'They Choose Not to Listen': Thae Ohu Speaks for the First Time on Her Experience in the Marines

Former Marine Thae Ohu joins the ranks of service members whose stories have grown to be rallying cries in the struggle for change in the way the military treats mental health and handles sexual assault. (Michael Hinesley)

Thae Ohu loved the Marine Corps

The young refugee from Burma worked hard to convince the branch to let her enlist in 2013, despite a family history of mental health issues. A recruiter told her to get off the medications that helped her manage her mood so she could pass a screening. Dutifully following orders, she soon was able to slip on the Corps' standard-issue cammies with aspirations of rising through the ranks to become an officer. 

But traumas, both those still reverberating from her past and new ones brought on by her time with the Marines, soon would swallow that dream.

"I cared enough to be in uniform to make sure that I did my job every single day, regardless of my appointments, regardless of my mental state, but I needed them to be more understanding and willing to accept the fact that I needed help too," the 27-year-old Ohu explained in her first published interview, speaking with Military.com via telephone from her home in Indiana.

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The help never came and, instead of leading Marines, Ohu now joins the ranks of service members such as Army Spc. Vanessa Guillen whose stories have grown to be rallying cries in the struggle for change in the way the military treats mental health and handles sexual assault.

Ohu's complicated history, both her mental health and the experience she describes of a sexual assault in the Marine Corps, were shaping events when she attacked her boyfriend, who safely hid behind a bedroom door while Ohu stabbed at it, in April 2020. According to a website run by her family, she was experiencing a flashback to her sexual assault in Okinawa, Japan, at the time. A condition of the interview with Military.com was that Ohu would not be asked about details of her rape, or the attack on her boyfriend, to avoid re-traumatizing her.

The near stabbing resulted in several charges, including attempted murder. 

In May 2021, she pled guilty to some of the charges, the most serious of which was aggravated assault with a dangerous weapon, leading to her release from the Navy Consolidated Brig in Chesapeake, Virginia. The boyfriend submitted testimony on her behalf describing Ohu as "a victim both of sexual assault and from prejudice by her command." 

Along the way, her story became a very public symbol of the way military commanders can fail those under their care. 

Capt. Samuel Stephenson, a service spokesman, told Military.com, "It is inappropriate for the Marine Corps to comment or speculate on decisions made by court-martial convening authorities," when asked last week about Ohu's case.

Ohu was only 18 when she enlisted in the Marines in 2013. A year later, she found herself stationed on a base in Okinawa. It was there that she says a fellow Marine sexually assaulted her after a night of drinking. 

Nevertheless, Ohu kept advancing in her career. Her records show several personal awards for positive work, and she made the rank of sergeant -- a notable and coveted rank in the Corps. She transferred to Marine Detachment Dam Neck, Virginia, in 2015. There, she oversaw more than 120 Marines, but her mental health began to decline.

Ohu needed counseling -- something the leaders at Dam Neck made extremely hard to obtain, according to a Marine Corps Victims' Legal Counsel Organization report on her case. 

"Marines were supposed to help each other, and there was no help there," she said. 

At first, in an effort to avoid telling her leadership at Dam Neck about the assault, Ohu tried to see a civilian therapist. She said the fact the treatment wasn't with a military therapist led her command to charge her with unauthorized absence. She was busted down to corporal.

That incident led to a formal report of the sexual assault to her executive officer in Dam Neck. Then, when her command failed to send the Naval Criminal Investigative Service her report of the alleged sexual assault at the hands of a fellow Marine, Ohu "was forced to seek out help in connection with her sexual assault report on her own," according to the Marine Corps Victims' Legal Counsel Organization report.

"You can't fight battles all by yourself, and you can't hold everything in all by yourself," Ohu said in a video she posted to Facebook shortly after the demotion. "It takes a lot for you to break down, and it takes so much out of you." 

Exhausted, Ohu told her executive officer that she "couldn't keep going in the Marine Corps" in August 2019, more than half a year before her career-ending assault.

"I physically told them that I decided I wanted to get on med board," Ohu said. A medical evaluation board is a process designed to determine whether a service member has medical conditions that prevent them from continuing to serve. 

"When I was supposed to get on the med board in October, my command purposely tried to stop me," Ohu claimed. "From then on, my name has been tarnished." 

One gunnery sergeant told her she "shouldn't be compensated for being sexually assaulted," speaking dismissively of the trauma she experienced and rejecting the idea that she should receive government support. 

"PTSD isn't for women that were sexually assaulted. PTSD is for combat veterans," he added, using the acronym for post-traumatic stress disorder. 

"What people really need to understand, and I would want them to see is that ... across the board, it's not fair at all," she said.  

Citing other high-profile cases, Ohu argued that "if [commanders] didn't want to prosecute you, if you're a part of the good boys club, they could keep it at a battalion level or company level."  

"I just feel like the reason why I didn't have my command by my side is because I was already making waves against them," Ohu said. "I was calling out how they treated me during my limited duty process."   

Her case has become a symbol to many of the way military justice can fail victims of sexual assault and the ensuing trauma. Aside from the news coverage, Ohu's family, and especially her sister, Pan Phyu, have been vocal in advocating for support and change. Phyu wrote an open letter to military leaders, advocacy groups have been raising awareness, and a GoFundMe account has raised more than $20,000 for Ohu's legal fees and medical bills. 

"The system isn't protecting service members with PTSD or mental health issues or anything like that," Ohu said. "I'm the one case of many -- and I say that from personal experience.

"My first duty station, I had to deal with a death report," she went on, her voice breaking slightly. "One of my best friends committed suicide because she was sexually assaulted twice." 

Ohu, being an administrative specialist, had to put in the paperwork on her friend's death and was one of the first to learn the news.  

"If it means for me to stand as a figure to help, I would gladly do that," she said. "But I don't want to just help. I feel like we need to make a wave of impact, and that's why I think it's important for Congress to listen.

"I think they need to pass the [Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act, or MJIA], because it needs to be taken out of the military," she said. "The commander is not equipped, and if they are equipped, they're not listening." 

MJIA is a bipartisan bill introduced by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., that calls for removing prosecutorial decisions for serious crimes that aren't inherently related to military service from unit commanders. It has been included in the Senate version of the fiscal 2022 National Defense Authorization Act.

After her plea, a judge recommended that Ohu's bad conduct discharge be suspended so that she could continue to receive care. However, Maj. Gen. Julian D. Alford, commanding general of Marine Corps Training Command, denied the request July 12 and "approved without suspension the bad conduct discharge adjudged at her court-martial," according to a copy of the letter provided to Military.com. 

"The judge made a recommendation, and the commander chose not to listen," Ohu said, referring to Alford. "I don't even know who this man is and yet he made a mistake on my life, and he's never once talked to me, sat down with me, wrote me anything."

Alford took command this summer

Despite an ongoing appeal and increased attention on her case, Ohu now worries about the future of her treatment. 

"I don't know when I'm going to get my next medication," she said, citing the bad conduct discharge. "I'm on psychiatric medication and it's working for me, but do they not care to the point where they don't know about my day-to-day life?" 

After struggling through the process of figuring out Tricare eligibility and getting approval, Ohu said she was finally able to schedule an appointment for more counseling in September. However, her medication runs out in August, and she may not be eligible for continued medical care because of the bad conduct discharge. 

In his sentencing letter, Alford wrote that Ohu should receive treatment from the Department of Veterans Affairs, but it's not clear that the VA will approve her request for support.

Despite everything that has happened, however, Ohu says she would enlist again. 

"I still love the Marine Corps," she said. "What I don't love is the fact that you have leaders in position that can make changes, and they have the ability to listen, but they choose not to listen. That's the sad part." 

-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at konstantin.toropin@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin. 

Related: Marine Corps General Won't Suspend Thae Ohu's Discharge After Plea 

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