Having been targeted with unwanted advances in the past, Staff Sgt. Krista Nuite told her master sergeant that nobody should have sex with her while deployed to New Zealand in 2021. But it didn’t matter.
“I told him before the incident happened, nobody should have sex with me. Nobody should be coming after me. That should not happen,” the New York Air National Guardsman said. “And when I told him that it did happen, he was just more interested in playing with his phone.”
Nuite, who joined the Air National Guard in 2014, said she was raped during the February 2021 deployment and has also been the target of physical and verbal harassment throughout her career. She has been told she was hired because she was “something to look at.” She received an unsolicited “d**k pic” from a Saudi Arabian pilot. And early in her career, she received an unwanted kiss from a fellow service member when he took a selfie with her.
“Hindsight is definitely 20/20,” Nuite said. “And therapy helps a lot with reflecting on a lot of different things, and there were issues from the very – almost the very start, I want to say.”
Meanwhile, Sgt. 1st Class Stephanie Lewis joined the military out of high school, serving as a parachute rigger for the 19th Special Force Group (Airborne) of the Utah Army National Guard. Oftentimes, she was the only female in her unit.
“I had to experience a lot of hostile work environments,” Lewis said. “And I guess I would relate it to a construction worker-type environment, right? And for a long time, I felt like I had to become more rash and more – to be accepted into that culture I had to become something that I wasn’t.
“And I think at some point, I kind of got lost in that until I became a leader and females started to come into our section. And I was sexually assaulted by one of my leaders, and I was coerced at a really young age, and I had no idea.”
She reported the assault and said it “changed a lot within that work environment.” Following her report, Lewis said an investigation into the parachute rigging facility found the environment was “extremely hostile” and regulations weren’t being upheld.
The investigation also led to increased professionalism, a supervisor being fired and working in accordance with regulation, she said.
“It’s still not perfect, but it changed a lot of the way we did things and how we interact with each other,” said Lewis, now a victim advocate coordinator in the Utah National Guard’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (SAPR) program.
Lewis has been certified through the DOD Sexual Assault Advocate Program since 2016 and part of SAPR in a full-time capacity for about three years.
Her story, and others like hers, is among those that led to the military publicly taking a new, prevention-focused approach to sexual assault.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III said in a September 2022 memo that the Department of Defense “must do more as a department to counter the scourge of sexual assault and sexual harassment in our military.” The Independent Review Commission on Sexual Assault in the Military – which resulted in a “tiered implementation roadmap” focusing on accountability; prevention; climate and culture; and victim care and support – was established shortly thereafter.
Austin said in the memo that he directed the department to “move swiftly and deliberately” to implement changes based on the IRC’s findings and recommendations.
National Guard’s sexual assault data
The National Guard Bureau, according to the DOD’s “Fiscal Year 2021 Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military,” provided subject-matter experts to participate in “IRC-led working groups, as well as reviewed the Implementation Roadmap, provided input for each recommendation, and submitted information for resourcing.”
Still, the NGB portion of the DOD sexual assault report stated that:
- Reported assaults among guardsmen on Title 32 orders increased 11% – from 634 in FY20 to 704 in FY21.
- Reported assaults among guardsmen on Title 10 orders increased 43.28% – from 67 in FY20 to 96 in FY21.
Victim assistance and advocacy is noted as the second “line of effort” in the NGB report, which states that the Guard “identified manpower and resource shortfalls within the National Guard SAPR program” and developed a strategy to meet requirements stated in the FY 2021 NDAA.
‘Freedom to speak’
Ashley Shelton, a sexual assault response coordinator for the Alaska Army National Guard, said a large part of her role is connecting guardsmen with community support.
“We make sure that if we have a guardsman who they’re not eligible for the active-duty resources because they weren’t in active duty at time of incident, we can still provide them resources,” said Shelton, DOD’s 2022 Liz Blanc Exceptional Sexual Assault Response Coordinator of the Year for the Guard.
One way Shelton helps survivors is with her therapy dogs, Nix and Eris.
“Sometimes it’s difficult to speak to another person about those traumatic experiences,” Shelton said, “but when you have the dog there, especially because they’re both bullmastiffs [and they] do that sit and lean thing … [survivors are] petting the dog and not really talking to me as a SARC, it’s more like they’re talking to the dog who’s nonjudgmental … It gives them that freedom to speak.”
Shelton had previously served as a victim-advocate coordinator with the Louisiana Air National Guard’s Sexual Harassment and Assault Prevention (SHARP) program. She had been with the Louisiana program from June 2013 until moving to Alaska. She first heard about the SHARP program during its initial roll out in 2006.
“I remember a time when we didn’t have a special victims council available,” said Shelton, who holds a master of arts in military psychology and is credentialed at a tier-two level for the DOD prevention workforce. “When that program came online, it was an absolutely amazing asset that was added to the program.”
The council, according to Shelton, is a way for victims to receive expert legal advice because advocates aren’t able to provide that information. It launched in 2013 as a test program in the Air Force and was later established across the military.
‘A culture of disbelief’
Retired Air Force Col. Don Christensen, president of the national human rights organization Protect Our Defenders, prosecuted sex crimes on the active-duty side while in the Air Force.
He said his biggest takeaway from the military’s approach to sexual assault during his service was that there “was a culture that rallied around the accused.”
“I call it a culture of disbelief,” Christensen said. “[They were] much more likely to think the woman is lying to get back at the guy, or whatever reason they have, than accept that their friend or coworker [assaulted someone].”
Over the past eight years, Christensen said he has seen greater protections of mental health records and better ability for a victim to enforce privacy rights. And by the end of 2023, a “fundamental reform” that puts prosecutors, rather than commanders, in charge of prosecutorial decisions, will go into effect.
However, some military leaders dating back to 2013 told the Senate Armed Services Committee that commanders should retain that authority.
“Somebody who is contemplating a sexual assault knows that they’re going to be caught, that they’re going to be prosecuted, and if they’re prosecuted, they’re going to be punished,” said then-vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Navy Adm. James A. Winnefeld Jr. in 2013. “It’s our strong view that the commander is responsible for that.”
Amy Franck – a civilian victim advocate for the Department of the Army and a sexual assault response coordinator/program manager for two- and three-star Army Service Component Commands – founded Never Alone in 2020 following her second “official whistleblowing” on a two-star level command.
Herself a teenage survivor as a military dependent, Franck said she wanted to get involved with advocacy “and not have to get into the weeds of what actually happened.” Her background also includes 3,000 forensic interviews with children who have been molested, trafficked or survived a violent crime.
“I just really went in with a very Pollyana-esque view, even as being a military victim myself,” Franck said. “But I expected that the officers and the non-commissioned officers, that they behaved like my dad and my uncles and my best friends’ dads, and when they didn’t, I was just really taken aback.”
She said she expected everyone to “act in accordance” with the military’s ethical standards.
“I think that the military is a very beloved institution in our country and the thought that men and women were being harmed and not helped really broke my heart,” Franck said. “And I think that we – I did a lot of good work within the military when I had the right kind of commanders.”
Wes Martin, an executive committee member for Never Alone, said one of the organizations biggest fights is for accountability.
“Because if you bring accountability, everybody else gets the message, ‘I better not do this,’” Martin said. “Unfortunately, what we’re seeing is the lack of accountability is allowing the wrong people to go ahead and violate the good people.”
Martin also noted the rank disparity that has occurred in assaults.
“When you think about it, some of these perpetrators that we’re looking at, they’re senior NCOs, they’re senior officers,” Martin said. “To a young, enlisted soldier, a senior NCO should be like either a father figure or a brother figure and not a predator.”
‘A completely different animal’
For those who report an assault and seek prosecution, the process in the National Guard, according to Christensen, is a “completely different animal.”
“Each state and territory has their own military justice code,” he said. “They also have their own policies about prosecuting.”
Each National Guard unit, according to the NGB, is “subject to and governed by the laws of their respective states.”
“Those laws may include a state military code of justice as promulgated by their respective state legislative bodies,” the NGB said in an email to Reserve + National Guard Magazine. “Some states have adopted the articles of the federal Uniform Code of Military Justice into their state statutes, either in whole or in part. Other states may not have a military code that applies specifically to National Guardsmen and, instead, use the state criminal code applicable to anyone that commits a crime or applicable misconduct in that particular state.”
Guardsmen serving on active duty on Title 10 orders “are subject to and can be prosecuted pursuant to the provisions of the federal Uniform Code of Military Justice for any misconduct that takes place while on Title 10 orders,” the NGB stated. Those on Title 32 that “commit misconduct while in that status” are subject to respective state codes of military justice “or other applicable state statutes.”
“Prosecution of Guardsmen in a Title 32 duty status falls under the jurisdiction of and is subject to state and/or local civilian authorities, or, if applicable, the military authorities via the state military code,” the NGB stated.
There’s “very little institutional ability to prosecute cases,” according to Christensen, who said the process is slow in general, but “really slow in the Guard.”
Nuite, the Air National Guardsman from New York, said she had issues with someone who was called in from another base while working as a technician stateside. The man – a rank higher than Nuite – was not completing jobs to the required specs and, according to Nuite, was “being very aggressive” toward her. So she took her concerns to her supervisor.
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“I was told that he was probably acting that way because I was a young and attractive woman,” she said. “And I should expect that and be OK with it.”
The military, according to Nuite, “always complains” and questions why bad things happen.
“Why do people get assaulted? Why do people get hurt? Why do we do this to each other? We’re supposed to be brothers and sisters,” Nuite said. “We’re supposed to be a family. But at the same time, there was never any support for the few times that I did come forward, to the point that it was like I definitely walked around with the idea that I was the problem.”
After the alleged assault on the New Zealand deployment, Nuite said she was denied medical care for four days, being told the doctor wasn’t there.
It wasn’t until she “freaked out” that she was finally able to see a doctor, Nuite said. She still waited another few hours until she received medical attention and spoke with a chaplain.
“The chaplain, of course, is flabbergasted because he didn’t know what the hell was going on,” Nuite said. “I hadn’t seen him in the four days either. Or the first shirt, I don’t know where they were, but they weren’t around.”
Nuite said she told the chaplain that the man came to her room and when she rebuked his advances, telling him he shouldn’t, the man told her that wasn’t a “no.”
“I told him I was engaged,” Nuite said. “He [the man] said that that didn’t matter … And I told all of that to the chaplain, the chaplain started crying and asked if he could pray and was like, ‘You were assaulted.’ And I was like, ‘I was assaulted? I don’t know. I don’t know at this point. I just thought that I made a really terrible drunk decision and now I’m in a nightmare that I can’t wake up from.’”
The chaplain, according to Nuite, said they needed to reach out to the Sexual Assault Response Coordinator (SARC). She then filed a restricted report.
“After two weeks, I just got mad enough to where I was like, ‘F**k it, if I feel this way, the person who did it’s going to feel this way too,” she said. “I unrestricted it.”
After she made her report unrestricted – which identified her alleged assaulter – her major made accommodations and a protection order was filled out.
But Nuite said COVID-19 safety protocols affected the New Zealand investigation.
“That was when everyone had to go through a two-week quarantine,” she said. “So, everything was muddled between me coming forward essentially so late, and me being denied medical care for so long, there was no evidence really anyway.”
The hotel where the incident occurred, according to Nuite, had cameras, but the military investigators “couldn’t get there until month and a half after everything happened.”
“So all the bars we went to that night, basically the history was already erased,” she said.
‘Vortex of no justice’
Similar to Christensen of Protect Our Defenders, Franck said the National Guard and reserve component is an “additional animal” because of jurisdiction.
“At some point, it just needs to be like if you’re in the National Guard, you’re always subject to the UCMJ, or if you’re in the National Guard, you’re always subject to the laws of the state,” Franck said. “Like one or other. But this hot potato business creates a vortex of no justice.”
For an incident that occurred in New York State, Nuite said the base “didn’t want to deal with it because it didn’t happen in their jurisdiction.” So she went to the state troopers. Their report, according to Nuite, said she didn’t want to come forward until it was too late.
The person she alleged assaulted her was a master sergeant while she was a staff sergeant, but Nuite said the troopers didn’t view the situation as one with a rank or power disparity.
“The state troopers just view us as two civilians, and they don’t take all of that into account,” she said. “This man is also an AGR and he’s married. So under the CMJ, him coming on to me should be a problem, right? Because you’re not supposed to do that when you’re married. But state troopers didn’t care about that either.”
Her case was taken to the district attorney who dismissed the case.
When the offense was allegedly committed also plays a factor, according to Christensen, who said a lot of sexual offenses aren’t occurring in the workplace.
Franck agreed, citing “way too much gray area.”
“When you arrive to drill, when does your status start?” said Franck. “So Lollapalooza starts when you guys come the night before you report, when you’re on your own dime. And that’s where all the fraternization and all the adultery and all things [occur]. But it’s OK then because you’re still quote civilian. But in morning, you’re not. So all of this gray area is fostering more bad behavior.”
Data also isn’t tracked the same as on the active-duty side, Christensen said.
The NGB addressed the lack of a central criminal investigation organization in its FY21 report, as well as the difference in state and federal definitions of sexual assault.
“The sexual harassment assessments identified the lack of a case-tracking platform due to differing procedural processes between Title 10 U.S.C. and Title 32 U.S.C. complaints and lack of a standard practice of notification of complaints, and an understanding of available resources across the States,” the report stated. “It is important to note that the National Guard currently does not have an Integrated Violence Prevention program based on DOD’s recently released policy, which would provide a unified approach to prevent suicide, sexual assault, harassment, domestic abuse, and child abuse.”
The National Guard Bureau told Reserve + National Guard Magazine that its office of diversity, equity and inclusion is “working to build a standardized database to track formal and informal sexual harassment complaints.”
‘A public health issue’
Franck said that the DOD SAPRO has always dictated, through the National Defense Authorization Act, that the Guard, reserves, active duty and Coast Guard have advocates. But she doesn’t believe there has been a “true prevention program” in the military.
“Consent and sexual education, that starts at minimum at middle school, right?” Franck said. “If you have people that have graduated high school and they’re in their 20s, 30s and you’re having to educate them on healthy sexual relationships and what consent means, we’ve completely missed the mark … So if I’m having to teach that to people that are carrying around M-16s and M-9s and have the ability to drive tanks and fly planes and helicopters, that’s very wrong.”
However, the NGB said in a statement that its shift to a “prevention approach” has been “extremely well received” by SARCs and leadership.
“Eliminating sexual assault within the National Guard is our number one priority,” the statement read. “The implementation of a dedicated prevention workforce will result in evidence-based prevention efforts to stop sexual assault before it occurs. The safety of our people is the most important part of our mission.”
Illinois National Guard Integrated Primary Prevention Officer Matt Palmisano – a recent civilian hire – leads a team of seven whose goal is to prevent sexual violence, self-directed harm, workplace violence and harassment and family violence and abuse.
“I’m a social worker,” said Palmisano, a retired Army captain. “I really care about people, and I see that this is a public health issue.”
Palmisano, whose civilian career focused on suicide prevention and family advocacy, served during Operation Iraqi Freedom with the 421st Multi-functional Medical Battalion from Wiesbaden, Germany, to Joint Base Balad in medical logistics. He said his goal in the Illinois Guard is to rid the ranks of all “interpersonal violence” – child abuse, domestic violence, harassment and sexual assault.
“I understand the command structure here,” he said. “I’ve been in units where sexual assault happens and how it erodes trust. It really is detrimental to morale and cohesion. Because I truly love the military, and all organizations aren’t perfect and we’re striving to do better.”
Maj. Monica Leger, deputy inspector general of the Utah National Guard, is among those within the Guard working to improve prevention and assault resources.
About two years ago, she contacted the Elizabeth Smart Foundation to see if Smart – who survived sexual abuse during her nine-month kidnapping in the early 2000s – would be interested in speaking to guardsmen.
In February, the foundation and Utah National Guard partnered for a series of trauma-informed, Smart Defense courses.
“When you attend trauma-informed self-defense, it starts with a conversation, and the conversation is geared towards whomever the class may be,” Leger said. “So whether it’s girls needing to learn about consent and progress or good online presence all the way up to more domestic violence survivors and stuff like that, we’ll get a different conversation.”
Following the discussion, everything is consent based. Leger said she has attended multiple training sessions, where they cover basic responses like fight, flight and freeze.
“There’ll be a discussion about that because although people are in the military, I think sometimes [people] assume that military members just automatically fight people off or nothing ever happens to them,” Leger said ahead of the Guard-focused seminars. “It’s important for everyone to understand that if something happens that it will never be their fault.”
Sexual assault & continuing education
Lewis, Utah’s victim advocate coordinator, said she would like to see the SAPR office continue programs like the trauma-informed self-defense courses, along with targeted prevention efforts. They currently hold a junior leadership summit and leadership summits with victim advocates.
She herself recently participated in a senior leadership summit.
“We’re trying to do trainings where we have small groups, 25 to 30 people,” Lewis said. “There’s a new program that we have called Buddy Aid, which is how to respond to someone who discloses sexual assault and also how to see indicators when you should ask if someone’s been hurt in this way.”
Leger also said she would like to see sexual assault survivors feel empowered to use their voice.
“Through the work that I’ve done with Smart Defense, I have seen people – from the start of the class to the end – grow,” Leger said. “That sounds so cheesy, but you can see their confidence build.”
‘Learning from your peers’
Small-group discussions are an important aspect of prevention for Palmisano because he said it allows people in his position to hear “what works for them,” directly from the soldiers. He wants to implement programs and promote “protective factors,” like life-skill training, healthy coping skills and good problem solving, as well as conflict resolution.
“I really do see how that violence is all kind of interconnected,” Palmisano said. “It can start with harassment. It can lead to sexual assault. It can lead to suicide, domestic abuse. It’s just all interconnected.”
Lewis said past prevention work she has seen in the military is similar to civilian workplaces and colleges.
“You have this PowerPoint or video … And we kind of outline our policies, our regulations,” Lewis said. “What bystander prevention is, what our duty is as service members … It’s usually in a big, huge room with tons of people. So you’re getting a lot of people not interacting, and it’s not really helpful, and it doesn’t work.”
However, Palmisano said he believes video is an effective tool.
“I’m really trying to use the resources we have but also be creative,” Palmisano said. “I understand we have limited time, especially in the Guard. They pack a lot into a weekend. Trying to get, first buy in from the commanders knowing that – ‘Hey, mission readiness and taking care of people, I’m here to benefit you. I’m a force multiplier.’”
‘Safe for now’
As part of the Alaska Guard’s SAPR team, Shelton also works closely with the director of psychological health (DPH). When she does intake for a new client, she immediately conducts a “warm handoff” to DPH because victim advocates work on keeping victims “safe for now,” while DPH conducts a more in-depth safety assessment.
“Do they have any other previous history with behavioral health that could compound their trauma?” Shelton said. “… We do that warm handoff with them to make sure closing the loop on any special needs care they might need.”
“Managing post-sexual assault suicide risk,” a study that appeared in the October 2022 Archives of Women’s Mental Health, determined that among respondents who completed a post-sexual assault medical forensic examination, those who had been previously hospitalized for mental health and who had “higher posttraumatic stress symptoms” were among those with more suicidal ideation.
Having served and deployed himself, Palmisano said he can see how there are mental health issues, but also how resilient service members are.
“I believe in the institution,” Palmisano said. “I know that we’re trying to improve it. We’re constantly improving it. Right now, I’ve told my team we’re building this airplane at 30,000 feet right now. Let’s be flexible, let’s listen to what’s available. We’re not going to come in here and say that we know more.”
Nuite said that SARCs got her into counseling and to VA medical care. But she only was able to get to the VA after “receiving poor care through our medical clinic.” While Nuite said that people in command “did try to be supportive,” after writing the order of protection, they didn’t know what to do.
There’s currently a more proactive approach and an effort to be “better with our data,” according to Lewis.
“We’re now talking to each other and we’re now trying to get better data to share with each other to create efforts,” she said.
Lewis said she has heard both stories where she can’t believe how a survivor’s report of assault was handled and those that were “done well.”
“After the whole Fort Hood incident, they had that independent review committee that came up with all these new initiatives, right?” Lewis said. “And prevention is a huge thing. And now they’re giving us a huge prevention workforce. They’re hiring all these other state SARCs so that there’s more of these people doing the work.”
That said, Lewis believes there’s a shift in the right direction.
“The way we talk is different. It’s not like it’s perfect, but it’s way better … It’s small changes,” Lewis said. “I think our biggest, at least within Utah National Guard, is really getting that leadership buy in. But maybe we’re not having these conversations enough at the higher levels. And I think that we’re trying to help that happen.”
Shelton said that over the years, she has seen more comfortability surrounding the willingness to have conversations related to sexual assault.
“And when you can reach that point where you are willing to have open dialogue, that’s when you can really start seeing change being made,” she said. “It’s taken us a long time to get to that point.”
Going forward, Nuite said she would like to see “more documentation” in the Guard when it comes to how assault allegations are handled.
“I know for the technician program, if you get an equal opportunity complaint against you, they’re supposed to put it on your appraisal, essentially,” Nuite said. “And even if it’s just a complaint, that should obviously show that either there’s an issue with professionalism, or there’s an issue with you being able to work with somebody else.”
She also said people should have “better advocates” and a stronger reporting system.
“When I went unrestricted on the reporting system, and I put that person’s name in the box, that’s supposed to be like, if I’ve done nothing, if I’ve gotten nothing out of this, if I’m losing my career, if he ever does that to anybody else, his name should come back up and then I could be the advocate that I didn’t have,” she said. “But they should have something for like any situation that happens.”
If you are a survivor of sexual assault, contact the DOD Safe Helpline at safehelpline.org or (877) 995-5247. The helpline is available 24/7.
Editor’s note: The version of this article that was published in the second-quarter print edition incorrectly spelled Matt Palmisano’s last name. The error has been corrected in this version of the article.Read comments