Anu Bhagwati is the executive director of the Service Women’s Action Network, a nonprofit organization that works to end discrimination, harassment and assault in the military. She is a former Marine Corps captain
and company commander
As the Pentagon and Congress grapple with how to reduce sexual assault in the military, here’s an idea that would transform and improve military culture: Recruit, retain and promote far more women to the upper ranks.
Although more than 280,000 women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, service women’s careers remain incredibly stunted: In five years as a Marine officer, I never met a woman above the rank of major. In fact, only two women in U.S. military history have attained the rank of four-star general. We can’t expect women to be accepted in combat roles, or the culture of sexual harassment and assault to change, when the military retains so few of its women in the senior enlisted and officer ranks.
I joined the Marine Corps a year after college for the challenge of serving my country with an elite group of warriors. I wanted to compete on a level playing field. As one of the few female officers in the Marines, I attempted to crack the brass ceiling by volunteering for assignments that were dominated by men, such as the Marine Corps Martial Arts Instructor Course. In every unit I served, I called out sexist, harassing and violent behavior by fellow officers and senior enlisted leaders, but I was ignored, marginalized or punished.
My daily grind included hearing from male peers that women are weak, lazy and don’t belong in the Marine Corps. Rape jokes were commonplace, as were demeaning vocabulary, vile pornography and reminders that the women and girls in the strip clubs and red-light districts outside our bases in the United States and abroad were there to be used as sexual objects by men in uniform. I knew many senior officers who condoned this behavior and even participated in it. Although service branch policies discourage all of these actions, they are rampant in military service. Among the many rites of passage for my fellow Marines were group trips to the brothels of Thailand, where local women and girls were sexually trafficked solely to fulfill the needs of U.S. troops.
So why are we surprised that sexual violence is such a problem in the ranks?
When our senior officers are complicit in committing or covering up sexual misconduct or violence, we have little recourse but career suicide. I found this out when I was stationed at the School of Infantry at Camp LeJeune, N.C., from 2002 to 2004, where I volunteered to serve precisely because it was a challenging billet few non-infantry officers had attempted, and I would be training new Marines in combat skills and commanding infantry troops whom I greatly admired. I was the only woman in my position at that time, and I welcomed the challenge.
The joys of leading some of the finest Marines I knew were cut short when it became clear that some officers and senior enlisted personnel in our units were sexually assaulting and harassing dozens of junior troops. Indeed, all newly minted female Marines came from the Parris Island Marine Corps Recruit Depot straight to us for combat training, resulting in a target-rich environment for sexual predators. As a lieutenant, I watched as my senior officers not only ignored dozens of trainees’ allegations, but protected the senior enlisted perpetrator and transferred him out of the unit without any investigation or punishment. As a captain, I’d had enough. When my troops reported to me that our executive officer, a decorated war veteran, was sexually harassing them, I told my commander, but he did nothing. So I took matters into my own hands.