On Path to Healing, Military Sexual Assault Victims Meet, Advocate for Change

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Nichole Bowen was a junior studying sociology at Arizona State when she enlisted in the Army, right before September 11, 2001. She was soon deployed to Iraq as a Private first class.

"For me Iraq was, to be like brutally honest, it was a constant rape threat,” Bowen said.

The Department of Defense estimates there were 19,000 cases of military sexual assault last year. Compare that to the 3,192 vets who actually reported assaults in 2011.

Bowen didn’t file a report when she was attacked.

"One night I was actually working on the night shift I was assaulted by another service member. After that the harassment felt so much more intense and dramatic, I just didn't feel safe."

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta recently pledged a 'zero tolerance' policy, as well as authorized a number of reforms to combat soldier perpetrated sex crimes. Even as regulations change, veterans like Bowen say that a culture of harassment in the military persists. The 33-yearold said there's a long standing culture of joking around and verbal abuse. She took it, brushing it off or making a joke out of it. But it soon became too degrading to brush off.

"Comments every day would be something like 'Are you interested in making some money for prostitution?' Or 'Hey, let's go [explitive] by the bunker.'"

It wasn't until after she was discharged and became a veteran's outreach coordinator that she began to deal with what happened to her. She's been diagnosed with PTSD and depression and is currently out on currently disability.

As part of her recovery, Bowen is working on a book called “The Lady Warrior Project”. She’s collecting 22 stories of veterans that she said will be a very raw depiction of military life from the eyes of female service members.

Bowen was one of the vets invited by the advocacy group Service Women’s Action Network  to Washington, D.C. earlier this month for the first ever summit on military sexual violence.

About 200 people representing a huge range of ages, races and branches of military gathered in a hotel ballroom. Active duty service women sat next to Vietnam era vets. After a continental breakfast and opening remarks, the day really began when veterans addressed their fellow survivors directly.

Wendy McClinton, 48, was one of the attendees at the conference. She detailed the obstacles to reporting assaults and her long road to healing.

The towering 6 foot tall woman in the swirly dress said it's been a long road from the assault that happened while she was still in basic training. “It was someone that I trusted, it was person of authority. It was a person that you didn't really expect to have this thing done to you," she said.

(Photo: McClinton, left, gets ready to go to Congress and meet with legislators. Kathleen Horan/WNYC)

Participants at the summit said whether they're on a battlefield or a base they can't provide security if they're not protected themselves. Many said it’s not enough to create a climate where victims don't fear retribution for reporting, advocates want better prosecution and punishment for these crimes. McClinton doesn’t think it goes far enough. It’s the culture of workplace harassment that Bowen mentioned that needs to go.

"Military sexual trauma didn't just start as this big giant,” McClinton explained. ”It was actually a little comment that went unnoticed, a little comment when some commanding officer made and you didn't address it.  So [they think] once I got away with a comment, now I can get away with a touch — and then I can just snatch you into a room and do whatever I feel like I want to do."

Protections for civilian employees against harassment, including Title 7, the federal law banning workplace discrimination doesn’t cover military service members.

Retired Brigadier General Thomas Cuthbert is a 30-year veteran of the Army and has served with the Defense Task Fore on Sexual Assault. "For a young woman in a basic training unit who is harassed, who is assaulted — civilian life you just walk away — military life you will either obey or you get in trouble,” said Cuthbert. “Of course on those facts you wouldn't get in trouble but these kids don't know that."

The General represented the old military guard to many in the room, but he also affirmed how hard it is to say no to another soldier, especially when they're of a higher rank.

After lunch, about 130 participants assembled for a walk to Capitol Hill to meet with their legislators from 28 states to share their personal stories and to push them to support the Sexual Training and Oversight Prevention Act, which aims to improve prevention of military sexual assaults, as well as the response to such crimes.

A group of women from NY State headed to the Rayburn Building to meet with Democrat Congressman Brian Higgins. He represents the state's 27th district that includes Buffalo. Four women spent 30 minutes discussing the culture of harassment that pervades the armed forces.

Kim Soper from Orange County told the congressman she discouraged her three daughters from joining the military. 

“Each one, separately, asked me ‘geez, should I go into the army?’ and I said, ‘oh hell no, don’t do that,’” she recalled. “I would like to be able to say yes. There are many positive things about my experience in the Army. I got very intensive training and I originally had a real sense of being taken care of…but what happened, that feeling of safety and the organization protecting you is gone.”

Kathleen Horan/WNYC
A panel discuss during the Truth and Justice Summit, the first-ever summit on military sexual violence, that took place in Washington, DC.
Kathleen Horan/WNYC
At the summit, attendees sat with vets from their home state.
Kathleen Horan/WNYC
Art cards called Buddha-Ladies painted by Bowen. She said creating them has been helpful in her healing.
Kathleen Horan/WNYC
Brooklyn’s Wendy McClinton and Peaches Diamond get ready to walk to Congress to meet with legislators.
Kathleen Horan/WNYC
The group walks to Capitol Hill to meet with various congress members.
Kathleen Horan/WNYC
Women survivors from NY state, (l-r) Coleen O’Conner-Walker, Tammy Dolson and Kimberly Davis, meet with Congressman Brian Higgins.
Kathleen Horan/WNYC
Signs participants carried with them to Capiol Hill.


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Comments [10]

Lori Dewese

Hi, I am a vet and served when I was 17. I was sexual harassed. I 've had many problems since. Everything has changed for me since then I was left for and with nothing. No money, nothing. Anyone for advice.

Mar. 12 2013 09:05 PM
NY Victim from NY

Thank you Kathleen for shedding light on a very controversial topic. Regardless of when this issue has finally come to light, it has, now it's up to the leaders we vote for to do something. Thankfully we do have some congressional officials, Congresswoman Speier, who have stepped forward to defend we military members.

Jul. 24 2012 02:38 PM
Aura Bijou Plotkin from Brooklyn, Ny--NY Harbor VA

Ready, willing and able to help. I have been a physical therapist for over 25 years and have done pelvic work with woman with chronic pain consequent to sexual assault. I am currently working at the VA and have put out the offer to provide treatment to Vets who have suffered assault, whether during duty or otherwise, and so far have not had a nibble. Not sure how to get connected, but have not given up on finding the person who will give me the opportunity to help in a very direct way. Dyspareunia, or painful intercourse, does not have to be a chronic condition. I have held many hands during treatments to help women move through the emotional pain that goes with it, and have had some come back into my office with very big grins because they are able to enjoy intimacy once again.

Jun. 13 2012 11:26 PM
StevenStreets from Columbus Ohio

I fell a casualty to delayed PTS from sex abuse by priest at US Army Chaplain School at Ft Wadsworth Staten Island NYC in 1978. A civilian priest had raped me earlier that year when my Air Force step father died.
The Army was a natural escape to a safe ministry for a G.I Brat. Just never expected a perfect storm of unexpected PTS triggers. The NYC Merchant Marine Hospital Doctor was much sharper and worldly wise than the Army Docs at Walter Reed. Must have come with Staten Island Territory. I have the Navy of my birth father to thank for busting out the priest that got me when he tried to become a Navy chaplain. The church has been dumping bad priests into the military to let the military deal with the problem, but they end up getting sent back and returned to somewhere else to rape again.h
On my own behalf and that of other's with out a voice;
I demand the head of my religious family, Pope Benedict XVI apologize to the head of my Military family, President Obama for sex abuse by priests of military orphans like myself. Wouldn't you?

May. 30 2012 09:30 PM
Katherine from Brooklyn

Many thanks to Kathleen Horan for this excellent story on military sexual assault of our women who serve in the military. I was astounded by the numbers, and moved by the stories of assault and rape as recounted by the women in the segment.

May. 30 2012 05:54 PM

Just as the military was forced to change its policies and attitudes first regarding soldiers and sailors of color, then personnel who are gay or lesbian, they need to be coerced into equal and safe treatment of all soldiers regardless of gender.

Women have every right to be as safe as men, regardless of race, creed or color. Until the "high command" realizes, accepts and implements this, nothing will change. In the military, officers and NCO's can issue a directive ... and it WILL be followed if it is meant seriously. Some brig or stockade time for the perpetrators will send the message. So will believing the account of the attackee and take proper action.

Until women are truly equal, there is no hope for the success of the society ... whether it is Afghanistan or the US.


May. 30 2012 05:35 PM
Carole Stuart from Ft Lee, NJ

My company, Barricade Books published HONOR BETRAYED: Sexual Abuse in America's Military by Dr. Mic Hunter, a few years ago. No one would mention it, review it, talk about it. The book and Dr. Hunter were years ahead on this issue. Glad it's finally getting the attention it deserves.

Carole Stuart

May. 30 2012 04:07 PM

If the army can NOT protect its own member from being assaulted by itself, what do you think it is doing to Iraq / Afghan people?

May. 30 2012 03:49 PM
justiceday from PA

There is absolutely no hope for woman in this country regarding rape and sexual assault, and the military has gone beyond it's purpose and power and no one will touch them. The reality is they are nothing more than criminals and women should be warned.
And thanks to congressman like Mark Critz who help them cover up rapes they will always get away with it. We need the rest of the world to step in since th FBI won't. The site theusmarinesrape is being viewed worldwide now and citizensagainstmarkcritz
If Obama cared about this he would be looking into this problem, a state senator tried to get help with this case and was ignored. Thanks for nothing Obama!

May. 30 2012 02:33 PM
political pop

I got sexually assualted by the opposite sex noone gave a shit in marine corps.... or just not about black marines... i cant make this up its all documented,...

May. 29 2012 01:58 PM

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