physically seen, but I've seen in passing, and just to prevent them people - them from being able to continue to stay in service without being registered so that way our active-duty members, reserves as well as civilians around the base, understand who is around them.

And then I started another campaign for fundraising to start going up to Washington, D.C., as well as the Wisconsin state capitol in Madison, to get together and create new state statutes for all 50 states, incorporating the military with local police departments so they do have the necessary resources.

They want to so separate, and the military wants to take all sorts of credit, but they don't have the necessary resources. So combining them and creating new policies for the DOD. So I started a campaign for fundraising, it's Indiegogo.com/militaryrape, as well. And so that way, you know, I can get from there to, you know, where I need to to get this changed.

And so that people don't have to - one, they know they're not alone, and they'll never be alone when it comes to this no matter how hard the military tries to prevent it. And, you know, they have other resources and things for active-duty members to look forward to that if this does happen, there are state statutes that are going to help them and prevent the person from, one, continuing to do it again because - they won't be active duty. And two, when they get out, they'll have that security of knowing they still have a restraining order.

All the restraining orders I had on the men who did this, they're all null and void at this point.

CONAN: Nicole McCoy, thanks very much for sharing your story. Good luck to you.

MCCOY: Thank you.

CONAN: Nicole McCoy, a former Lance Corporal who served in the Marines Corps from 2008 to 2012, she joined us from member station KSTX in San Antonio. We're talking about the problem of sexual assault in the military. If you're in uniform or used to be, what needs to be done to reduce sexual assaults? What works? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan with NPR News. Earlier this year, General James Amos, the commandant of the Marine Corps, acknowledged that, quote, despite our efforts, we've been ineffective at addressing and eliminating sexual assault. He laid out a plan to reach, as he described it, true zero tolerance, empowered reporting, deterrence and evolved culture.

The military's taken a number of steps over the years to address the persistent problem of sexual assault and harassment. In a moment, we'll talk with a psychologist the Pentagon's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office. If you're in uniform or used to be, what needs to be done to reduce sexual assaults? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guest is NPR Pentagon correspondent Larry Abramson, and let's bring in Nate Galbreath, he's a clinical psychologist, was the first deputy director of the Department of Defense Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office. He joins us now by phone from Bethesda, Maryland. And it's good of you to be with us today.

NATE GALBREATH: Thank you very much.

CONAN: And what works? What will reduce sexual assaults in the military?

GALBREATH: Well, you know, there's not a single silver bullet. There's not a single solution. And we've got to do a number of different things on the prevention front. We've been working very, very hard to identify those things that have been validated by scientific studies. One of the things that seems to have the most promising approach is a form of intervention called bystander intervention training.

And that is essentially something that's being used at colleges and universities around the country, and we're trying to adapt it for use in the military, and there's some evidence to show that it does indeed work. The chief component of a bystander intervention training is helping people understand and identify situations which might be at risk for sexual assault and then teaching them how to safely intervene through a number of different ways so that they can interrupt the behavior chain between someone who might be being targeted by a sex offender or someone who wants to perpetrate a sexual assault with somebody and getting them safely away from them or trying to distract the people from engaging from the behaviors that they were in or just getting somebody help or calling the police if need be.

CONAN: And as you looked at this policy, it's - as you say, it's not going to be a silver bullet. And there - it seems to be also an effort to move away from previous policies which were directed towards victims or potential victims - lock your doors, be careful of your situation, that sort of thing - in order to bring third parties into it. But what about deterring the first parties, the people who are carrying out these sexual assaults?

GALBREATH: Well, you know, that's the thing is that's where - how the Department of Defense deals with this and prosecutes is something that we have to address, and certainly we are doing our very best to give our investigators and our attorneys the skills to effectively investigate and prosecute these crimes.

The secretary of defense this last April proposed some legislation to Congress about having a special victims capability resident in each of the - each o the services out there. So we're currently working right now. We're not going to start from zero. We're working with investigators and attorneys and other impacted individuals, right now, to put together that capability so that we can go once the National Defense Authorization Act gets passed.

But I wanted to go back to something that you said just a moment ago. You talked about a policy of the DOD to, you know, increase personal safety. Actually, I would characterize that as the status of the research out there in the civilian world and in the military. We thought for many years that if people just protected themselves that they might not be such a target.

So we told people that they needed to lock their doors and windows, and they needed to, you know, not dress and wear certain things, and really sends the bad - the wrong message. And that is really kind of a victim-blaming message that if you don't lock your doors and windows, and if you do dress a certain way, then you are more likely to be sexually assaulted.

What turned the corner for this is some research that's come out over the last 10 or 15 years done by a number of different places around the country that have found that the vast majority of sexual assaults are perpetrated by someone known to the victim. And so our society, our cultural myth is that sexual assault is perpetrated by the guy in the ski mask that jumps out from dark places and perpetrates a crime with a weapon, and there's visible injuries on the victim, and they don't know each other or anything along those lines.

In actuality, non-stranger sexual assault is perpetrated by people well known to the victim, whether they be male or female, and there is rarely a visible injury. Sometimes there are, but more often there are not. And it doesn't really matter whether the victim has locked their doors or dressed conservatively because the perpetrator of the crime has - is inside their inner circle.

So a locked door does nothing against someone who's already in your room because you know them, you like, you work with them every day, and they're someone that you trusted. And so as a result, both in our college populations across the United States and the civilian populace and in the military, as well, people that are known to the victim are more likely to perpetrate the sexual assault.

CONAN: Larry Abramson?

ABRAMSON: Doctor, is anything being done to better screen for sexual offenders so that they don't get into the military or even the types of people who are likely to become sexual offenders in the military?

GALBREATH: As a matter of fact, it has been the policy of the department since 2005 to not allow anybody with a felony conviction for sexual assault into the military to serve. And so that has been in place. I know there's legislation pending to make it mandatory, but it has been the mandatory policy since 2005 for people not to come in.

One of the challenges that we have, and I just answered this question for the Air Force in working with some of the challenges that have been facing them, is that we want to do everything we can to detect these people and the kinds of behaviors. Unfortunately, I think some of our television shows and our popular culture have been not necessarily straightforward with people in what the actual capabilities of science are.

All of our detecting and all of our screening data usually focuses on people that have at least one offense out there. Once they have entered into the system, there are a number of statistical measures that we might be able to use to determine whether or not someone may go ahead and re-offend, but we do not have anything, whether it's civilian, whether it's military, there's no - there's no device or no psychological test or anything that would identify behaviors in somebody's background or in a screening thing that would say that they've perpetrated a crime or they're likely to if they've never done it before.

CONAN: Let's get a caller in on the conversation, Julie(ph) is with us from Denver.

JULIE: Yes, Neal, thanks very much for having me.

CONAN: Sure, go ahead, please.

JULIE: I'm a Vietnam-era vet, and I joined in 1973, and like Nicole, I had multiple experiences with sexual assault. And let me be very clear here: I don't feel that I'm a victim. This is something that happens to us in the military, because quite often the war that we have is with the guy standing next to us, not necessarily the guy on the other side of the gun.

And let me make a point that I'm not hearing being made: Rank has its privileges, gentlemen, and one of the most important aspects of this argument is that power - power over women is a very, very heady thing in the military. The men who attacked me had rank, and as an enlisted woman, and I wasn't an enlisted woman the entire time I was in, they had power over me because they had rank. And I did not feel at the time of these assaults that I had the right to make an appeal to anybody else, that I felt that I would have been run out of the Army, and I'd made a commitment to my country.

So I bit on a stick. I kept walking. I didn't make any appeal, and I simply was the good soldier. And one of the most important aspects of this, and the fundamental problem is that it starts at the top, and - may I point out Petraeus. These guys cannot keep it zipped up. It is at the very, very top ranks. This is an issue of power and the permission to do whatever they want because it comes with rank.

CONAN: And Julie, and I know you're making a broader point. Obviously General - retired General Petraeus not accused of sexual assault and confessed to having an affair, consensual sexual affair, and...

JULIE: I recognize that, but I will give you an example of a three-star general who promoted me for my officer's candidate school is - attacked me, as well, and it felt that it was his privilege to do so because he was doing me a favor in my career. And this is rife throughout the ranks, Neal. It is absolutely rife throughout the ranks. It is an issue, an expression of power over women.

And let me be very clear: Women in the ranks do it, too. It's not limited to men.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the phone call, and we appreciate the point, Julie, thank you.

JULIE: Absolutely.

CONAN: And let me ask you, Nate Galbreath, that was obviously her experience some time ago, but is there a culture in the military where rank has its privileges? And is that one reason why perhaps some of these cases are not referred for course courts-martial, but handled outside the judiciary system?

GALBREATH: Well, bottom line is, in case something like that does happen, the secretary of Defense, just last June, passed a - made a new directive that basically focuses on who will be deciding the outcome of these cases. And so once a case - once a - a couple of things have changed since our caller was on active duty.

First of all, a commanding officer is not the stopping point for a report of sexual assault. A victim of sexual assault may report it to a sexual assault response coordinator. There's at least one at almost every installation across the world who helps them decide whether or not they make - want to make an unrestricted or a restricted report of sexual assault.

An unrestricted report of sexual assault entails an investigation, and it's kind of the business as usual of - criminal investigators get involved. We hope that our victim will stay with us through the military justice portion, and perhaps a court-martial is involved, and some offenders are held appropriately accountable.

A restricted report allows a victim to not rock the boat, so to speak. It allows them to access confidentially care and services that they might need in order to get better and to deal with the situation. In 2004, some of the senior-most experts in the field recommended to the department that we have a confidential means of reporting to bring more victims forward and to get them the care and services they need to get better and to get back at - being at - back at the war(ph).

Now we would definitely like people to pick unrestricted report so that we have a chance at holding these offenders appropriately accountable, but we know that that doesn't necessarily - isn't necessarily going to be right for everyone. So we have those dual means.

But in addition to that, the secretary passed a directive this last June which said that once the investigation is complete, the offender's commander, his immediate commander, is no longer going to be making a decision about what's going to happen with this crime, whether it's going to go to court-martial or be dealt with via some other means.

That commander is going to be kicking it up to the first 0-6 or colonel or navy captain in their chain. And that commander, who is going - who is displaced from that immediate commander and doesn't have the relationship with the individuals involved with the crime, and because they are - probably been around the service a whole heck of a lot longer and they have - are a lot more seasoned and capable of dealing with these things, they're going to be making those decisions now. And we think that this is - this will go directly towards what that last caller talked about.

CONAN: Nate Galbreath, we know you've got another appointment, licensed clinical psychologist from the Department of Defense. He works in the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office. We appreciate your time today.

GALBREATH: You're very welcome. Thanks for having me on.

CONAN: And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And Larry, all that sounds great. Then you realize that 30 of 31 alleged victims at Lackland, only one came forward.

ABRAMSON: Yes, that's right. And, you know, Lackland is such a painful example because you're talking about people straight out of high school, some of them very young. You know, they're supposed to be completely under the sway of these basic military instructors...

CONAN: Essentially drill sergeants.

ABRAMSON: Drill sergeants. Basically we've all seen what drill - you know, what basic training looks like from the movies, and it's a lot more intense in real life, from what I'm told. And I - but I think it gets to the issue of whether or not this simply is a cultural issue and the fact that it was perpetrated on such young people so early in their career, where they were told, you know, you don't breathe until I tell you to breathe, that that basically sets them up for a lifetime of understanding that you have to obey an order.

You know, and this cultural issue, I think, goes - it really makes the task of the military much more difficult. Nobody wants to undermine the chain of command. You do not want to have people questioning orders when you're on the battlefield, but then saying, well, you have to question orders that are given to you in a different situation, in a sexual situation. It's just - it's kind of a mind twister. It's very difficult for people to accept.

CONAN: Email question from Denise(ph): Are those convicted of sexual assault required to register as sex offenders when they're discharged?

ABRAMSON: That's a good question. I don't think so. I know that there was an effort to create a registry within the military, but I'll have to look that up and get it - get back to you on it.

CONAN: Let's see if we get to another caller. This is Michael, Michael with us from Creston, Iowa.

MICHAEL: Hi. I'm a - I was enlisted for six years, so I went through basic training and all that. And then I was a commissioned officer for another 16 years. I made the rank of major, but I guess in my enlisted years I was never around females. All-male battalion. And then when I became a commissioned officer, I think commissioned officers were the - the NCOs are professionals, but we are the Corps.

I'm still subject to the UCMJ as a retired officer, a retired soldier at that. And I think the officers - all officers - need to be trained on assaults of any kind or any inappropriate conduct because if I knew my commander was sexually abusing another soldier, I would have no trouble taking - walking that soldier to the JAG, the judge advocate general, the lawyers, and having that soldier's situation be told and be a support system for that soldier, going - even going against the person that writes my evaluations.

But officers - I believe officers should be trained to do that at the lowest level, and kicking everything up to the first 0-6 or the first general, or the first whoever, takes power away from the officers who are in charge of those NCOs that have the power over the junior people. So...

CONAN: Interesting point, Michael. Larry?

ABRAMSON: Right. Well, you know, that is a very good point, and I think that the military has endorsed this idea that they simply need much stronger training at all levels. Secretary of Defense Panetta recently, in light of the Petraeus scandal, announced an ethics review that will get into a lot of these issues, and then there has also - because of these sexual assault complaints, there's also been a review of all the training that officers and people at all levels are given. The question is, does this need to be taken out of the chain of command, whether or not Congress or the Department of Justice needs to look after these prosecutions and see whether they're being pursued as vigorously as possible. I think the point of view of many people in Congress is that that would be a dangerous thing, to tell the military that you cannot be responsible for your own troops.

CONAN: Michael, thanks very much for the call.

MICHAEL: I concur with that also.

CONAN: Larry Abramson, thank you very much.

ABRAMSON: Thank you.

CONAN: NPR Pentagon correspondent Larry Abramson, here with us in Studio 3A. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.