Cinthya Fana | July 16, 2020
READ: It’s Time for a Culture Change in the Military: Sexual Harassment & Assault Must End
Far too many of us have our own stories. Some don’t end in tragedy and violence but they all change us and they all need to be told. Victims deserve to be heard and everyone must understand just how pervasive, underreported, and corrosive sexual harassment and sexual assault are in the military community. Sexual harassment was a defining characteristic of my first months in the military. I did not expect it, I did not want it and I did not report it. In fact, I tried very hard to forget it.
But the murder of SPC Vanessa Guillen, a young hispanic woman like me, and her hesitation to report sexual harassment brought my own experiences right back. I was scared to say anything because I felt that I would be the one reprimanded for it happening. My harasser was in a very powerful position of authority and I assumed that no one would believe me. I felt degraded and like I somehow invited him to do it by answering his questions and by letting him in my room.
In July 2011, I had been in the military for about 5 months and was getting my first taste of “regular Army” life after having just recently completed basic training. My unit was camping outside of our headquarters building as part of our training for a deployment to Afghanistan the following year. Because of the training cycle, I was working off-hours, basically 6pm to 6am.
One day, I was standing outside of the large tent talking with a group of Soldiers, when a Command Sergeant Major approached us. He immediately looked at me and asked me if I was new. I told him that I had just arrived at the unit about a week before and he began asking about my background and what I thought of my barracks. I told him that I was currently in an “overflow” barracks which is where they house Soldiers when the unit’s assigned barracks are filled to capacity. I told him I liked the room because I didn’t have a roommate but the building was very dirty and basically falling apart. He said he would stop by and check it out. As a Command Sergeant Major, it was his job to make sure Soldiers were taken care of so I did not mind his focus.
The next morning, after finishing my overnight shift, I returned to my barracks, showered and went to bed. Sometime later, I was woken by a knock on my door and, when I answered, was surprised to see it was the Command Sergeant Major by himself. Usually, males cannot come into the female barracks unless they have a female present, but he not only was alone but came into my room uninvited and started walking around. I had been assigned to an NCO room, which is basically a studio apartment with a long hallway. The sleeping area was at the end of the hallway with a kitchen and sitting area by the door. After giving himself a tour, he came back to the front of the room and sat down in one of the chairs. Not knowing what to do, I sat down across from him. He let me know that he inspected the building and ordered the Charge of Quarters staff to clean up the place. I remember I thanked him for it.
I don’t remember what else we spoke about but I remember very clearly that, at one point he looked at me, picked up one of my bare feet and started rubbing it. He didn’t say anything, just stared at me while rubbing my feet and touching my pedicured nails. I froze. My heart was racing. All I could hear was the thundering of my heart and the central air in my room. Everything else was mute. I was terrified, frozen and didn’t know what to do. Perhaps it was the clear look of terror on my face or something else but, after what seemed like an eternity, he got up and left.
I didn’t know what was appropriate for me to do. Basic training taught me how to clean and fire a rifle but it didn’t teach me what to do when one of the most senior Enlisted people in your command, a person you are taught should have all the answers and will ensure that you are safe, violates every bit of trust between Soldiers. So I hoped and prayed he wouldn’t come back. I never saw him again. I was thankful for that. I felt like I couldn’t say anything because he was a Command Sergeant Major and I was just a brand new Private. So I just tried to forget and be a good Soldier.
The thing is, he should never have put me in a position where I would have had to do any of those things. I know now that it was not on me and that what he did was extremely inappropriate and should have no place in our military. I know now that he was purposefully using his position of authority to take advantage of my lack of authority and the fact that I was new.
Unfortunately, that person kept his leadership position, deployed as our Combined Joint Task Force Command Sergeant Major and ultimately retired from the military after almost 30 years of service. He was untouched, never reprimanded, completed a “successful” military career and now enjoys a lifetime pension. I now know that I wasn’t the first. He knew what he was doing when he came to my room. I wonder how many others he inappropriately touched and how many times he got away with it.
If you or a veteran you know has experienced sexual harassment or sexual assault and are looking for support, please reach out to IAVA’s Quick Reaction Force (QRF). QRF provides 24/7 confidential peer to peer support, comprehensive care management and connections to resources. Call us 24/7 at 855-91RAPID or visit us online. Our services are free, available to all veterans and family members and can be provided anonymously if desired.