A woman is reported missing by her family after telling her parents that she is considering filing a sexual harassment claim. It was at that moment I was almost certain Vanessa Guillen had been murdered. And my second thought was I hope that they can at least find her body so that her family could have closure. It makes me sad that I immediately jumped to this conclusion. And even sadder that Vanessa Guillen’s body was found dismembered after months of searching.
But sadly there are too many opened ended stories of women who have served in the military. Women who have disappeared or have had their death labeled as a suicide when nothing around that conclusion makes sense. I have heard too many stories of women who have reported their harassment, assault, or rape case only to not have the support of leadership and in turn fight. A new battle of betrayal and pain. A battle they likely can’t fight because they are already struggling with a Military Sexual Trauma.
As much as I love the military I served in
It is hard to be a woman in the military. Especially a woman who is unwilling to take the harassment that some men think she deserves for serving. And sadly, there are too many stories from my own experience where I chose to look the other way. And even when I took the path of reporting harassment to my leadership. The leadership brushed it off and discouraged me from taking formal action. Not worried about me or the other women who would one day be harassed by this same person. Instead, they worked to protect him.
This happened early on in my career while I was still in the Reserve Officer Training Corps. It led me to believe there was nothing I could do. It changed me, to accept the way I was treated and just keep moving forward. I stopped reporting. I stopped standing up for others the way I had. Because I had been taught this was the way it was. And sadly, this happens far too often.
This attitude leads to women accepting their fate.
Giving those who harass women a free pass to not change. And calling out those who stand for change. Accepting the chauvinistic culture of the military, even with women serving for decades, that sexual harassment and assault is a way of life within the military.
When Vanessa Guillen’s case was being discussed in a woman officer forum on Facebook
Retired Lt Col Betsy Scholler said, “You guys are kidding, right? Sexual harassment is the price of admission for women into the good ole boy club. If you’re gonna cry like a snowflake about it, you’re gonna pay the price.” And while she later rescinded her stance by saying, “I was giving voice to the messaging that women hear in the culture of sexual harassment: The message we receive from the culture is not only will you suffer from sexual harassment, if you squawk about it, you will suffer even more.
“Because it isn’t just sexual harassment. That’s just the beginning…Then comes to the agonizing decision about reporting. Or not reporting. The pressure applied by friends who know about it and only want to help. Having to ultimately stand up to that culture of sexual harassment on your own.”
And while the military has continually tried to change the culture of sexual harassment and misogyny with zero tolerance reporting procedures, sensitivity training, discussion, focus groups, and more. Cases continue to happen. Victims continued to be blamed for their “role” in the incidents of harassment and assault. And it feels like nothing is changing. All while women continue to break barriers and do the things, they were told they could never be done. Keeping their head down and focusing on the one thing they can do. Being the best military member, they can be. Taking tiny steps forward.
That is why the hashtag campaign of #iamvanessaguillen was so powerful.
Many women stepped forward after keeping silent for so long sharing their story of hurt and pain. Sharing how they were raped or assaulted, but because they were in a place, they shouldn’t have been could not report it, or when they reported it was punished for breaking the rules, while their perpetrator went free. Or even when they didn’t do anything wrong, they were still somehow blamed or punished for reporting and “ruining” someone’s career. Story after story of how much the military has not changed even amongst all the barriers that have been broken. There is still so much work to be done.
This is why women veterans, servicewomen, and private citizens have banned together to demand Congressional leaders to make change through a petition for Vannessa Guillen. Women are joining together to address the systemic failures of upholding a culture. A culture that fosters conditions leading directly to sexual assault and harassment. Failure to prosecute perpetrators of sexual assault and harassment. And a culture where leadership sweeps sexual assault and harassment under the rug. And while the petition is proposing women ban together against joining the military that I do not agree with, read my thoughts here. I think it is important to support the women stepping forward working to make a change through Vanessa Guillen and her memory even if I don’t agree with every change they are recommending.
They are calling for change and working to see things changed.
But the truth is this one petition or even one news story cannot change the entire culture of the military. It takes thirty percent of the culture to ban together to make a cultural shift and make real change. Women making up far less than thirty percent of every military branch. This means women alone cannot change the culture within the military. Now more than ever we need men to stand up for change. Stand up to change the culture. Be the leaders who work to protect women. At the same time weeding out those in the military who find this behavior acceptable. It won’t be easy; it won’t be quick. But it can be done if we do it together.