The epidemic of sexual assault and harassment has consistently been in the national spotlight over the past year. Sparked by the recent scandal involving prominent figures like Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey, along with grassroots efforts like the #MeToo campaign that confronted sexual harassment head on, more and more people are starting to take notice of this pervasive crisis. As awareness has increased, Protect Our Defenders (POD) has made sure that addressing the epidemic of rape and sexual assault in the military is part of this ongoing national conversation.
Over the past year, POD has worked with reporters at top-tier media outlets on investigations that led to numerous front-page stories, exposing the military’s inability to confront the crisis of sexual assault within its ranks. Our organization was featured prominently in coverage about the recent “Marines United” nude photo sharing scandal and led the call for new legislation outlawing “revenge porn” in the military. Congress listened and passed the legislation in the FY18 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Along with our ongoing advocacy work for victims of sexual assault in the military, POD also exposed the issue of significant racial disparity in the military justice system.
After the tragic shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas where a former USAF airman killed 26 people and injured 20 others, POD called for immediate military justice reform when it was revealed that the shooter had been found guilty of assualting his wife and fracturing the skull of his baby stepson. POD President and former chief prosecutor for the Air Force, Col Don Christensen, had overseen the shooter’s case and demanded an audit of military notificatons, citing the Air Force’s failure in their reporting obligations. Col Christensen was out in front of the issue, with his comments featured on the front pages of the New York Times and USA Today.
POD continues to be the leading voice for victims of rape and sexual assault in the military. For the past six years, POD has fought for a fair and impartial military justice system, regardless of a service members’ gender, race, or sexual orientation. POD’s presence in both the national and local media, as well as online, gives us the opportunity to advocate for service members, veterans, and civilians who were sexually assaulted by a service member.
This year, POD was featured in six separate USA Today front-page articles, two Washington Post front-page stories, one piece on the front page of the Guardian, a New York Times front-page article, and a five-part investigative series on CBS News. We worked with reporters to break many of these stories and continue to be the go-to expert on the issue, providing statements and commentary in television interviews, local newspapers, and military trade outlets. Our organization has also been featured in hundreds of articles in major newspapers and broadcast news outlets. Throughout 2017, POD worked with reporters on investigative reports, exposing scandals, and diving deeper into cases that have brought the epidemic to light.
CBS News Exposes Retaliation Against Survivors
Protect Our Defenders worked closely with CBS News on a six-month investigation that found that more than a dozen current and former cadets at the US Air Force Academy faced retaliation after reporting being sexually assaulted.
POD President and former chief prosecutor for the Air Force, Col Don Christensen, appeared on CBS This Morning to discuss the investigation and respond to the Air Force Academy’s new superintendent, Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria who swept the issue under the rug, saying he did not think “there are problems” with sexual assault or how the Academy handled the cases.
Col Christensen told CBS News Investigative Reporter, Norah O’Donnell:
“He [Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria] never once talked about holding offenders accountable. That is a huge failure. You have to do more. Support is great, but when you have people out there who are being hurt you need to make sure that somebody is holding those who hurt them accountable… Failing to do so denies this country women who want to serve. This is a retention issue. This is a recruiting issue. This is the ability for America to bring the fight to the enemy.”
One of the cadets who was assaulted at the Academy was asked by O’Donnell if she regretted reporting her assault. The cadet said, “I regret it every day. I regret it every day, because of everything that came after. I just wish that I had never came forward. Because I never asked to be assaulted.”
Racial Disparity Report
Protect Our Defenders brought the issue of racial disparity in the military justice system into the national spotlight after the release of its report that found black service members were substantially more likely than white service members to face military justice or disciplinary action.
POD based its report on data from Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, received responses from four of the service branches, and analyzed this previously unpublished data to assess the prevalence of racial and ethnic disparities within the military justice system. The report also found that these racial disparities have not improved and, in some cases, have worsened in recent years.
POD worked with USA Today on a front-page story about the disparity report, providing the newspaper with an advance copy of our findings. In the article, POD President Col Don Christensen, USAF (ret.) said:
“From the findings of the study, race appears like it plays a big role, which is disheartening. It seems to have a sizable role in determining if somebody’s going to go to court or receive non-judicial punishment. I’m really not sure what exactly explains it, and that’s what is really troubling. The military has known about these numbers for decades and has done nothing about it.”
After USA Today broke the news about the report’s findings, a wide range of national outlets also covered the issue of racial disparity in the military justice system. Col Christensen was interviewed by Reverend Al Sharpton on his MSNBC show, PoliticsNation, and appeared alongside Vernice Armour, the first African American female combat pilot in the Armed Forces.
Col Christensen told Rev. Sharpton:
“Our study shows what the raw data is, but we don’t know the reason. What’s really important about this is the military has known about this issue for years. You could probably say decades, but they have done nothing to really try to find a cause. And that’s why at Protect Our Defenders, we brought this forward because we’re saying it’s time for Congress to say to the military, ‘What is the cause of this racial disparity?’”
The report received additional national attention throughout the summer, with Whoopi Goldberg bringing up the disparity findings on an episode of The View. The report was covered by more than twenty media outlets including: NBC News, Newsweek, VICE News, McClatchy, the New York Daily News, and many more.
Following the release of the report, USA Today also reported that Omarosa Manigault, a top White House aide visited the Pentagon to seek out more information on its findings. White House officials said that Manigault had expressed an interest in the issue of racial bias in the military justice, and two military officials confirmed that she had received a briefing on the issue.
Col Christensen told USA Today:
“I hope the administration saw how important these numbers are and how troubling they are. My biggest concern is that they don’t let the Pentagon off the hook. They need to be very critical of what they’re told and demand action.”
Marines United Facebook Scandal
In March 2017, it was reported that the Department of Defense (DoD) was “investigating scores of enlisted marines for compiling thousands of naked photos of service women and distributing them through Facebook and Google Drive. The photos, along with profane and abusive comments, were discovered on the Facebook group, “Marines United,” which had a reported 30,000 followers.
Nude and explicit photos of servicewomen were posted to the group along, with obscene comments, sometimes calling for rape of the women. On many occasions, the women were identified by name and military branch. Many of the offensive comments were by members whose Facebook accounts brazenly included their names, ranks, and duty stations.
Protect Our Defenders responded to the investigation:
“There is a serious cultural problem when Marines refer to fellow warriors in such hateful terms and trade explicit photos of female Marines like baseball cards. The degradation of women who have volunteered to serve their country is simply unacceptable and calls for swift and severe accountability.”
In the wake of the scandal, Tailhook whistleblower and POD Board of Directors member, Paula Coughlin, wrote an op-ed that ran in USA Today, calling for a full investigation of all those involved, including negligent commanders.
“The military’s failure to clean up its own ranks not only hurts the women who courageously volunteer to serve their country, it also undermines the military’s mission. A 2014 report by the RAND Corporation found that the military’s sexually hostile work environment was so severe, it could be affecting the ability to recruit and retain qualified members. Who’d sign up to serve their country when leadership can’t protect them from the worst elements within?”
POD also worked closely with Congresswoman Jackie Speier as she introduced a bill in the aftermath of the scandal to stop attacks like Marines United. Rep. Speier introduced the new legislation at a press conference, which included remarks from women’s and victims’ rights attorney, Gloria Allred, and POD President Col Don Christensen, USAF (ret).
Miranda Petersen, POD’s then-Executive Director and current Advisory Board member, testified at a Congressional hearing hosted by Rep. Speier and the Democratic Working Women’s Group to address the ongoing issue of non-consensual pornography within the US military.
At the hearing, Miranda said:
“The use of online sites to harass and humiliate female service members may pose unique challenges to military leadership and law enforcement, but the underlying sentiments being expressed by the men on sites like Marines United are nothing new.”
One month later, Rep. Speier’s legislation passed in the House with bipartisan support.
POD was also asked for comment on the Marines United scandal from a variety of media outlets and featured in articles from Newsweek, The Guardian, Huffington Post, Marine Corps Times, ATTN:, Task & Purpose, and other outlets. Miranda was also interviewed on a Jezebel podcast about the scandal.
In the interview, Miranda said:
“One of the misconceptions is that the Marines United scandal is this isolated incident. But really, the issue of non-consensual pornography and the proliferation of these Facebook groups goes well beyond Marines United and has existed for a lot longer.”
Holding Senior Military Officials Accountable
In October, with the help of Protect Our Defenders, USA Today broke a front-page investigative report on the military’s continued refusal to be held accountable for sexual abuse in their ranks. The report exposed at least 500 cases of misconduct, many of which were sexually based, among top military officials and the military’s failure to take meaningful action to prevent, properly acknowledge, and prosecute these offenses.
POD President Col Don Christensen, USAF (ret.) was quoted in the article, explaining that consequences for lower-ranking troops are usually much more severe than those for generals and admirals:
“The phenomenon even has its own term in the military: ‘Different spanks for different ranks.’ The everyday troop is court-martialed for what a general officer is given a slap on the hand for.”
For decades, the military has claimed to be tough on sexual assault and harassment, and in a follow up piece from USA Today, top brass went so far as to claim a zero-tolerance policy. But POD exposed that all too often, the military not only turns a blind eye to sexual abuse, but actively perpetuates a culture of misogyny and violence. The New York Daily News also covered the investigation and profiled Col Christensen’s experience as the chief prosecutor of the Air Force and why he ultimately decided to leave the military and join our organization.
Protect Our Defenders Joins With Yale Law School to File Lawsuit Against the Military
In December, Protect Our Defenders and Yale Law School’s Veterans Legal Center filed a lawsuit against the Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security to release records related to gender disparities within the military justice system and the military record correction boards’ handling of cases involving sexual assault and harassment. ABC News covered the lawsuit, and POD President Col Christensen, USAF (ret.) told Stars and Stripes:
“The military wants people to accept when they say they have the sexual assault problem under control just on their word and do not want us or any other organization to pull back the curtain and look at the data. The data shows consistently that they don’t have it under control. The process isn’t as efficient as what they claim and there’s no reason to believe they are following congressionally mandated requirements.”
Responding to the lawsuit, Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs and Armed Services Committees, said:
“I welcome this legal action today and hope that this suit, combined with legislative action will begin to break down the unacceptable barriers to justice too many victims face. Survivors of military sexual assault are owed justice and openness in discharge proceedings. Instead, far too many are re-victimized by dishonorable discharges that bar them from receiving the services and recognition they need and deserve. That is why I authored amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act that was recently signed into law to assist survivors by providing badly needed transparency to this critical process.”
The lawsuit asked the court to compel the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security to conduct a reasonable search and immediately produce the wrongfully withheld records as required by the Freedom of Information Act.
Protect Our Defenders Hold Accountable Army General Who Sent Racy Texts
In August 2017, with assistance from POD, USA Today ran yet another front-page story about the Army major general in charge of its forces in Africa who sent dozens of messages, many of them suggestive, to the wife of an enlisted soldier under his command. Maj. Gen. Joseph Harrington sent a variety of suggestive texts to the woman, as well as messages requesting that she delete them. POD was contacted by the woman and her husband, and instead of solely informing the Army, POD advised them to go public in order for the service to take the issue more seriously.
In the article, Col Christensen responded to Harrington’s actions:
“‘The message he’s sending is that the rules don’t apply to him,’ Christensen said. ‘It erodes confidence in the junior officers and enlisted soldiers who serve under him. It’s a message that this guy thinks he’s above the law.'”
Just two months after USA Today broke the story, Harrington was fired from command, “due to a loss of confidence in his ability to command.” USA Today reported on the termination and quoted Col Christensen again who called on the Army to conduct a thorough investigation to determine if there are other instances or victims. “It would be rather unusual for him to have done this for the first time in his 50s,” said Col Christensen.
Joint Chiefs Chairman Caught Protecting General Who Sent Racist and Sexist Emails
POD was also instrumental in another USA Today front-page story that the newspaper broke in March 2017, detailing how former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey protected fellow General John Custer from punishment, even after an investigation found that Custer had multiple inappropriate relationships, lied to investigators, and subjected his staff to racist and sexist emails. General Dempsey shamefully protected one of his own, all the while testifying before Congress that commanders need more authority, not less, to deal with these crimes. General Dempsey’s actions demonstrate once again why the military cannot and must not police itself.
Col Christensen was quoted in the article:
“Racism and sexism strike at the heart of good order and discipline… And for Dempsey to look at that…and not immediately come down with all authority the Army has is inexcusable. That a general officer can send such a message, and ask how anybody could be offended by it? How clueless.”
Washington Post Investigative Report
In September 2017, the Washington Post ran a front-page story on the military’s failure to properly handle sexual assault cases. The article highlighted how a complaint against one senior Air Force officer was handled in secret, as 90 percent of the cases are, and resulted in very little punishment. The Post obtained an internal 400-page law enforcement case file on Col Ronald S. Jobo, which found he had committed abusive sexual contact against a female civilian who was under his command.
According to the Post, Jobo could have been prosecuted at a general court-martial and could carry a sentence of up to seven years in prison and a requirement to register as a sex offender. However, Jobo only received a slap on the wrist, simply being forced to retire and demoted one rank. Col Christensen was quoted in the article saying, “This kind of case cries out to be court-martialed… It just cries out for someone to be held accountable in a public forum.”
Sutherland Springs Church Shooting
On November 5, 2017, Devin Patrick Kelley opened fire in a Sutherland Springs, Texas church, killing 26 congregants and injuring 20 more. Kelley had been kicked out of the Air Force after agreeing to a plea deal with the military in a case where he admitted to fracturing his baby stepson’s skull and assualting his wife. Kelley legally purchased the guns used in the massacre, because the military failed to notify his history of violence to the FBI.
Col Christensen, who oversaw Kelley’s military case, joined with Senator Kirsten Gillibrand in calling for immediate reform to the military justice system because of its failure to notify the proper authorities, which would have prevented Kelley from obtaining the firearms he had bought.
Col Christensen was front and center in the national media, appearing on CNN’s The Situation Room, and was quoted on the the front pages of the New York Times and USA Today, along over 40 media outlets throughout the country.
Protect Our Defenders Founder Profiled
Earlier this year, Sarasota Magazine profiled POD founder Nancy Parrish and her fight against the crisis of sexual assault in the US military.
In the piece, Nancy spoke about the need for leaders in Washington, DC to address the epidemic and the effect fundamental reform to current military policies could have on the country as a whole.
“When President Truman decided to integrate the military, or when President Obama got rid of the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy, that happened, virtually overnight. That’s what gives me hope [about reform]; they’re against it until they’re for it.”
Nancy also told the magazine that as the world’s largest employer, the military has tremendous social influence. “If the military can change, then that change can extend into the rest of our culture. Change takes just three things: a leader in Washington, persistent public attention—that’s us—and then, five to eight years. We have seen reform, and we’ll see more.”
POD Squad Event with Ashley Judd and Rep. Jackie Speier
In September 2017, POD hosted a fundraiser in support of victims of military sexual assault with actor, activist, and humanitarian Ashley Judd and Congresswoman Jackie Speier.
POD Founder Nancy Parrish and President Col Christensen also spoke at the event. Ahead of the event, Judd said:
“More attention is desperately needed on the epidemic of sexual assault in the military
and its effect on our society. As an advocate for sexual assault survivors, our military, the world’s largest employer, should and can lead. A first step is fixing a system that puts your boss who has no legal training in the position of judge and jury.”
All proceeds from the event were allocated to POD’s Legal Services Program, and the Delores Barr Weaver Fund matched all sponsorships and general contributions.
Launched in early 2013, The POD Squad is a small but agile fundraising team. Chaired by local San Francisco Bay Area philanthropists Lilli Rey, Lia Turk Kheirolomoom, and Sibylle Whittam, and with the assistance of many local volunteers, The POD Squad initiated a series of Peninsula-based events in support of POD.
In May 2017, Protect Our Defenders (POD) announced the winner of the annual Protect Our Defenders Justice Award. Attorney Ryan Guilds accepted the award on behalf of the Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer law firm for its extraordinary commitment in assisting survivors of military sexual assault and harassment. Over the years, the hardworking attorneys at Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer have taken on a number of cases through POD’s Legal Services Program.
Col Christensen said:
“Ryan Guilds and the firm of Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer have been tireless advocates for survivors seeking to have their voices heard. Ryan and the team of attorneys from Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer are the heroes of the many survivors they have fought for.”
POD’s Legal Services Program includes a network of lawyers willing to assist – at no cost – active duty, veteran, and civilian survivors of military sexual assault and harassment for claims arising from or related to their assaults, including various forms of retaliation, as well as bystanders and whistleblowers who are suffering retaliation for intervening or reporting sexual assault or harassment. It is also the only program in the country providing free legal services nationwide, specifically for survivors of military sexual trauma.
Last year, POD awarded two attorneys from the Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center (LAS-ELC) Cacilia Kim, Special Counsel, and Elizabeth Kristen, Director of the Gender Equity & LGBT Rights Program. Ms. Kim and Ms. Kristen have also worked tirelessly on behalf of military sexual assault survivors through POD’s Legal Services Program.
In addition to traditional media, Protect Our Defenders has a large, active community on social media. POD continues to organize advocacy efforts through online campaigns to keep the issue of sexual assault in the military in the public spotlight and to put pressure on elected officials.
POD’s Facebook page has over 23,000 ‘likes’ and continues to grow. POD also has over 84,000 subscribers to our e-news, over 3,200 followers on Twitter — where we engage with reporters, elected officials, and other prominent voices in the advocacy community – and over one million video views on YouTube and Facebook.
POD’s advocacy work and media outreach will continue as we work with survivors and encourage elected officials to support fundamental reform.