If I'd attended the Commander in Chief Forum, I would have asked the presidential candidates about sexual harassment in the military.
In 2015, one in three women reported sexual harassment at work. This year doesn't look much better, judging by national headlines. And according to one presidential candidate, it's the women's fault.
Powerful leaders in influential industries saturate daily news stories with their offenses, including Fox News (Roger Ailes), Hollywood (Bill Cosby), and the U.S. Army (Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair). At the Commander In Chief Forum on MSNBC, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump continued to infer that it's the women's fault if they get harassed or assaulted in the military. It's likely that hundreds of thousands of cases occur without even making headlines. Moreover, rape culture is rampant across college campuses, and sentences for the guilty are often light and incomplete, as evidenced by Stanford swimmer Brock Turner. While rules and policies may exist to prevent and punish violations, its reporting and the ensuing backlash can destroy careers and even lives. Women are usually the most impacted, because the media, entertainment, political and military industries widely accept bro culture and sexism as norms.
Something must change.
As a West Point graduate, former Army captain and Iraq war veteran, I am intimately familiar with working and living in a sexually harassing environment. Not unlike the Wall Street "'bro culture" recently detailed by banker Sam Polk in The New York Times, my military career was book-ended within a male bonding fraternity that objectified women. In order to be accepted by my superiors, peers and subordinates alike, I adopted these three essential behaviors: 1) I outperformed my male counterparts in many facets, especially physical fitness, to demonstrate that I deserved to play in the men's club; 2) I spoke like "one of the guys" and adopted words like "tits" and "pussy" into my vocabulary; and 3) I laughed instead of corrected behavior that made me feel violated, objectified or belittled as a woman.
In my forthcoming memoir and stage play, " War Virgin," I poke fun at many inappropriate incidents that transpired during my military career. In hindsight, I contributed to the problem. I tolerated innuendos and overtures from my time at West Point, when women comprised 12 percent of the cadet population, to my combat deployment in Iraq. At West Point, many of my male counterparts and instructors didn't treat women as equals. Even my extra-curricular Officer's Christian Fellowship program taught me to submit to men. Can you fault my behavior? No one provided an objective and tangible path for a woman to succeed in the military. I had to figure it out on my own, through trial and error.
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, with 'Today' show co-anchor Matt Lauer, left, speaks at the NBC Commander-In-Chief Forum held at the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space museum aboard the decommissioned aircraft carrier Intrepid, New York, Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2016.
Photo Credit: Andrew Harnik/AP
Various catch phrases described a woman's place in the military. West Point was referred to as a "sausage fest." During my first week on the job as a new Army lieutenant, my boss made it clear I had joined a team of dirty jokesters and needed to play along. So I conformed and found ways to contribute salacious jokes and innuendos. When I put up any front, I received feedback from superiors such as, "You're a soldier first, a woman second." That statement was technically true, but its pejorative tone inferred that soldier culture is bro culture, so suck it up.
An incident that occurred during the Iraq invasion further illustrates the problem. My brigade commander, a U.S. Army colonel, was infamous for bringing Pepperidge Farm sausages on every combat mission he flew in his command and control Black Hawk helicopter. One time, mid-flight, when our female battle captain described the battlefield scenario to him, he retorted with, "Would you like to take a bite out of my sausage?" She was speechless.
This commander determined the fate of her evaluations, which in the Army, can impact one's future assignments and areas of residence. Needless to say, the female battle captain didn't feel comfortable standing up for herself.
On this same deployment, after settling at the Baghdad International Airport, post invasion convoy, my boss, an Army major, asked me to be his roommate. (Prior to the invasion, he had begun monitoring how long I showered.) I declined, and he reprimanded me, which included private counseling in his bedroom. I took notes under the guise of wanting to be a dutiful subordinate. Then I reported him to my chain of command for impropriety. (There were many other incidents that I describe in War Virgin.) I wanted to exhaust this channel before taking greater measures, to see if my complaint would be addressed according to Army protocol. The complaint landed on the desk of my brigade commander, the one who had harassed our battle captain and even officially, albeit unsuccessfully, banned masturbation.
Despite these issues, living through war gave me more confidence to stand up for myself, but the consequences didn't always work in my favor. I requested that I not work with my immediate boss anymore. My brigade commander warned that if I took my complaint above his head, I would be culpable for "tarnishing our unit's good reputation" when we'd been so "heroic" in war. I said I wouldn't seek further litigation if he changed the situation. But that meant I had to leave the unit. The burden was on me to not be targeted with harassment anymore.
I don't know exactly how many other women suck it up and inevitably exit the service like me, but I imagine it's a staggering amount. It's a shame the bro culture yields departure as the most common course of action for women. This isn't unique to the military. Even Donald Trump has endorsed it.
When a talent management system invests hundreds of thousands of dollars to recruit, train and develop an employee, and a persistent culture of sexism drives her away, it is ostensibly fraud, waste and abuse. (West Point claimed that my education cost $250,000.)
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks with "Today" show co-anchor Matt Lauer at the MSNBC Commander-In-Chief Forum at the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in New York Sept. 7. The author faults Trump for inferring that it's women's fault if they get harassed or assaulted in the military.
Photo Credit: Evan Vucci/AP
So, what can be done?
The Army currently employs SHARP (Sexual Harassment and Assault Response Program) training for everyone. Many junior women officers I know say that SHARP makes them feel more uncomfortable, because the curriculum and execution promote cynicism. Women are accused of causing the need for training. SHARP also primarily focuses on responding to a violation instead of preventing one.
With the heightened awareness of sexual harassment and assault, some senior commanders choose to implement a zero tolerance policy for complaints. Under this template, a junior officer's career could be damaged if an incident occurs in his or her unit. So they're inclined to not report any offenses.
I believe a third party arbitration system could help with harassment complaints that don't entail assault. An opportunity to apologize and correct the behavior would allow soldiers to learn from their mistakes and account for human nature, without placing a commander in the position of deciding between reporting an incident or jeopardizing their career. Only commanders who commit violations themselves should be punished.
I also strongly endorse assault and rape cases being handled by the civilian judicial system so there is no chain of command compromise.
More vetting needs to occur before promotions and taking command, especially in the officer ranks. My brigade commander came to our unit with a terrible reputation. Had there been anonymous climate surveys conducted during his company and battalion commands, and if his promotions were impacted by the negative feedback regarding his behavior, he never would have been allowed to lead thousands of troops into war.
Unfortunately, these suggestions can only go so far. In my opinion, the military needs a fundamental change in its culture. It's OK to be an assertive warrior, but that doesn't justify degrading or belittling a teammate, tolerating harassment or conforming to the macho culture. Respect and equality are paramount, not just for gender, but for race, creed, sexual orientation, body size and even where one falls on the spectrum of masculinity vs. femininity.
Ultimately, people need to care more about sexual harassment and assault and commit to eradicating it. A 2015 Rand study sponsored by the Pentagon (based on 170,000 responses from active and reserve service members in 2014) found a high correlation between sexual harassment and sexual assault in the military. A woman service member in the military who is sexually harassed is 14 times more likely to be sexually assaulted; a man who is harassed is 50 times more likely.'"
No one deserves to be harassed or assaulted. It's a violation of humanity. But until leaders like Roger Ailes value the lives of others over their own perverted greed, then our workforce, economy, military and civilization will continue to suffer.
Laura Westley is a West Point graduate and combat vet, author, playwright, and veteran mental health advocate. Her memoir, War Virgin," is now available on Amazon , and her show tour debuts at the Palladium in St. Petersburg, Florida, on Sept. 17. The opinions expressed are her own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military Times or its editorial staff.