Jennifer Barnhill is a columnist for Military.com writing about military families.
When I first met Navy Lt. Christa Gunsauley, I was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of documentation she had. Emails. Medical reports. Screenshots of text messages.
She had accumulated the paperwork during her two-year battle with the United States Navy, fighting not because she was told she did anything wrong, but because she, as the alleged victim of sexual harassment, has been forced to prove that she isn't crazy.
For Gunsauley, it all started when a superior officer started texting her and inviting her to church.
"Initially, I felt like, 'Oh, wow, he really cares about me as a sailor to the point where he's even checking on me,'" said Gunsauley. But things quickly took a turn, prompting Gunsauley to report the behavior to a senior leader in December 2021 who she claimed ignored her still unofficial cries for help.
"Instead of performing a preliminary investigation, he immediately bullied me by stripping me of command collateral duties," said Gunsauley.
So, she kept the process going on her own and re-reported her complaint to a Naval Information Forces (NAVIFOR) leader who began a preliminary investigation a month after Gunsauley first told her superior. According to Gunsauley, this is where this story should have ended, with the processing of a timely investigation.
Instead, according to Gunsauley, it took more than six months from first reporting the incident before initial findings were sent to the United States Fleet Forces Command, or USFFC. It then took USFFC more than 10 months to respond, saying all seven complaints -- four inspector general complaints and three congressional inquiries Gunsauley had painfully worked to support -- were unsubstantiated.
I reached out to the military attorneys and public affairs offices overseeing the cases referenced in this article, but their offices did not respond for comment.
As her investigation progressed, Gunsauley says that a Navy doctor -- but not her regular provider -- erroneously reported to the investigating officer that she had been diagnosed with personality disorder, a diagnosis that lawmakers have argued has been used to discredit service members and deny them medical retirement benefits.
"It was clear that the task of the investigating officer was to discredit [Gunsauley] and discount her story, which unfortunately is the case in a lot of, if not all of, them," said Ryan Sweazey who served as an inspector general in the Air Force from 2013 to 2016 and now runs the nonprofit Walk the Talk Foundation to correct issues he observed while working as an IG.
According to the latest Defense Department reports, there were more than 1,000 formal sexual harassment complaints received by the military services and the National Guard Bureau in fiscal 2019, a 10% increase from fiscal 2018 and a continuation of the rise in reporting since 2016. This number represents roughly .04% of the military.
Reports indicate that 63% of female and 20% of male cadets/midshipmen experienced sexual harassment in 2022. Yet only 1% of those who experienced harassment filed a complaint.
Of the 1,021 formal active-duty and guard complaints filed in 2019, 43% were substantiated, 26% were unsubstantiated, 15% remained open and 15% were categorized. While 80% of submitted complaints were received within 72 hours, it was not clear how many of these complaints were "resolved" within the DoD-mandated timelines.
Notably, Congress has been working to pass military justice reform for the past few years. The fiscal 2022 National Defense Authorization Act included a provision to strip commanders of their authority over sexual assault, rape and murder cases to ensure objectivity and transparency. But as groundbreaking as this legislation is, it does nothing to help individuals cope with these initial investigations that take place before Uniform Code of Military Justice takes over.
These administrative investigations are decided by a preponderance of the evidence and are determined to be substantiated or unsubstantiated based on what is found.
"Either [investigators] go in leaning one way or the other, that's common … or they discount or do not use corroborating witnesses, documents or statements of fact that would tip the scale toward the complainant," said Sweazey.
According to Gunsauley, the charged work environment after she filed the complaint began to impact her mental health.
"I'm the first one there. I'm the last one to leave. And I was just like, but all I am to everybody is just another N-word in uniform," said Gunsauley. She was overwhelmed. She felt that her harassment was being ignored, and her work environment became increasingly hostile.
"'I know him. He's a friend of mine,'" she recalled being told by the investigating official about her alleged harasser. "'Why would they want to? Why would they do this?'"
"I just felt like I am just at the point in my life where … I'm tired of trying to prove my worth and value to this installation that doesn't support me," she said.
Gunsauley attempted to overdose on medication but reached out to her therapist, who called an ambulance -- saving her life.
Even during our conversations, which took place years after the initial incident, Gunsauley felt as though she were reliving her experiences.
"My medication dosage was increased, and my therapy sessions are now being conducted every week rather than biweekly," she wrote in an email update. "Why am I telling you this? First, I would like to emphasize how the constant search for justice is extremely burdensome to the victim."
Not Taking Care of Our Own?
Army Lt. Col. Francesca Graham also knows what it is like to be overwhelmed by the investigative process. Graham is assigned to the U.S. Army Military District Washington, a two-star command, but works in support of the Defense Intelligence Agency, or DIA. Like Gunsauley, she made formal complaints -- including sexual harassment, reprisal and retaliation -- against a supervisor. Unlike Gunsauley, however, Graham's supervisor is a DoD Senior Executive Service (SES) civilian at DIA.
When she made a complaint to the DIA Equal Opportunity Office, they referred her complaint to an Army Military Equal Opportunity (MEO) adviser. When she attempted to file a complaint with the Army, her commander emailed her, saying the accused "does not fall under my command authority" as a DoD civilian and that the Army command could not pursue an investigation. At one point, the MEO told her that her case had been referred to the Joint IG office, an office that she learned does not conduct investigations. She was then told that her case was with the DIA IG. Throughout, she was confused as to who owned her case.
"After I spoke with Ryan Sweazey, I got smarter. I found out that my Army leadership's refusal to lead the investigation into my complaints was wrong," said Graham, citing a directive that requires military commanders to lead investigations into sexual harassment, including those made against DoD civilians.
"I am concerned that neither my rights nor due process were appropriately administered in the
conduct of the investigations into my complaints," wrote Graham in emails to her local and two-star-level commander. Graham's concern may not be unfounded, given the DIA's history with workplace harassment chronicled by The Wall Street Journal last year with documented issues stretching back to 2015.
"I feel very much like I've been hung out to dry," said Graham.
In addition to navigating the confusion as to who "owned" her case, Graham repeatedly expressed her concern to Army leadership that the person she filed sexual harassment claims against should not be in charge of her performance evaluation.
"There's a conflict of interest in having the person I made a sexual harassment complaint against serving as the person who determines my future in the Army," said Graham. Her Army
leadership refused to remove the DoD civilian as Graham's senior rater. When she finally got to see the evaluation, it was "a career-ender."
In addition to fighting through the arduous collection of evidence and back and forth, Graham reports having spent more than $10,000 thus far to hire legal representation. Because these initial processes are largely administrative, legal representation is not required, but often is needed to navigate the sheer complexity involved.
"All the changes to laws and regulations within the DoD are useless if commanders and organizations are not actually following those mandates," said one of Graham's attorneys, Benjamin A. Beliles, in a written statement. Beliles, a former Air Force prosecutor who leads his own firm, also represents other DoD-connected survivors of sexual harassment, saying these experiences are "demoralizing and damaging to the survivors of sexual harassment" partially because of how long they take to resolve when timelines are not followed.
"Most cases run at least six months. The more in-depth ones I've seen have gone a year or even two," said Sweazey. According to Sweazey, these long-awaited decisions can grow even more confusing and stressful. "Investigating authorities, such as the IG, tend to be incredibly opaque and leave the complainant constantly wondering what is transpiring and if the investigation is even progressing."
When these investigations are not conducted properly, the process of proving one's case impacts a service member's ability to find a resolution, if not justice. When these processes are overly burdensome, they may impact the likelihood that future service members will even want to enter into them, putting justice out of reach for those who don't have the financial or emotional reserves to keep fighting.
-- In addition to her reporting, Jennifer Barnhill is also the editor-in-chief of the National Military Spouse Network Day of Advocacy Steering Committee, and the military spouse liaison on The League of Wives Memorial Project.