Introduction by Karen Lewis, Ending Violence Against Women Committee Co-Chair and AODVC Liaison
Following my article in the February 2015 Human Rights Task Force Bulletin regarding sexual abuse/harassment in the military, I happened to make friends with a survivor of sexual harassment in the military and hear her story. Since then, we've had a few conversations about this culture of acceptance and how to bring awareness to it. The following is in her words, with just a few edits ...
Written by K.R. Lehr
I encountered my first (only) experience with sexual harassment when I was just 19 years old. I was in the United States Air Force as a mere E2 when the incidents began. I was by no means a "perfect" Airman, which coincidentally, made me feel like a bigger target for the sexual predator who was hunting me. He was the Flight Chief of my clinic, where I worked as a Medic. I have to say that the lines were blurred from the moment I stepped off the plane at my new assignment. I was full of excitement, eager to prove myself at my new job and hopeful to fit in at my new home, 5000 miles away from all my family and friends. On the hour drive back to base from the airport, I struggled to fight off the jet lag and make a good impression on my new boss. Before he took me to the dormitory, where I would live for the next 6 months, he took me to a deployed member's home. He casually offered the home to me instead of the dorm, as long as I "didn't mind an old man staying with me" (him). The line was immediately crossed, and things got more confusing from there. Was I overthinking his offer? Was he just trying to make me feel welcome? My whole clinic seemed to love him - was I really the only one who was uncomfortable with his behavior?
But the uncomfortable encounters continued and got a lot worse before they would ever get better. This man essentially ruled my schedule and my work life, and the more I resisted his attempts at me, the worse my job became. I began to hate my circumstances at work. I felt like this man's errant concubine, not a strong woman proudly serving her country. And most importantly, I felt cheated. I hadn't planned on making the military a career and serving 20 years or more, but I also hadn't planned on feeling so trapped and helpless- so ready to separate from the military so soon.
My saving grace was my husband, who at the time, was just my loving boyfriend. Older than me and more experienced with the military, he couldn't believe the way I was being treated. When we decided to get married, I was punished with more work and not allowed to take the leave I had requested (and earned). When I learned I was expecting my first child, I was punished with more on-call shifts, no vacation during the winter holidays, and worse, ordered to tell my peers about my pregnancy so they "could know why they had to pick up my slack". Despite the bad circumstances, I kept working, I steered clear of my harasser at all costs, and avoided all situations where I might be alone with him (though they were sometimes unavoidable).
Eventually, it all came to a head, when he began to threaten me with a deployment, which would come up shortly after my son arrived. I decided that enough was enough. I had to jump my entire Chain of Command to get someone to listen to me, but my Commander listened to every single word I said. That day was both one of my lowest and highest points in life. I remember telling my Commander "I've decided to separate from the military, but I can't go on good conscience, knowing he could do this to someone else." I was scared. I had been threatened, isolated, and I feared retaliation so much that I felt separation was my best option. My offender was a man's man, a member of the boys’ weekly poker club with all the other higher enlisted members in my hospital. What if one of them should retaliate on his behalf? After all, someone would have to take his place, and they were all his friends.
As it turns out, speaking out was the best thing I could have done. Several other women in our hospital soon came forward with similar stories of harassment and assault, and appropriate penalties were carried out as such. If I had said nothing, he might still be in the military today using his rank to objectify and harass young women. He might still be blurring the lines, trying to make his actions seem acceptable and his inferiors to feel helpless.
I would like to tell other women a few things about sexual harassment …
Be aware of your surroundings. Even though I felt helpless most of the time in my situation, I was actually in control every time I said "No" to a questionable situation. If a situation doesn't feel right, trust your instincts. If it's too good to be true, it probably is. Sure, living rent free in a house would have been great versus a dorm, but is there really such a thing as "free rent"? Probably not. The first thing we can do to avoid sexual harassment, and often times sexual assault, is AVOID situations that strike us as uncomfortable.
Talk about your discomfort to someone else you trust. The lines were blurry in my case, as they often are in these situations. If I had stayed at that house, would that have been an open invitation for this man to sexually assault me? Absolutely not. But would have others looked at this situation and said "Oh, well, she went to stay at this house with him, what did she think would happen?" Probably. One of the best things I did – and could have done sooner - was discuss these issues with 3rd parties, true confidantes. They helped me to see where there was an injustice, or possibly just a misunderstanding. I never felt comfortable speaking with any of my co-workers on the subject because they all seemed to be friendly with this individual, so speaking to people outside of my workplace whom I could trust was imperative.
Don’t hesitate to seek help. Getting away from a predator isn't always easy, especially when he's your boss and much higher-ranking than you, but it is possible. In my case, this man was never allowed to work around women in that hospital again, which essentially ended his career. If you find yourself to be a victim of sexual harassment, albeit verbal or physical, tell someone when it happens. If you find yourself to be a victim of sexual assault, go through the proper procedures to report it as soon as possible. These cases often end up as "he said- she said.” Had not so many other women come forward after my complaint as well, this case probably might have been brushed off. Especially in the case of sexual assault, physical evidence is crucial and is much easier to obtain soon after an incident.