Editor’s note: This is an op-ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author.
“This is a leadership issue. We will lead.”
That was the signoff on a military review, ordered by new Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, looking into military sexual assault prevention programs in efforts to pursue solutions to sexual assault in the military.
I could not agree more.
Right now there is a perfect case study for the defense secretary to be presented with — the case of a young Marine, Cpl. Thae Ohu, who is currently facing assault charges stemming from trauma from a previous sexual assault.
But why would leadership expose its own failures when it is so much easier to have a scapegoat?
Looking beyond a Marine Corps narrative to make Ohu a criminal by leveling up her charge of simple assault to attempted murder for her court-martial, any rational person will see the reality of how the Marine Corps systematically failed Ohu for many years and that it is attempting to save its own skin.
Instead of Ohu’s chain of command acknowledging its own cycle of abuse that led to her instability and eventual outburst, they publicly charged and identified her as a criminal.
Military leadership is relentless in efforts to silence victims by victim-blaming and retaliation, both of which contribute to the under-reporting of sexual assault within the ranks. Retaliation can include the victim being investigated rather than the perpetrator, being transferred to another unit, blamed for the assault or even losing their job.
All these tactics exist in Ohu’s case, including reduction in rank, interruptions of therapy appointments, excessive workload when on light duty, office gossip about her medical conditions, culminating in her withdrawal from long-term in-patient care, unjustly locking her up in the brig and treating her more poorly than even the Geneva Conventions allow for detained prisoners of war.
Ohu spent seven weeks in the brig before she was notified of her charges, 11 days in solitary confinement during which her religious freedoms were violated, among other dehumanizing circumstances that even the worst war criminals never are inflicted.
Ohu began seeking mental health care as intervention for her well-being, which is crucial to aggression avoidance. Post-traumatic stress, anxiety and environmental stressors are just a few things that can trigger aggressive incidents — all of which Ohu was experiencing and for which she was receiving treatment.
It is documented that Ohu was experiencing numerous factors that would contribute to possible acts of violence, including insomnia, nightmares, flashbacks, toxic leadership, fatigue, lack of appetite, isolation, withdrawal and personality changes. All of these reasons were cited as support and included in the decision to medically retire Ohu, so she could seek proper care.
The Department of Defense has seen a 42.5 percent increase of men and women bravely reporting these crimes: DoD leadership must start punishing the predators and stop punishing the victims. For leadership to make Ohu’s situation right would show the great effort and commitment it will have to improve protection for other victims.
Rape and other sexual assaults violate every moral and ethnic code the military stands for. Yet, retaliation is the norm. Out of the women who reported sexual assault, 64 percent also reported facing retaliation, according to DoD statistics. 66 percent of retaliation reports alleged that retaliators were in the reporter’s chain of command. A third of victims are discharged from the military within seven months of making a report and 24 percent separated in less than honorable conditions.
Mr. Austin has a chance to make a powerful declaration and lead by example, simply believing Ohu, removing her from the control of her toxic leadership and immediately releasing her from the brig to get the proper care she needs.
This just act of leadership will forge changes in the military’s culture to protect survivors, remove toxic leaders and end sexual assault in the ranks.
Kerri Jeter is the founder of Freedom Sisters Media, a place for content, connection and community for women beyond the uniform. She served in the Army for 12 years, exiting as a senior captain.
Editor’s note: If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, firstname.lastname@example.org.