While she was stationed in Italy, one of her colleagues barged into her locked room and raped her. Despite overwhelming evidence of his debauchery, he was acquitted because—wait for it—he believed he had consent. Darchelle was forced out of the Air Force soon afterward, despite a glowing evaluation.
Men have endured similarly brutal assaults as well. Take “Heath,” who told Protect Our Defenders how he was repeatedly sexually assaulted soon after getting out of naval boot camp in the late 1980s.
Click here for Heath’s story
Heath complained to his superiors—and from there, his life on the ship “turned to hell.” The physical and sexual assaults continued for over a month, leading his family—made up mostly of Army veterans—to advise him to go AWOL and come back home to upstate New York for his own safety. His then-Congress member, Sherwood Boehlert, promised to personally investigate the matter. Despite this, he got word that the police were looking for him, forcing him to live on the streets until he was arrested and ultimately sent back to his ship.
By this time, he was a “basketcase” mentally. The assault actually got even worse after he returned, and it eventually got to the point where “I just could not do it” anymore. While it had been his dream to make a career in the Navy, he was so broken that he was willing to “sign a death certificate” in order to get out. He ultimately reached a plea deal that allowed him to get out with an other-than-honorable discharge, which made getting help for his PTSD difficult. While he admits going AWOL, he says that he doesn’t know “anybody in their right state of mind” who wouldn’t have done the same.
Stories like these are what led veteran political consultant Nancy Parrish to found Protect Our Defenders in 2011. Her team, augmented by people like Christensen who have a deep knowledge of the military justice system, provides pro bono legal representation for victims. Protect Our Defenders also engages policymakers to push for changes in policy and culture.
Despite this, it took another tragedy for real change to finally move forward. In April 2020, Vanessa Guillen, a small-arms repairer at Fort Hood, needed confirmation for some serial numbers and sought it from the armory controlled by combat engineer Aaron Robinson. She was never seen again. It turned out that just before her murder, Guillen had told her family that one of her sergeants was sexually harassing her. Guillen’s mother wanted to report it, but Guillen feared it would bring her mother reprisals.
Robinson was a person of interest from the beginning, as he was the last person known to have seen Guillen alive. Two months later, on June 30, human remains were found along the Leon River in nearby Belton. That night, Robinson’s girlfriend, Cindy Aguilar, told police that Robinson had told her that he’d repeatedly bludgeoned a female soldier to death with a hammer inside his Fort Hood armory on the night of April 22.
Aguilar later helped Robinson dismember and burn Guillen’s remains. Around the same time, Robinson was detained on base, but escaped and later shot himself when confronted by police in nearby Killeen. Five days later, the remains were confirmed to be those of Guillen. Aguilar is currently facing charges related to her role in the cover-up.
By then, a debate was already underway about reforming how the military handles sexual assault. Legislation was pending in Congress that would take decisions on whether to court-martial soldiers for major felonies out of the hands of the chain of command. However, it seemingly stalled until Guillen’s murder.
In December, Congress enacted these reforms as part of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal 2022. New procedures explicitly criminalize sexual harassment in the military for the first time. Commanders are now required to forward complaints about sexual assault, sexual harassment, murder, rape, domestic violence, manslaughter, and other serious crimes to an independent investigator. Decisions on whether to prosecute will be made by Offices of the Special Trial Counsel, one for each of the four military branches. The reforms give victims the right to know whether an offender has been administratively sanctioned, require the Pentagon to track retaliation against those filing complaints, and mandate a review of racial disparities in the military justice system.
The reforms didn’t go far enough for Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, who has spent most of her career advocating for reform of the military justice system. She voted against the bill because it didn’t take the chain of command out of the picture altogether in cases of sexual assault and sexual harassment. Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut also objected to provisions that left broad authority in the hands of commanders.
In an editorial, the San Antonio Express-News—whose coverage area includes Lackland Air Force Base, home to Air Force basic training—echoed Gillibrand’s and Blumenthal’s concerns. The editorial noted that the bill allows commanders to retain broad control over the court-martial process, including the ability to select jury pools. Christensen told the editorial board that this power has been “a blemish on military justice” for a long time, since the person who decides whether to try the case also picks the jury—from people who take orders from him. Hopefully Congress can summon the will to make these changes at some point.
Another needed change would be to establish mandatory minimum sentences for sex-related crimes. Whatever reservations we may sometimes have about mandatory minimums, there are some cases where they are necessary. This is one of them.
We’ve heard time and again that victims, both in the civilian and military worlds, don’t come forward for years if at all in part because they don’t feel it will be worth the effort. Setting mandatory minimums would go a long way toward correcting this. It would not only send a message that victims are being taken seriously, but allow them to heal. Had Kelley, for instance, faced a mandatory minimum sentence of five years for what he did to Tessa and his stepson, Tessa would likely be further along in her healing. It’s equally likely that 26 people would have walked out of that church alive, since any credible sentence would have made it all but impossible for Kelley to get a gun.
Protect Our Defenders argues—and rightly—that our men and women in uniform deserve “a system of justice worthy of the American principles they have dedicated their lives to protect.” While much has been done to accomplish this, it was several years overdue—and much more work needs to be done.