The #MeToo movement has opened up the national conversation around sexual harassment and sexual assault in an unprecedented way. In 2018, Protect Our Defenders (POD) initiated and integrated #MeTooMilitary into the collective consciousness, shining a light on the ways in which this epidemic extends, perhaps even more pervasively, into the United States Military. POD’s work has helped unveil a deep-seeded problem of sexual violence enabled by a culture that suppresses the reporting by survivors and a broken military justice system incapable of holding perpetrators accountable.
Media coverage plays a central role in raising awareness of this long standing epidemic. POD’s collaboration with national and local media outlets has provided an opportunity to amplify the voices of survivors while also forcing accountability up the chain of command. This past year, POD was featured on the Today Show, Comedy Central, front page stories in The Washington Post, USA Today, and San Antonio Express News, and hundreds of articles in other publications and local news outlets.
POD’s advocacy work and media outreach will continue in 2019 as we work with survivors, draw national attention to stories military leadership tries to hide, and encourage elected officials to support fundamental reform.
Protect Our Defenders’ Work with CBS Wins a 2018 Emmy Award
In October, POD’s collaboration with CBS won a 2018 Emmy Award. The four-part series was nominated for two Emmys and won for Outstanding Investigative Reporting. POD pitched a story and ultimately served as a core collaborator with CBS News on this six-month investigation. It built on reporting by Pam Zubeck of the Colorado Springs Independent, revealing the epidemic of sexual assault and mishandling of these cases by the Air Force Academy. The series featured the stories of POD clients and the former Chief Prosecutor of the United States Air Force and POD President Col. (ret.) Don Christensen.
Jennifer Janish, Producer of CBS Evening News and CBS This Morning, noted of POD’s role during her acceptance of the Award:
“Our Air Force Academy stories were nominated for two Emmys: Outstanding Investigative Reporting and Best Story in a Newscast. This recognition would not have happened without Protect Our Defenders and Don. So grateful.”
During an episode in the series, Col. 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.”
The resulting shakeup forced the Air Force Academy to make significant changes to their sexual assault policies. As of 2018, the Academy has a new “Safe to Report” policy to encourage cadets to report sexual assaults. CBS obtained a memo about the policy and covered the much-needed updates to promote protection of those who come forward to share their stories:
“The U.S. Air Force Academy has a new policy to encourage cadets to report sexual assaults. The new guidelines follow a CBS News investigation that revealed troubling patterns on how those reports were handled.
CBS News obtained a memo outlining the academy’s new “Safe to Report” policy. It says victims should not be punished for what’s known as “collateral misconduct” violations, such as underage drinking or sneaking off-base. Some victims said they were afraid to come forward for fear of facing penalties. In CBS News’ investigation, a cadet said she was blamed for her assault, because she was underage and drinking alcohol.”
Launching POD’s Law Center
Expanding our legal services program to better serve survivors and more effectively drive justice system reform
Protect Our Defenders Announces The Opening Of New Law Center To Take On Military Sexual Assault Cases
With mounting evidence calling for a change in how Military Sexual Trauma cases are handled, POD announced the opening of the Protect Our Defenders’ Law Center on August 31, 2018. The Law Center first took on Adrian Perry’s case against the Marine Corps and was featured in exclusive in Forbes, where Perry spoke about Protect Our Defenders:
“They offer hope in the midst of situations where survivors find themselves completely hopeless because so many doors are closed on survivors in terms of pursuing justice or navigating the justice system itself and knowing what resources are available and what rights they have… The fact that they are starting their own [Law Center] is just fantastic. It’s going to give so many survivors hope that they have a chance in having their voice heard.”
Protect Our Defenders Works With The Perry Family To File $25 Million Lawsuit Against The U.S. Government
Marine Col. Daniel H. Wilson assaulted Adrian Perry’s 6-year-old daughter at a Marine Corps Base Cap, prompting an immediate investigation and trial spearheaded by POD. Following the verdict, Perry and her family sought retribution from the Marine Corps due to their negligence and’ lack of accountability and, in July 2018, represented by POD, filed a $25 million lawsuit. The story appeared on the front page of both Newsweek and Stars and Stripes.
In Stars and Stripes, POD President Col. (ret.) Don Christensen was quoted saying:
“ [the officers in charge] kind of got in a pointing match at each other, and said, ‘No, it was you,’ ‘No, it was you,’ who had responsibility for him… One of the two was required to put [Wilson] in the Officer Disciplinary Notebook … [if so,]they would have had to have done an actual investigation,” Christensen said. “Again, the Marine Corps IG found these allegations in Australia against Wilson were substantiated, and if they would have done the investigation, he would have been put in a track to have his Marine Corps career end.”
The story of the Perry family exemplifies the need for #MeTooMilitary for people of all ages. AP worked on a report dating from 2007 to the present day about child sexual abuse cases within the military. After dozens of interviews and piecing together records and data from all four military branches and school system, the report revealed nearly 600 sexual assault cases on a military base since 2007. AP published the report on its website, where The Military Times picked up the story.
Protect Our Defenders Responds to Inspector General’s Report on Veterans Affairs’ Misuse of Military Sexual Trauma Claims
In August 2018, the Inspector General released a report detailing the Veterans Affairs’ misuse of their Military Sexual Trauma Claims. Due to the mishandling of nearly 1,300 cases, many veterans did not receive their benefits. This story was featured in Wall Street Journal, where POD responded to the report:
“This comes as no surprise to those of us who follow these issues,” said Scott Jensen, chief executive of Protect Our Defenders, an advocacy group. “We need not just better laws but better definitions of metrics and follow-up reporting. There are laws on the books but no one is holding them to account.”
Holding Military Leadership Accountable
Shining a light on a broken military justice system and ensuring perpetrators face consequences for their actions
Protect Our Defenders Calls on The Pentagon to Release the RAND Report It Delayed For Months
In early 2018, the Pentagon employed RAND for in-depth research that focused on sexual assaults on military bases. In July 2018, RAND completed its research and submitted the results to the Pentagon, which subsequently delayed the release of the report. The report relied on surveys of troops and data from 2014 that underpinned several previous reports from RAND, and rated the risk of sexual assault for troops by military base. POD and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand responded to the delay in an exclusive CNBC story. POD President Col. (ret.) Don Christensen said:
“It’s disturbing the Pentagon would hire a reputable firm like RAND and then seek to bury the results because the brass know the numbers make them look bad.
In August 2018, POD continued to call on the Pentagon over the delay of the report, prompting another news story in USA Today. Stars and Stripes also picked up this story to feature on their front page.
Finally, after months of refusing to release the report, the Pentagon published the RAND report in late September 2017, prompting a multitude of media outlets to cover the delayed release and the report results. POD was featured in five of these high-profile news stories in Vice, USA Today, Military Times, Daily Mail, and The Hill. In The Hill’s article, POD Col. (ret.) Don Christensen provided his thoughts on the dangers of the Pentagon’s actions:
In August 2018, POD continued to call on the Pentagon over the delay of the report, prompting another news story in USA Today. Finally, after months of refusing to release the report, the Pentagon published the RAND report in late September 2017, prompting a multitude of media outlets to cover the delayed release and the report results. POD was featured in five of these high-profile news stories in Vice, USA Today, Military Times, Daily Mail, and The Hill. In The Hill’s article, POD Col. (ret.) Don Christensen provided his thoughts on the dangers of the Pentagon’s actions:
“By failing to release the report in a timely fashion, military brass appeared more concerned with massaging the data to look better than actually reducing sexual assaults… Knowing that the Marines and Army have multiple installations where over 500 soldiers and Marines are sexually assaulted in a single year is jaw dropping. It is unbelievable the Pentagon would not immediately make this data available to the men and women serving on those installations and the citizens in the local communities next to those bases.”
In November 2018, former U.S. Navy Lt. Paula Coughlin, a member of POD’s Board of Directors, and POD President Col. (ret.) Don Christensen were featured in Full Measure article about the delayed RAND report. The article elaborates on Coughlin’s take on the delay of the report and her opinion on the military would respond to it:
Joce Sterman: The Pentagon spokesperson calls the RAND study a valuable first look, saying quote it “adds to the dod’s growing knowledge base, and it reflects the department’s commitment to employing the full spectrum of proven solutions to combat sexual assault, sexual harassment and other behaviors in conflict with good order and discipline.”
Paula Coughlin: It’s got all the right words, even in the right order. They are glad that they have a piece of paper that they can hold up and say, look, we’re counting heads now, but it doesn’t really indicate that they are committed to solving the problem.
Protect Our Defenders’ Work With USA Today Holds Marines Accountable for Quantico Scandal
Protect Our Defenders has worked to change the pervasive culture of misogyny in all branches of the military. By bringing on U.S. Marine Corps (ret.) Col. Scott Jensen on board, POD has gained a powerful to speak on all matters Marine Corps.
This March, USA Today reported that the Marine Corps Commandant Robert Neller ordered a new investigation into allegations of sexual harassment brought by two civilian employees against a Marine officer at the base at Quantico dating back to 2013. The investigation, which focused with Maj. David Cheek, was prompted after Cheek was assigned to a building where a survivor worked. Col. Scott Jensen responded to the revival of these two cases:
“These cases took way too long and too much outside pressure to ensure they were taken seriously. I hope this signals a change in leadership priorities and greater emphasis on ensuring those who need and deserve fair treatment and due process in their cases get it.”
In October 2018, nearly five years after the events took place, the investigation came to a close and resulted in a Marine tribunal recommending Maj. Cheek retire without promotion to lieutenant. The Marine tribunal’s recommendations were attributed to Cheek’s “substandard performance of duty” according to the Marine Corps as opposed to the result of the sexual harassment investigation. POD continued to work with USA Today to break this story – one of many surrounding Quantico. POD President Col. (ret.) Don Christensen responded to the Marines’ lack of accountability:
“There is a lesson here that I hope Gen. Neller takes to heart about taking the experiences of people like Sherry and Traci seriously. Five years is too long to wait for justice.”
Protect Our Defenders Responds To Dropped Charges Against Sgt. Michael Silva in Lackland Scandal
For years, POD has worked with survivors of the Air Force Lackland Scandal at a base in San Antonio, Texas. In a February Task and Purpose piece, POD spoke on the difficulties the Air Force has faced and their longstanding lack of responsiveness to claims of sexual assault and harassment. POD President Col. (ret.) Don Christensen commented:
“As long as general officers view women who work for them as part of the dating pool, we’re never going to have equality… All too often that’s what’s happening, and when it does there aren’t many repercussions.”
In April, an an Air Force general dropped charges against a former training instructor who military prosecutors were preparing to re-try on rape accusations. Master Sgt. Michael Silva, who was convicted in 2015 for raping two women at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, was sentenced to 20 years in military prison. He was released last year following an appeals court ruling. POD President Col. (ret.) Don Christensen provided insight into the possible responses following a case where charges are dropped in a Military.com story:
“Victims should feel confident that if they come forward, the government and Special Victims’ Counsel will protect their rights…In addition, we actively encourage sexual assault survivors to report incidents as a way to access support and restorative care.”
“My concern is that … (Silva’s supporters) will be saying all this proves he was innocent, proves he was railroaded,” Christensen said. “No, all this proves is that he twice has benefited from (judges) changing their mind on the status of the law.”
Protect Our Defenders Responds to “Fat Leonard” Scandal
In March 2018, Naval officers Capt. John F. Steinberger and Cmdr. Jason W. Starmer were found to have accepted and solicited gifts of hotel rooms, drinks, meals and prostitutes. POD worked to expose this story, which was featured in two Navy Times articles, one after Capt. Steinberger and Cmdr. Starmer were set to appear in court and one after they were sentenced. In both cases, neither officer saw any jail time.
After being charged in April 2017, Capt. Steinberger was assigned as the head of the Navy Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Program. POD President Col. (ret.) Don Christensen responded to Capt. Steinberger’s assignment in a third Navy Times story:
“This sets a standard of stupidity… It is beyond comprehension the Navy would place someone charged with accepting prostitutes as a bribe and awaiting trial in an agency responsible for supporting survivors of sexual abuse… Navy leadership sent a terribly harmful message to the men and women of the fleet that they do not take the issue of sexual assault seriously. The [Chief of Naval Operations John Richardson] must address this failure quickly and publicly or risk losing all credibility.”
Protect Our Defenders with USA Today Holds Army General Accountable For Racy Texts
Army Maj. General Joseph Harrington harassed an enlisted soldier’s wife through inappropriate text messages. POD worked to break this story after Inspector General investigation found that he had exchanged over 1,000 messages with the woman over the course of several months. Following the investigation, Maj. Harrington was stripped to the lowest rank of one star.
POD worked with USA Today to break this story in February 2018, where POD President Col. (ret.) Don Christensen offered a response to the stripping of his rank, saying, “The discipline seems in line with the offense.”
POD also worked with Stars and Stripes on another in-depth piece, where POD President Col. (ret.) Don Christensen said:
“Because the relationship never went past messaging, the Army’s response was appropriate… However, the IG is 100 percent wrong to say Harrington’s conduct wasn’t criminal. It clearly was at minimum a violation of Article 133 of the UCMJ. And it may be news to the IG, but violations of the UCMJ are crimes.”
Growth of #MeTooMilitary
Demanding fundamental change to policies that turn a blind eye towards sexual misconduct in the military
The dawn of the #MeToo movement was all-too-familiar for survivors in the military, sparking the #MeTooMilitary movement initiated by POD. In 2018, the #MeTooMilitary movement continued to grow with an organized protest at the Pentagon calling on the Department of Defense to take action against the insidious misogyny in their ranks and policies. POD told US News, who covered the event, that “the latest data indicates sexual assault rates in the military have not changed since 2010 and that service members who report sexually related crimes still face retaliation from their superiors.”
Following the protests, POD worked to get an op-ed from Col. Scott Jensen placed in USA Today. In the piece, Col. Jensen spoke about the extent of the military sexual assault epidemic and just how crucial #MeTooMilitary is for the future of our military and the safety and wellbeing of military officers.
“We must demand fundamental changes to a military justice system that allows commanders to put our best and brightest at risk, and protects those who use their positions of power to prey on our country’s service members. It is critical to the security of our nation’s future.”
POD also worked with Vice on a piece explaining the cultural necessities of #MeTooMilitary. In the article, Col. Jensen continued the conversation and highlighted the military’s elaborate bureaucracy and male-dominated culture as two key factors resisting reform.
“We need to get at that culture and demand that the leaders of the services change that thinking and be vocal about changing those mindsets within their ranks,” said Jensen, now the CEO of the nongovernmental organization Protect our Defenders. ”I’m tired of old-timers who blame women for having the audacity to want to serve their nation and make a difference.”
Major News Outlets Feature POD
Giving voice to survivors in the mainstream media
Protect Our Defenders Featured on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah
POD, Sen. Gillibrand and survivors supported by POD were featured in a number of highly-watched TV shows. On June 11, 2018, Senator Gillibrand and POD President Col. (ret.) Don Christensen were invited onto Comedy Central’s Daily Show with Trevor Noah. There they joined POD Advisory Board Member, BriGette McCoy, where they explored the issues of sex crimes in the military as the #MeToo movement continued to generate national conversation.
Protect Our Defenders Featured on the Today Show
Part of the devastation that comes with sexual misconduct in the military is how veterans are treated when they experience trauma from military sexual assault. Veteran and POD Advisory Board Member Heath Phillips had his discharge reversed from “dishonorable” to honorable and was featured on the Today Show show on July 2, 2018. Heath spoke about his experience as a 17-year-old where he was sexually assaulted during several occasions in 1988 by a group of fellow sailors. He worked with POD and through our network to get the charge reversed.
Protect Our Defenders Featured on Oxygen
Getting charges reversed can be a life-changing step for veterans, but holding their perpetrators accountable is key to preventing these egregious assaults from happening in the first place. POD was featured on Oxygen to discuss the ways in which positions of power can influence perpetrators’ actions.
POD President Col. (ret.) Don Christensen was featured in Oxygen’s Deadly Power series, where television journalist Lauren Sivan explored the issues of #MeToo in the military when people in positions of power take advantage of their authority to commit acts of crime.
Amplifying Victims’ Voices
Fighting against a pervasive military culture of denial and suppression
Protect Our Defenders’ Advisory Board Member Heath Phillips’ Receives Honorable Discharge after 29 Year Battle
Heath Phillips has been an advocate with POD since its founding in 2011. As an Advisory Board Member, Phillips speaks publicly about his experience with the press and other survivors. Over the years, he has been instrumental in letting other survivors know that it is okay to come forward and speak about their experiences.
At 17-years-old, Phillips was assaulted repeatedly after he joined the Navy, causing him to go AWOL to save his life, then forced out and “dishonorably discharged.” After working with POD’s Legal Services Pro-bono Network of attorneys and organizations, his charge has now been reversed to honorable after nearly 29 years.
Protect Our Defenders secured multiple news outlets as platform for Phillips to tell his story. We worked with NPR on an exclusive story in which POD President Col. (ret.) Don Christensen spoke out about the struggles many veterans face with the traumas from assault:
“We will hear from people from the Vietnam War, who still reach out because they want to talk to somebody but have no real hope they’re going to get relief.” Though the challenges are great, POD provides such hope, and help.
United States Army Changes Policy Following Protect Our Defenders’ Work On Private Burnham’s Story
On October 30, 2018, POD worked with ABC 5 to tell the story of how the Army failed Pvt. Nicole Burnham.
In September 2017, Pvt. Burnham reported her sexual assault on a U.S. Army base in South Korea. Shortly thereafter, she requested an Expedited Victim Transfer, which allows victims of sexual assault to be transferred to another base. However, despite documents showing that a Commander approved her request on September 22, Nicole was not removed until December. For 82 days, she remained housed in the same barracks as her attacker while suffering repeated harassment and cyberbullying, according to military records.
Pvt. Burnham’s repeated harassment took a toll on her and, in October, she made a “specific suicidal ideation.” Investigations into her eventual suicide in January 2018 found that a commander violated Army policy by not reporting this up the chain of command. Working with the ABC 5 team, POD President Col. (ret.) Don Christensen looked over the investigation and had this to say:
“It’s inconceivable that they let her languish in Korea,” said Don Christensen, president of Protect our Defenders, a Washington D.C. based non-profit dedicated to ending sexual assault and harassment in the military… The military can get forces to a country in a time of conflict in a matter of hours,” he said. “They should be able to get a single soldier…out of an installation within hours.”
Following the outcry from Pvt. Burnham’s story, the Army changed their policy on the treatment of sexual assault victims. Previously, the Army did not have a designated timeline for approving and/or completing a request of transfer. On December 13, 2018, the Secretary of the U.S. Army mandated that victims’ requests be transferred off-base expeditiously. According to a letter sent to Congress from the Department of Defense, their new policies state that a transfer “should occur within 30 days.” ABC 5 covered this follow up story, connecting with Senator Amy Klobuchar who received the letter.
Protect Our Defenders Grows
Paving the way for continued progress in 2019
Protect Our Defenders Goes To Hollywood
This November, Protect Our Defenders Board of Directors member Paula Coughlin was featured at a Veterans Day event in Hollywood. She was joined in a panel discussion by Kirby Dick, director of Invisible War, a 2012 documentary that explores the ever-increasing incidents of violent sexual assault within the U.S. military, Elizabeth Kristen, a pro bono attorney with Protect Our Defenders, and actor David Boreanaz. The event focused on television’s portrayal of the military and the importance of documentaries like Invisible War in promoting change..
Variety wrote a piece on the event:
Paula Coughlin, a former Navy lieutenant who was assaulted while in active duty and is now a board member and spokesperson for Protect Our Defenders, said that the year she reported her assault there were almost 100 others listed in the same report but she was the only one who came forward by name.
“When I brought my complaint forward, the very next morning I told [the admiral I worked for] what happened to me and he said, ‘Well that’s what you get when you go down a hall full of drunk aviators,’” she said. “There’s this level of morality and conduct that I couldn’t fathom why he would say anything but, ‘Tell me more and let’s take care of it.’ And it was absolutely a snapshot of the culture in the military.”
The Latest in Protect Our Defenders’ Social Media Presence
In addition to features in traditional media, POD has a significant, active community on Twitter and Facebook that grew in 2018. POD continues to organize advocacy efforts through online campaigns to keep the issue of sexual assault in the military at the forefront of the public consciousness, and encourage elected officials to support fundamental reform.
POD’s Facebook page has over 23,000 Facebook Likes, and continues to grow. POD also has over 4,000 followers on Twitter over 50,000 subscribers to our e-newsletter, where we engage with reporters, elected officials, and other prominent voices in the advocacy community.