Remarks from Nancy Parrish, Founder of Protect Our Defenders on receiving the Ivan Allen Jr, Prize for Social Courage at the Georgia Institute of Technology
Thank you Dr. Peterson, Dean Royster, and all the members of the selection committee. – And thank you to the team here at Ga. Tech who have worked so hard to make these days so meaningful. This has been an emotional few days – overwhelming really.
And to Tom and Lou Glenn – it was wonderful spending time with you yesterday. Your work to continue the legacy of Ivan Allen, Jr. through this Prize inspires me and so many others committed to social justice. I’m grateful and indebted to you.
To my best friend, my husband, Chuck, who is my partner in life and has been my partner in this work – thank you. And to our children, Rebecca, who sent film crews across the country to document survivors stories; and Rob and Priya thank you for your help…your encouragement…and especially your understanding.
To be in the company of such courageous prior recipients – Congressman John Lewis, Senator Sam Nunn, Beatrice Mtetwa and Dr. William Foege is…humbling.
As they all have expressed — it takes a village. I am here in no small part due to the bravery of the community of sexual assault survivors and their families; our small, hard working team; the human rights and victims rights attorneys; those leaders in the military who risk their careers to do the right thing; the journalists who seek truth and shine a light on the epidemic of sexual harassment and assault in our military, and the bi-partisan congressional leaders – a majority in the Senate – who continue to demand a vote to reform the broken system of military justice.
When one looks at movements for social justice– from the end of Jim Crow, to the acceptance of LGBT members in the military, and same sex marriage — each seemed impossible, only a short time before.
Social Justice work by its nature is confronting powerful interests. And power concedes nothing. When I began this work the risk taken and the courage required by the survivors and those supporting them within the system was apparent. – Suddenly, in the midst of acute conflict Chuck and I realized that we, too were a target and even our security was an issue.
Each momentous step forward was a result of brave individuals often risking more than should be required to drive sometimes contentious civil discourse that helped change public opinion, and eventually, though sometimes grudgingly, action by our nation’s policy makers.
As the work of Ivan Allen and John Lewis reminds us, there has been much progress in ending many extreme forms of oppression that existed in this country, yet discrimination, sexual harassment and abuse remain common within our society and public institutions – the product of both overt and unintentional bias – which hinders advancement by those silenced and often perceived as “the other.”
Our military is a beloved institution. It, too, has made great strides in eliminating discrimination; integrating people of color, women, and LGBT people into its ranks. But for too long it has failed to fundamentally address the crisis of sexual harassment and assault, and this failure is exacerbating inequalities and harming our military -undermining retention, unit cohesion and good order and discipline. Sexual assault rates among active duty members are significantly greater than their civilian counterparts in the reserves.
The US military is the world’s largest employer. It protects our nation and defends our democratic way of life. It is a vital part of our society. It has traditionally served an important role – as a primary source of upward mobility for disadvantaged young people, particularly women and minorities. It promises a path to a career and higher education, many could not otherwise afford.
Yet, all too often those seeking opportunity and advancement have found their lives upended, and their careers cut short. According to Rand, our military has such high rates of a persistent sexually hostile work environment, so persistent and severe, that it is causing harm to one’s career.
Valuable, earnest strivers are being washed out of the military due to sexual harassment, assault, and severe retaliation for reporting — which they are currently powerless to overcome. The Pentagon reports that less than 15% of victims report the crime, and of those few who do, 62% face retaliation – often career ending. They are threatened, passed over for promotion, kicked out with an errant medical diagnosis.
In reaching out for help, one young service member put it this way, “One of the things I can’t seem to learn is to remain silent. If I hadn’t said anything, I’d still have a career. If I had just chalked it up to a bad date, and I TRIED. I tried to pretend it was a date gone horribly wrong. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t sleep or eat or think – or survive. So, I talked. And I don’t know if I did the right thing. In fact, the entire event has repercussions that I’m afraid are still unfolding.”
As Senator Chuck Grassley, the Republican Senator from Iowa put it: “Barring access to fair and impartial justice pours salt in the wounds of those who have suffered immeasurable indignity and harm while serving their country in uniform.”
Unlike in the civilian world, for service members raped or assaulted there is no escape. The military unit is not just your work place. It is also your home and your social life. It is illegal not to report back to work, even if you are reporting to your rapist, his boss or his friend.
But the military is not separate from us. It is our moms and dads, sisters and brothers, our children. My immigrant father served in WWII. My mom worked for the Army as a civilian. A Navy ROTC scholarship allowed my sister to be the first in our family to attend college. She served with distinction, along with her husband, a Navy pilot.
Some believe it is our duty as Americans – as patriots – to stay out of the military’s business. Yet, our founding fathers had the foresight to invest civilian leadership with authority to lead our military. However, today our military and our civilian leaders are failing our troops. — A vibrant democracy requires an active citizenry -It is our civic responsibility to hold these leaders accountable!
Not long after I founded Protect Our Defenders, a commander sent us an impassioned plea, saying “I have a young female soldier… as her commander I have supported and encouraged her reporting her assault, but have been disappointed in the way it has been handled… and the lack of support given her by her command (higher than me). I would appreciate… any direction you could advise… as I am still in the command – discretion would be appreciated.” This plea is indicative of a culture of silence and a dysfunctional justice system. It should concern us all!
Our military justice system is unlike any other American system of justice or those of our allies. Instead of legally trained, experienced attorneys, – a few commanders, each lacking legal expertise, control the military justice system. This means that when a woman or man in the military is raped, the person who decides whether their case will go to trial is not an attorney, rather it is the commander of the accused. This puts commanders, regardless of how deep their integrity, in an untenable position – a conflict of interest. It is like the CEO of a company having the authority to determine whether a trusted key executive will be charged with a rape alleged by a low level worker.
A few months ago, we heard from a senior military lawyer – who encouraged us to keep fighting for reform. He said, “I am a prosecutor in the Armed Forces in one of the busiest litigation offices in the world…cases are lost or overturned on appeal due to errors and victims don’t want to come forward because of distrust of the Chain of Command.” He went on to say, “We are overwhelmed with sexual assault cases…. I’ve been debating getting out. We are losing good litigators. Please keep working.”
This is just one of the many communications we regularly receive from active duty members that confirm the system is broken, conflicted. — It fuels inequality and exacerbates a culture of abuse and victim blaming.
Our work is rooted in a passion and commitment to legal and cultural change to end this epidemic! And a commitment to justice and dignity for survivors of sexual assault. We are driven by the belief that all people, including — particularly the men and women who have signed up to serve and protect our citizens, deserve access to equal, impartial and effective justice – whether they are the victim or the accused.
This is a social justice, economic justice, criminal justice and public health issue that has wide ranging impact on our greater communities. – victims fear coming forward, predators retire into our neighborhoods. — 40% of female homeless veterans suffer from Military Sexual Trauma according to the VA. And there are over 1 million visits annually to the VA for MST related care. The RAND Corporation estimates the cost of this crisis at over 3 ½ billion dollars annually. This is a moral imperative.
A common thread throughout the life of Ivan Allen Jr. and the prior recipients of this award is that each individual who strives to improve society – to fight for justice – can help make a change happen.
I have fought all of my life to level the playing field for those without power, without a voice. I have not done so alone. This award is a testimonial to the bravery and sacrifice of the many survivors – including civilians – who risk their careers and often their security and livelihood to speak truth to power and demand justice. It is because of these survivors, and their courage in coming forward, that we have been able to drive the public discourse and make change.
It is also due in no small part to justice advocates and courageous military leaders, such as those I previously mentioned. And, Protect Our Defenders President, the recently retired Chief Prosecutor of the USAF, Col. Don Christensen who made a choice, gave up his career, stood tall on behalf of justice – defending the findings of a jury and the testimony of the victim of sexual assault –in the face of fierce opposition from Air Force leadership. Leadership who defended a Lt. Colonel convicted of sexual assault and the General who overturned the conviction.
Together, we have built a national movement for justice. In just four years, collectively, although there remains much to be done, we have made significant progress. Survivors are no longer silenced. The crisis now part of our public discourse. We have championed a number of significant reforms passed into law. — A commander can no longer overturn a sexual assault conviction and the accused can no longer use their Good Military Character as a defense against a rape charge. A growing number of victims’ rights attorneys are working pro bono to disrupt injustice as it is happening. The public is now on our side. The President has acknowledged that something must be done. We are calling on him to do more. He must do more.
As Mayor Ivan Allen, Jr., in his farewell address, said, “…the real progress…has been Atlanta’s reevaluation of human values, and our dedication to social improvement and equality.” Our military leaders should take Mayor Allen’s example to heart.
As Americans when we see unfairness and injustice around the world we stand on the side of justice. As Martin Luther King reminds us: The moral arc of the universe is long but it bends towards justice, which is why we gather our considerable resources to combat such abuses —however uncomfortable, even dangerous it may be to challenge the status quo.
I hope that our work can serve to inform and encourage survivors and social justice activists to leverage their most powerful asset – their own lived experience – to drive public attention and instigate change whatever their cause. As esteemed author and humanitarian, Alice Walker once said, “the most common way people give up their power is not realizing they have it.” To all of those seeking a just and equitable society – use your power. Make change.