Women protecting their country, yet military fails to protect them
Nov 11, 2020
Copyright © Cuate Santos / Laredo Morning Times
I am a combat veteran. Those who know me understand I am no slouch. So why did I not report the many times I was sexually harassed during my time in the military?
From the minute I joined, it was clear they really didn’t want me there. They didn’t want me because I was different from them; I was a woman and a Latina. I was an “other.” Many men were uncomfortable around me, and some were openly and aggressively hostile.
There was a big difference between the first and second halves of my military career. The first was filled with outright sexual harassment, bullying, resentment, sexist remarks about my body, unwelcome advances and all that comes with that — in addition to racist jokes. The second half still had sexual harassment, but it was more covert and less than I experienced previously.
There were many signs that I didn’t fit in — literally. The utility uniforms I was issued were made for men. The cold-weather long johns had a fly opening. Even the combat gear I used in Iraq in 2004 was made for men. I put up my own sign that said “women” on a men’s restroom, so I did not have to trek to another building. I was reminded every day, every minute that I didn’t belong.
At many of my units, I was the first woman ever assigned, or one of the few. And forget about being a Latina; most had never seen one of us. I felt the weight of my gender and my ethnicity and vowed to not only stay but to prove women had a right to serve, lead and excel. Try being one of 10 women in a unit of 800. I lived and worked in a hostile work environment.
I didn’t report my harassment early on, as there were no formal mechanisms in place then. I wouldn’t have trusted them anyway. Reporting would bring more harassment and ostracism. So, I developed a steel exterior and coping mechanisms; some were healthy, others not so much. I chose to work hard and prove my competency. I told the officers and those with whom I served not to see me as a woman but as an officer and a leader. I started wearing uniform blouses two sizes bigger than I needed so as not to accentuate the fact that I was a woman. I tried downplaying my femininity.
Despite everything I went through, I love the military and my country, and I was honored to have served. Not everyone I met in the military harassed me. I served with outstanding individuals — men and women — who were professionals, treated all with respect and had my back. I am grateful to them more than I can say. I received outstanding training and educational opportunities. I commanded many organizations, honed my leadership skills, earned a Bronze Star while serving in combat and was awarded two Legion of Merit medals. I am grateful — but also angry at what continues to occur.
It wasn’t until recently, after serving on a panel hosted by the League of United Latin American Citizens, or LULAC, titled “#IamVanessaGuillen: Honoring and Protecting Those Who Serve our Country” that I began to have repressed memories about the military sexual trauma, or MST, that occurred in my initial training. The Department of Veterans Affairs defines MST as sexual assault or sexual harassment that occurred during military service. I was sexually assaulted and harassed during training by powerful men who had total control over whether I would get my commission.
This is a complex, sensitive subject to navigate and extremely difficult for many organizations, especially the military, and veterans to talk about. From 2016 to 2018, there was a 38 percent increase in sexual assaults in the military. We have failed the precious few who serve in not transforming laws and policies.
In September, a bipartisan group of House members introduced the I Am Vanessa Guillen Act to transform the military’s response to sexual violence, assault and harassment. I fully support this act and the change it can bring.
It is a profound shame it has taken this long and so many have suffered or died because of failures in the chain of command. No más. The Department of Defense cannot shirk its duty anymore. You owe us. Change. Now.
Lisa Carrington Firmin is the military liaison at the University of Texas at San Antonio and a retired colonel from the U.S. Air Force.
Despite everything I went through, I was honored to have served. I am grateful — but also angry at what continues to occur.