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.
I went outside my chain of command and filed an equal opportunity complaint against the officer. The ensuing investigation was excruciating. I had to get a restraining order against the lieutenant, and I was ordered by my command not to talk to anyone about the incident. Although the investigators sided with me, the victims and dozens of witnesses, finding misconduct on the part of the officer, the command ignored the results. The perpetrator was promoted — to command the company filled with women whom he had harassed. Despite my attempts to alert the media, no one paid attention. But the cover-up was legendary within the Marine Corps.
None of the women affected by this officer’s behavior are still serving. We are all retention casualties. Like many others, after I reported these incidents, I was socially isolated by my peers, denied assignments I deserved and given ultimatums and gag orders to stay silent. I was told by senior officers that I was too sensitive. That I took things too personally. That women lie about these incidents to ruin the reputations of men in the military. My command refused to let me leave the Marines, instead putting my discharge on hold for weeks until the investigation was completed. I ultimately left without any awards for my service and sacrifices, and devastated by how my Marines and I had been treated.
There was no doubt that my being a woman had helped others — women and men — report abuse to me. But having a lone female officer sympathize with victims will do nothing to fix the system if there aren’t thousands of other women in the upper echelons of military leadership supporting troops when they courageously report abuse or harassment. I seemed to be mentoring my senior male officers on how to respect women more often than they mentored me.
I often wonder whether there was some way I could have better survived within this culture of misogyny, because I didn’t want to leave the Marine Corps. I struggle with the idea that I didn’t endure the hostile climate well enough, as if it was somehow my fault that few others ever spoke out against such abuse.
Examples of senior military women challenging the institution’s sexist culture are rare. In fact, the only public case I know of was when Claudia Kennedy, a two-star Army general, accused a fellow general of sexual harassment. Despite her numerous military accomplishments — she was at one point the highest-ranking woman in the Army and after retirement became an advocate for service women’s welfare — her investigation is often what she is remembered for. I doubt that is the legacy she wanted to leave.
The less you speak out, the more likely you are to fit in and rise to the top. This doesn’t suggest corruption so much as pressure on women to be silent and assimilate in order to survive and thrive. Although the policy excluding women from combat was officially lifted in January, little has changed on the ground for service women. We are still waiting to hear from the service chiefs about how they intend to allow women to compete for the assignments currently available only to men.
Women make up only 15 percent of the armed forces. In the Marine Corps and the Army, approximately a third of assignments are still off-limits to women, even if they are qualified to do them. Few women return from Iraq and Afghanistan with the same recognition or career mobility as their male colleagues, even if they did the same jobs during their deployments. Sadly, the military loses thousands of talented women each year who have proved themselves on the battlefield and have returned home without opportunities to capitalize on their combat experience. These are women we desperately need to retain, promote and celebrate. These are women we want as our future sergeants major and general officers.
The military has attempted to attract more women in recent years, but little is being done within the force to ensure that once they join, they will be treated equitably. If we open doors to women — and encourage promotions and assignments on the basis of merit, rather than gender — the military will gradually transform into an actual meritocracy.
Women — and men — have benefited from the increase in female leaders at the highest echelons of all fields and industries. It took the election of women to Congress, and their collective leadership on the Senate and House Armed Services committees, to make military sexual assault against women and men a congressional priority.
Some will rightly ask whether women are inherently better suited for military leadership, less likely to commit sexual assault and less likely to let criminals in the ranks go unpunished. The few women who have survived the harassment and hostility of a military career and reached the top can sometimes become part of the problem. For example, if we’ve learned anything from the high-profile case of Air Force Lt. Gen. Susan Helms — whose promotion Sen. Claire McCaskill has stalled because she questions Helms’s decision to overturn a sexual assault conviction — it’s that women who rise to the upper ranks of the military are often mired in the same culture as their male peers. But we aren’t likely to see much change in military culture until there’s a critical mass of women at the top.
In addition to ending formal discrimination against women, the military needs to recruit, train and mentor women at the earliest stages of their service to guarantee that they will be encouraged to pursue long-term careers. The military ought to set a goal of 25 to 33 percent women’s presence among students at the service academies and troops in the operating forces to expect any significant shifts toward a meritocracy, where good order and discipline are the norm, not just Pentagon rhetoric. One needs only to look at West Point, where just 15 percent of cadets are women, or at the Marine Corps, where only 6 to 7 percent of the force is female, to get an idea of how far we have to go.
Even with the deference and trust of elected officials and the public, the armed forces’ leadership must prove that it cares about our sons and daughters. It can start by ensuring that young women not just join, but stay in and thrive.
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