Veterans' Group Calls on Troops to Own the 'Me Too' Movement

A protestor carries a sign at the #MeToo rally outside Trump International Hotel on Dec. 9 in New York City. (Getty Images/Stephanie Keith)
A protestor carries a sign at the #MeToo rally outside Trump International Hotel on Dec. 9 in New York City. (Getty Images/Stephanie Keith)

On Monday, the Service Women's Action Network plans to hold a demonstration outside the Pentagon that aims to bring the "#MeToo" sexual assault awareness movement home to the military.

It's unclear whether any active-duty service members will be in attendance.

Since October, when the #MeToo hashtag gained viral intensity on Twitter and Harvey Weinstein became the first of a herd of powerful men to lose positions and prestige over sexual assault accusations, a new wave of awareness has swept the country.

But the military, which has been addressing the realities of sexual assault in the ranks for years, has been largely absent from the movement.

Military officials say this is because the Defense Department has its own longstanding efforts underway to educate about sexual assault and prevent it. But some veterans and critics say that, despite policy, training, and initiatives to prevent reprisal, it's still too difficult for victims of military sexual assault to speak out publicly on the issue.

Navy Lt. Cmdr. Gary Ross, a Pentagon spokesman, told Military.com the Defense Department had not conducted any events or initiatives based on the #MeToo movement.

"We already have a very proactive position in this regard," he said. "We are already very active in regards to training and internal awareness campaigns to train our internal audience to understand what is unacceptable."

He added that the SWAN event had been organized through proper channels and that active-duty troops will be able to participate in their own capacity, though they may not wear a uniform or otherwise indicate that they represent the military.

"Events like this underscore the importance of the department's continued efforts to eliminate sexual harassment and assault from the military," he said.

In a December opinion editorial in TIME Magazine, SWAN Director of Communications and Policy Antonieta Rico, herself an Army veteran who served in Iraq, expressed disappointment that the military was being left behind in the national sexual misconduct awareness movement.

"Women in the military have been speaking out about sexual harassment and assault for decades, from Tailhook in the early 1990s to Marines United earlier this year," she wrote. "And for decades the American public has ignored our voices, allowing the military brass to pay lip service to eradicating the problem of sexual assault in the ranks, and failing to hold them accountable when, as scandal after scandal shows, sexual predators in the military continue to harass and assault with impunity."

Rico called for "military commanders to face the #MeToo reckoning and be held accountable for the entrenched culture of sexual harassment and assault they have tolerated, and at times, participated in."

To be sure, there have been high-profile incidences of senior officials made to answer for their conduct in the last year.

Marine Col. Daniel Wilson, an officer with 36 years of service, was sentenced to five-and-a-half years' confinement in September for sexually abusing a six-year-old girl.

A retired Army general officer, Maj. Gen. James Grazioplene, was ordered to court-martial in October on charges he raped a minor over the course of six years.

More recently, in December, the commander of the Air Force's 375th Air Mobility Wing, Col. John Howard, was relieved of his command following allegations of sexual misconduct.

It's hard to guess at what allegations do not see daylight. But SWAN leaders argue that the current military system, which allows military commanders to determine whether cases move forward to prosecution, is stacking the deck against victims.

Nichole Bowen-Crawford, an Army veteran and survivor of military sexual assault who will speak at Monday's event, is among those advocating for the Military Justice Improvement Act, authored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat.

The bill would move prosecution decisions for crimes such as sexual assault outside the chain of command, while allowing military commanders to keep their decision-making role with military-specific crimes.

Bowen-Crawford told Military.com her assault happened in 2003 while she was deployed to Iraq as part of the first wave of the invasion.

"I didn't report my assault. I didn't report mostly because of the culture in the military," she said. "I was encouraged by my higher-ranking supervisors not to bring it to the command level. They said it would make things more difficult for me ... I genuinely think they were looking out for me."

Her assailant, a sergeant from another unit, would go on to get promoted, she said. She would leave the Army in 2004 and later grapple with life-disrupting symptoms of late-onset post-traumatic stress disorder.

Much has changed in the 15 years since then, including implementation of awareness programs, victims' advocates, bystander intervention training, and efforts to prevent reprisal against victims.

But Bowen-Crawford said there's still a level of fear among service members who worry speaking out could damage their career and make them targets. Despite systems in place to allow troops to make anonymous reports, she said unit members still tend to find out about allegations.

"My friends that are still serving in the military, not one of them has said, 'Me too,' " she said. "It seems like there's this level of silence from people that are still serving. Because the military is not a safe place to say you've been sexually assaulted or harassed without retaliation."

Bowen-Crawford will be one of several military sexual assault survivors who will speak at the SWAN event Monday.

"I hope that people start listening to the military, to veterans that have been sexually assaulted and harassed," she said. "The whole '#MeToo' movement, it's an indication that they're going to start listening, and our voices do matter, and we won't be ignored anymore."

To learn more about the protest, visit Servicewomen.org.

-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at hope.seck@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.

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