Navy Vet: Policies on Sexual Assaults Must Improve
Craig Currier of The Antelope Valley Press covers Protect Our Defenders Advocacy Board Member, Jenny McClendon’s story and the fight to get Congress to open a hearing about the Lackland sexual abuse scandal.
Even after it all, former Lancaster resident Jenny McClendon says she misses her time in the Navy. Coming from a family rich with military history, she has conflicting feelings now about what it means to serve your country. McClendon suffered through two separate sets of sexual assaults while in the Navy in the late 1990s, and said despite the family tradition she’s not likely to let any of her four children follow the same path, especially if changes aren’t made.
“There’s about 10% of me that’s really, really angry about what happened,” said McClendon, who was born in Lancaster, moved away and then returned to the Valley in 1990 before joining the Navy. “Then there’s about 80% of me that really misses being in the military and the other 10%, I don’t know really.
“I really liked serving, that’s what I’ve noticed with most survivors. Most of us really liked being in the military, we really missed it.”
But, McClendon says, there’s a good chance she will steer her son and three daughters well clear of it all unless changes are made to the system of reporting such incidents and prosecuting the perpetrators.
“Our kids are not enlisting unless there is dramatic change,” she said. “There’s just too much risk that something bad will happen to them.”
McClendon’s story, as she tells it, is unnverving.
It was bad enough, she says, that women were routinely referred to in disparaging terms, but when the abuse became physical, McClendon said she felt helpless and alone.
“Whenever (my attacker and I) were in airlock together, he would reach down into my very private area and he would grope me,” she says in a video documenting her story. “He would act like I was supposed to be liking this, too.”
McClendon says the man would arrange to have her assigned to a two-hour “mid-watch” with him and she would show up with several layers of underwear and clothing on for protection.
When she finally summoned the courage to report the series of attacks, the man initially lost rank, but by the end of the deployment she said he was awarded it back.
“It’s kind of like if you decided to slap somebody on the wrist and then miss,” McClendon said.
In a phone interview last week, McClendon said because her first experience reporting the acts was so frustrating, she felt there was no point in telling anybody when a second man sexually assaulted her.
“I was trying to report them and I was basically being told, ‘You’re a feminist and a Democrat and therefore you’re a liar,’” she said. “I was in shock for a long time so the second set of rapes happened and I just didn’t report them. When (he) was attacking me, he said, ‘You can’t report this again because people will think it was your fault.’”
Now, more than a decade after she put the ordeal behind her, McClendon is trying to use her story to help others and push for improvements in the military’s sexual assault reporting policy.
She is working with a human rights organization named Protect Our Defenders, which offers support to victims of rape, sexual assault and harassment and lobbies legislators and federal officials to improve systems for reporting, investigating and prosecuting offenders.
As news has unfolded this summer about an alleged sexual assault scandal involving dozens of victims and numerous training instructors at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, McClendon and Protect Our Defenders are among those calling for Congress to launch its own investigation and conduct open hearings detailing the extent of the abuse.
An online petition was started in July and on Aug. 2 the group delivered 10,000 signatures to Congressman Howard P. “Buck” McKeon’s Washington office, demanding the House Armed Services Committee, for which McKeon is chairman, open an investigation into the Lackland allegations.
“It is time for our elected officials that have been put in charge of oversight of our armed services to do their job,” Protect Our Defenders President Nancy Parrish said at the time. “Lackland is just the tip of the iceberg – the most current example of a much larger problem.”
McKeon, a longtime Antelope Valley congressman, confirmed receiving the petitions in a phone interview last week but said there will be not be any open congressional hearings until all criminal prosecutions surrounding the Lackland scandal are finished.
The Santa Clarita Republican said the House Armed Services Committee received information from the Air Force in a closed-door hearing earlier this month and several changes are already being implemented to protect victims.
“It’s so egregious that somebody would take advantage of their position like that,” McKeon said. “We want to make sure we find out if this is a rare incident or if there are others out there doing it. We want to make sure they’re prosecuted and that we deal with this as harshly as possible.”
Included in the National Defense Authorization Act for the upcoming fiscal year, which has passed the House and is awaiting Senate approval, are structural changes that McKeon believes are a good start to solving the problems.
McKeon’s staff says the bill creates special teams for the investigation, prosecution and victim support in connection with sexual assault, child abuse and domestic violence. It also requires commanders to conduct annual organizational climate assessments that include matters relating to sexual assault, establishes that the disposition authority for sexual assault offenses be no lower than the special court martial convening authority at the rank of either colonel or, in the Navy, captain.
Further, the defense bill creates a course within each military department that trains men and women on sexual assault prevention and response and establishes a 20-year record on the disposition of all sexual assault cases.
“We’ve already made changes in procedure,” McKeon said. “Some efforts have already been taken to make sure that these women are being protected.”
For McClendon and others involved with Protect Our Defenders, the response is appreciated but their fears are far from gone.
“I will say, I have my hope,” McClendon said. “I’m not happy about the closed-door hearings, but my hope is we can encourage members of Congress to do the right thing.
“Change happens because ordinary people say enough. I think that a few ordinary people have stepped forward to say enough. We have to get to a point where the (Department of Defense) isn’t just redoing last year’s homework with different verbiage.”