Dear veterans, families, and supporters,
I know the continued issue of sexual harassment, assault, and gender discrimination in our U.S. Armed Forces troubles you, as it does all of us here at CalVet. Unfortunately, we see the damage this issue can have on our troops and veterans every day. Our military women and men deserve better. You can read my op-ed, which appeared last weekend in The Sacramento Bee, below.
Lindsey Sin, CalVet Deputy Secretary, Women Veterans Affairs
The tragic news of the disappearance and murder of Army Specialist Vanessa Guillén has hit our military and veteran community hard, especially for women like me, who experienced and witnessed sexual harassment, assault, and gender discrimination while serving in the U.S. Navy. After working with my fellow women veterans for over a decade, I am no longer surprised that regardless of our branch or era of service, many of us have similar stories.
But, I am shocked, dismayed, and frankly heartbroken that this nation still fails to ensure a workplace free from sexual harassment, assault, and gender discrimination in our U.S. Armed Forces, our military academies, and even in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
The time for change is long overdue. Women like Vanessa Guillén have paid the price of our inattention, dismissal and silence with their lives. Others have taken their own lives, or have been all but destroyed by their experiences.
The loss of this soldier – a beautiful life that was taken so brutally and senselessly – brings the issues of violence against women in the military to the surface once again. Being female and serving in our armed forces and military academies is a precarious occupation, perhaps even more for women of color and women who identify as LGBTQ. One in four women have experienced Military Sexual Trauma according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Women who experience sexual harassment and assault in the military are given two impossible choices – either suffer in silence and fear or speak up and put your life, career and reputation on the line. Among those who choose not to report, many cite a fear of retaliation as their reasoning. Brave, smart, decorated, career military women have been held captive by this reporting process.
We must do more to protect those who report abuse and hold perpetrators accountable. Too often, the punishment is not commensurate with the crime, further undermining the military justice and reporting process. While the military has made improvements over the years, it has not reduced the occurrence of sexual assault and harassment, nor has it increased convictions for substantiated claims. Until each branch of the military can demonstrate that it holds offenders accountable and that it does not tolerate inappropriate, offensive, and dangerous workplace behavior, nothing will change the insidious undercurrent of gender–based discrimination that allows such horrific crimes to continue.
All military women are tired. We are tired of justifying our military service that is still somehow considered less significant. We are tired of being questioned about our actions – what we say, what we wear, how we act. We’ve all experienced a hyper-masculine status quo, or the stereotype that women are inferior in the military. More than anything, we’re tired of telling our stories of assault and harassment to provide one more piece of evidence that supports our simple request that our mental well being, our bodies, and our military service are respected.
A cultural change is needed in every corner of the U.S. Armed Forces. Otherwise, we allow women who have committed their lives to service of our country to bear the burden and pay the price. We can’t let Vanessa Guillén’s military service and senseless murder mean nothing.
I just hope we’re not too late to, once again, demand anything less.
(If you are a veteran who has experienced sexual assault or harassment during military service, you are not alone. Contact CalVet Women Veterans or visit the VA’s website about treatment for Military Sexual Trauma).