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Off The Battlefield, Military Women Face Risks From Male Troops

Jamie Livingston was sexually abused while serving in the Navy. She now lives in El Paso, Texas.
David Gilkey
Jamie Livingston was sexually abused while serving in the Navy. She now lives in El Paso, Texas.

Dora Hernandez gave a decade of her life to the U.S. Navy and the Army National Guard, but some of the dangers surprised her.

"The worst thing for me is that you don't have to worry about the enemy, you have to worry about your own soldiers," she says.

Sitting in a circle, a group of women nod in agreement. All are veterans, most have spent time in Iraq and Afghanistan, but they're also survivors of another war. According to the Pentagon's own research, more than 1 in 4 women who join the military will be sexually assaulted during their careers.

"I was assaulted while I was in boot camp in the Army, and I was raped when I went to the Navy," says Sabina Rangel, who is hosting the group in her living room outside El Paso, Texas.

The women introduce themselves with similar short, shocking accounts of their military careers. It's the first meeting of a group set up by Grace After Fire, an organization designed specifically to work with female vets on their journey back from active duty to civilian life. Not an easy task.

I knew the command's attitude toward rape, so I didn't say anything, and this guy was my superior and I had to work with him every day.

"You're not in this by yourself," says Nichelle Gautier.

Gautier served 23 years in the Army, and her friendly, confident demeanor helps break the ice. "We may not have the same trauma that you have, but you're not alone," she says.

A 'Culture Change'

About 19,000 sex crimes take place in the military each year, according to the Pentagon's most recent estimate. Many of the victims are male, but men in the service face the same risk of sexual assault as civilian men do. It's a different story for women. Women who join the military face a much higher risk of sexual assault than civilian women.

"It's a complex problem because it involves a culture change," says Maj. Gen. Gary Patton, the head of the Pentagon's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office. "We have to see a culture change where those victims of this crime are taken seriously at their unit level by every member of their unit, so you don't see the divisiveness and the lack of support and the feeling of isolation that these victims feel."

That isolation, and the uphill fight to even get the crime of rape reported, is what drives a high number of women like Sabina Rangel away from a planned career in the military.

Rangel signed up after high school to serve her country and earn money for college. It started from day one, with her drill sergeant at basic training.

"I thought he was trying to mentor me, but it was 'How close I can get?' " she recalls.

Rangel didn't enlist in the Army after boot camp. She didn't talk about the attack — almost to convince herself it never happened.

The Pentagon estimates that only 14 percent of sexual assaults get reported. Many victims say their rapists outranked them, and sometimes the perpetrator was the same official they'd have to report the crime to. This was the case for Rangel.

She was young, and after the assault she moved on with her life, got married and had a daughter. She later divorced, and in June of 2000, she tried the military again, thinking it could lead to a better job, this time in the Navy Reserve. She was assigned to an Army joint command in El Paso.

Red tape held up Rangel's paychecks, and when she got called in to her command sergeant major's office, she thought he was going to help her solve the problem.

Livingston is getting help dealing with the trauma caused by the abuse.
David Gilkey / NPR
Livingston is getting help dealing with the trauma caused by the abuse.

"He let me know that if I would meet up with him in a hotel he would give me money. And I was like, 'No, I just need my paycheck,' " she says.

But the propositions didn't stop.

"I finally asked his secretary that when he called me and closed the door [to] please knock on the door. And she said, 'Sabina, it happens to everybody,' " Rangel says.

Dozens of women interviewed for this story spoke about a culture where men act entitled to sex with female troops. One joked that rape is part of the job description. Rangel says she tried to avoid ever being alone with the sergeant major, but he greatly outranked her.

"Then I had a mission that I had to go on, and this command sergeant major was there," Rangel says. "He and another sergeant major outright told me that we were going to have sex."

She reported the rape to her superiors, including a female officer, and was told to keep quiet. Other officers started hinting that they knew about the rape. Another sergeant major asked her for sex.

Rangel says she was trying to fight and stay in the military. "Finally one day I thought, what am I fighting for? For these people to abuse me, to sexually assault me?" She says she knew it was time for her to leave.

"I was really at a breaking point; I was becoming depressed. I contemplated suicide," she says.

A Pervasive Crime

Women in the military face a higher risk of being raped multiple times, according to the Pentagon's research. Rangel was doing well; she got two master's degrees in the military, and she'd earned medals and citations for her work. But she left in 2006 feeling angry, like a failure, and thinking she'd never be able to trust anyone.

Rangel says serial sexual predators move up through the service while women like her are driven out.

She adds that the predators seek out vulnerable women who they think will keep quiet for the sake of their military careers, and women who come from abusive family lives who have sought refuge in the military.

At the support group, Jamie Livingston chimes in.

"I was in the Navy for almost six years. I served on the USS Abraham Lincoln and we deployed to the waters outside of Iraq, the Gulf," she says.

Livingston grew up all over. Her stepfather was running from something, she thinks, because they moved from state to state suddenly and without explanation. She was home-schooled and had no teachers or friends to reach out to.

Livingston, like many people, saw enlisting as an escape to a better life.

"I wanted to join the military from as old as I knew there was a military," she says.

Pictures of her baby daughter and her husband decorate the walls of her living room in her home outside El Paso. The window shades are down to prevent the scorching desert sunlight from coming in, and though the house is hot, Livingston grabs a blanket.

"I always get cold when I start talking about this," she says. "I wanted to be out of my house because there was physical, emotional and sexual abuse since as long as I remember."

Livingston says her stepfather raped her through her teenage years. As soon as her mom got away from him, Livingston joined the Navy. She thrived, working on the flight line of an aircraft carrier.

Livingston doesn't smile much, but she does while showing visitors her cruise log, sort of a yearbook of her deployment on the ship. She looks proud. The log brings back some good memories.

She loved the work, she says, but her chief, her direct supervisor, had a combination lock on the inside of his door . She didn't understand why but didn't dare question it.

"There was no reason to have a cipher lock on the inside of the door; obviously you'd have to have a combination to open it," she says. "So any time I'd go in there for my qualifications he would lock that. And every time I needed a qualification signed off he would ask for a sexual favor."

Livingston was later able to join in a successful prosecution of that chief, a rarity among the women we spoke with.

But her troubles didn't end. Livingston was gang-raped by a group of sailors in a dark storage berth. She then decided to join the military police, in part, she says, to help other victims.

"I went to become a military police and I was raped there, too," she says, struggling to control her emotions. "But I didn't report that one. I knew the command's attitude toward rape, so I didn't say anything, and this guy was my superior and I had to work with him every day."

The "command's attitude toward rape" is why most victims don't report. They see a chain of command and a military justice system that almost never gets justice for victims, while often allowing perpetrators to stay in the service.

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Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.
Marisa Peñaloza is a senior producer on NPR's National Desk. Peñaloza's productions are among the signature pieces heard on NPR's award-winning newsmagazines Morning Edition and All Things Considered, as well as weekend shows. Her work has covered a wide array of topics — from breaking news to feature stories, as well as investigative reports.
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