You don't talk about it when you're in the service, says Yvette McClelland. But sometimes you can just see it in someone's face.
McClelland remembers one young woman—she had a magnetic personality and a big smile when she arrived at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines' Angeles City. "By the time we left, the sparkle was gone out of her eyes. You could just see it. Something happened."
McClelland loved the military. She served in the National Guard at Kirtland for a year in the early ’80s and then decided to join the Air Force. Over the course of her 10-year career, she was raped three times by fellow military members, she says. And there was little she could do about it. At the time, there was no safe reporting system: You had to tell your supervisor, and your complaint would go up the chain of command.
According to Department of Defense numbers, there were 3,192 reports of sexual assault in the last fiscal year. Given that the crime is severely underreported, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says the number of servicemembers who were sexually assaulted is likely closer to 19,000.
It's estimated that one-third of women in the military are sexual assaulted or raped, and about 90 percent are sexually harassed. Men are also attacked, and according to Veterans Affairs, more than 60,000 in VA care were raped or assaulted while serving.
Staff Sgt. McClelland was a secure telecommunications maintenance specialist. She worked on teletype equipment. It was a male-dominated career field. "I was the only woman in a shop of men.” She was really good at her job, she adds. "I built the equipment from scratch, overhauled it and put it back in the field."
But there was a climate of disrespect and hostility. "My immediate supervisor, when I was assigned there, stated in front of me and everybody that not only should women not be in the military, they should not be working in maintenance because they didn't have the mental capacity to understand the complexity of the electronics."
Then the harassment started. It wasn't just sexual jokes, she says. Instead, fellow servicemembers brought in dirty magazines and suggested she wear outfits like the ones in the pictures. They'd brush up against her in an unpleasant sexual manner, she says, or make it a point to talk about sexual things in her presence.
McClelland finally reported the increasing harassment she'd been experiencing for months. As a result, she was admonished on her performance review, she says. "I got the message. Even when I reported the harassment, nobody cared. Nobody was going to care."
The military struggles with deep-seated sexism, McClelland says. "You have to remember the military integrated the races very quickly and very well. If they wanted to integrate men and women working together in harmony, they'd do it."
In late April, Defense Secretary Panetta announced revised policies on sexual assault. Unit commanders at the company or squadron level can no longer decide whether a report of sexual assault merits action. Instead, colonels or Navy captains will make the call. This should increase impartiality, suggests the department. In the past, victims might have been afraid to complain to an immediate superior who also oversaw the attacker.
But McClelland says it's not enough. The commander doesn't have legal training, she points out, and may still know or work with the perpetrator. Most women she's spoken with don't have faith that the policy shift will change much, McClelland says. "Nobody trusts the military anymore."
There's so much victim-blaming going on, she adds. "The first thing they often do is question the victim: Were you drinking? What were you wearing?" People who speak up are revictimized, she says, and diagnosed with personality disorders. "This is standard procedure.”
As things stand, victims can make two kinds of reports: With an unrestricted report, command is notified, and an investigation ensues; with a restricted report, the victim only receives services, and confidentiality is protected.
There were about 2,500 investigations in 2011 and roughly 1,500 people were brought before commanders for review and potential discipline; 48 were discharged from the military.
Cases are handled internally, which McClelland says is a real problem. A servicemember who's been raped can't take his or her case to a civilian court.
That's something the Sexual Assault Training Oversight and Protection Act is looking to address. Known as the Stop Act, it would create an independent body made of civilian and military experts to investigate and prosecute sexual assault cases. The Stop Act was introduced by Rep. Jackie Speier of California in November. It prompted McClelland to speak out.
Her memories aren’t all bad, she says. After her confidence was shattered at Clark, McClelland was transferred to Kelly Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, where she found a great working environment and a supportive immediate supervisor. He pulled her aside and said he could tell by the way she interacted with other servicemen that something had happened in the past. She was defensive, she says, protective and closed-off. He told her she could talk to him if she ran into any problems.
She stayed there until post-Desert Storm budget cuts reduced staff numbers in her career field. She was honorably discharged and eventually moved to Albuquerque where she did contract work for Kirtland. In 2008, unresolved issues resurfaced, and she couldn't handle it anymore, she says. "I'm just now getting back on my feet from that."
McClelland wants people to witness how the military has covered up this dark secret, then call their congressional representatives and tell them to support the Stop Act. "We've got people who are helping to defend our country and defend our rights, and this is what's happening to them: They have no right to defend themselves,” she says. “There's just something real twisted about that."