Sexual assault in the military 'was an issue of human rights in our own country,' says Nancy Parrish, explaining her motivation to establish Protect Our Defenders. 'There needed to be a grassroots movement to bring survivors together and to enable them to share their stories with the American public.' (Courtesy photo)
Protect Our Defenders mission statement:
“We honor, support and give voice to the brave men and women in uniform who have been raped or sexually assaulted by fellow service members. We seek to fix the military training, investigation and adjudication systems related to sexual violence, systems that often revictimize survivors by blaming them while failing to prosecute perpetrators.”
Three years ago, a friend and congresswoman shared a story Nancy Parrish could not forget: A former sailor was brutally raped by a colleague, denied medical care, encouraged to keep quiet and, ultimately, kicked out of the Navy with an incorrect medical diagnosis.
Parrish, the daughter of World War veteran, had followed the Tailhook fiasco in 1991 — when more than 100 Navy and Marine Corps aviation officers were alleged to have sexually assaulted at least 83 women and seven men — and the Aberdeen Training Ground, Md., scandal five years later, when the Army brought charges against 12 commissioned and noncommissioned male officers for sexual assault on female trainees.
“Like most Americans, I thought the military was addressing these issues and it was getting better,” Parrish said.
Then, Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., told her the story of Terri Odom, the former sailor who was discharged three years after reporting a rape.
“As an American citizen, I felt a responsibility to these service members,” said Parrish, who is founding co-chairwoman of Human Rights Watch’s Northern California chapter and worked with The Carter Center, a humanitarian organization founded by former President Carter and his wife, Rosalynn.
“It just seemed obvious this was an issue of human rights in our own country. There needed to be a grass-roots movement to bring survivors together and to enable them to share their stories with the American public,” she said.
In November 2011, just months after hearing Odom’s story, Parrish stood with her at an event in Washington, D.C., to announce the launch of Protect Our Defenders.
The nonprofit, made up largely of volunteers — including Parrish, who does not get paid for her work — has since become one of the most outspoken critics of how the military has handled sex assault in the ranks. The organization has created a pro bono legal network for victims and endlessly lobbied for an independent military justice system.
Odom, whose story first inspired Parrish, volunteers full time with the St. Louis Veterans Affairs Health Care System and serves on Protect Our Defenders’ advisory board.
Q. Protect Our Defenders has helped more than 1,000 veterans and active-duty military members share their stories; its leaders have been quoted more than 500 times in various media. Why do you think Protect Our Defenders has become so visible in such a short time?
A. It really is due to the courage and bravery of the survivor community who have taken that step to speak out. I don’t think anyone who hasn’t been a victim of a violent crime can understand what it takes to speak out publicly.
I always see the work ahead instead of the work behind us. We have a long way to go in terms of both raising awareness and continuing to build our community of survivors.
Q. What’s the most shocking story you’ve heard?
A. I received an email from a female officer with 18 years in service that said, “The first advice when you get there [the Middle East] is always carry a knife, even in the daylight. Almost every woman carried a knife, not for battle against the Taliban, but to use against the person who tries to rape her.”
The other piece of this that is so egregious is the cynical use of errant medical diagnoses to dispose of victims. Not only is their career ended, it affects their ability to find future employment or even get proper medical care.
Q. When do you feel like Protect Our Defenders will have accomplished its mission?
A. Our goal is to end retaliation, victim blaming and misogyny, and to fundamentally reform the system by removing the commander’s ability to set aside justice or to preclude justice. Our servicemen and women deserve a professional and unbiased justice system equal to the system afforded to the civilians they protect. Your boss should not have the power to decide whether a rape or sexual assault allegation is prosecuted. They don’t have the necessary legal skills and, for many, it’s impossible to be objective.
Q. Why does the military continue to battle sexual assault scandals more than 20 years after Tailhook?
A. For many years, they’ve seen this issue as a public relations problem. The military is an institution. Any institution that investigates itself and comes up with its own remedies is less likely to be successful. There’s been, until recently, a sense that patriotism is defined as supporting whatever military leadership wants.
Have you seen any recent improvements?
A. Article 32 hearings were investigative tools rather than probable cause hearings. We worked so hard to make sure victim testimony [at the hearings] was voluntary. That’s a big accomplishment.
[And] mandating legal counsel to represent victims. The Air Force deserves credit for stepping out and blazing the trail on the special victims counsel program.