I had a chance to sit with former Air Force Chief Prosecutor Don Christensen to talk about Sexual Assault in the Armed forces – specifically the trends and causes which make this problem a truly "systemic" one, and perhaps more importantly, what can be done for survivors and to enact actual change for the future.
Colonel Don Christensen (Ret.) had a distinguished career in the Air Force. He served in every litigation position you can have in the legal side of our military, from trial counsel and defense counsel to military judge over a span of 23 years. His career history is complex and extensive, but needless to say. He knew his job well – perhaps too well. With over 150 courts-martial as a trial and defense counsel and over 100 presided as a military judge, I think we can assume the man knows military law.
To begin, "Don," as he prefers to be called, speaks calmly and quietly – more professor than a drill sergeant. I don't think I heard him curse or raise his voice once, yet he commanded complete respect from everyone around him.
What he shared with me was revealing and infuriating.
Last year (2021) was a record-breaking year for MST in the Armed Forces in all the worst ways. Sexual violence remains pervasive – close to 36,000 service members experience sexual violence (men and women), a jump of almost 35% from 2018 to 2021 and 13% from 2020. Retaliation is still happening and considered the statistical "norm." The conviction and prosecution rates are embarrassingly low and have plummeted since 2015 despite the continual increase in reports. Just 6.0% of cases were tried by court-martial (unrestricted), and only 2.8% were convicted of a nonconsensual sex offense.
I'll add the facts on United States Military Sexual Violence below for your reading "pleasure." By the way, before you start howling that this is some hit piece on the military – all the statistics I just quoted came from the DOD – they're the ones reporting these numbers – we're just pointing them out to you. And I love the military, but this makes me angry, and it should make you angry too.
To quote Don, "there's nothing anti-military about holding your armed services to a high standard. No one should feel afraid to serve their country."
And he's right -- isn't it enough to risk life, limb, and eyesight?
More than that, it's a National Security crisis bubbling up. Fewer and fewer young people are signing up, and not without cause. And more and more are leaving the military early. There are a host of reasons, not least of which is the horrible reputation the Armed Forces have developed on the MST front. With survivors coming forward publicly and shining a glaring stage light on the issue -- it's getting harder for recruiters or retention officers to say, "it's a fringe problem."
It's not. Most of us have one degree of separation from a survivor of MST. It's not enough to sweep this under the rug, especially when most cases are not peer-on-peer. But instead, higher-ranking NCOs and Officers commit these crimes and get away with them consistently.
Convicting sexual assault in the civilian world is complicated, and in the military? Damn near impossible. Prosecutors are removed from cases mid-investigation, they PCS to other duty stations, or are just moved to "higher priority trials." The same goes for investigators, by the way -- during the Vanessa Guillen investigation, the chief investigator P.C.S.'d mid-investigation. Um. What?
People talk. The cat is out of the bag. The silence train has sailed, and the cows have come home to roost. If my metaphors seem confused and wrong -- everything about this crisis is confusing and wrong.
Don opened up with an anecdote about a case he prosecuted of a high-ranking fighter pilot (I'm not naming names). In one of the few instances where the evidence left no doubt of guilt, the perpetrator, for once, was convicted. And then the case, along with the conviction, was thrown out by a higher authority -- not judicial, but a command decision. The General officer who convened the court-martial threw the conviction out. "We can't lose this man; he's a good pilot, etc." The good ol' boys club mentality kicked in, and the perpetrator walked. He was found guilty, and yet he walked. It's almost like the General expected the prosecution to fail, and why not?
Most times, they do, and not for lack of skill or passion.
Imagine your daughter getting raped. A jury convicts the rapist. And the boss of the rapist goes to the judge and says, "I need him, throw out the conviction." And they have to let him go and probably give him a medal too. This happened.
Since then, much has changed thanks to the uproar the case caused. So, even here, Don tells me, "there's the silver lining. We raised hell, it got congressional attention, and now commanders can't do that anymore."
I know what you're thinking, "man, the '70s and '80s were crazy." Wrong. This case occurred after 2010, less than 12 years ago.
Don was marginalized and became a bit of a leper to his superiors. He did the thing officers aren't ever allowed to do: he gave the DOD a black eye. You can rape a junior enlisted woman -- but embarrass the military by pointing out injustice? Too much. Even for a prosecutor, it seems.
Colonel Christensen retired shortly after that case and has been part of Protect our Defenders since.
Protect Our Defenders is a national human rights organization dedicated to ending sexual violence, victim retaliation, misogyny, sexual prejudice, and racism in the military and combating a culture that has allowed it to persist. And they do it all pro-bono. So if you think you don't have recourse or help outside the military: think again.
By the way, all of the things they are combatting DO exist, HAVE existed, and CONTINUE to exist. I was an Army Medic, and no one can accuse me of being "woke." Yet, I can 100% vouch that everything Protect our Defenders are fighting against is a genuine problem.
Ultimately the most surprising part of our conversation was that I walked away with the impression that things were moving in the right direction. At a glacial and frustrating pace, but ultimately, still moving.
Stories are getting out, and injustice has fewer places to hide. And people like Don and Protect our Defenders are connecting survivors to high-powered law firms with the resources and capabilities to take on these complex and challenging cases.
Please look into Protect our Defenders (links below) and connect any survivor of MST with them. Can they take ALL cases? No. But they will look into your case, and if it applies to their criteria, you can bet they'll ensure the survivor gets the justice they deserve.
Below is a list of resources, click here to watch the American Grit podcast with Col. Don Christensen.
I'll leave you with a quote, something that keeps reminding me about the reality of justice: "I guess the only time most people think about injustice is when it happens to them."
What is Military Sexual Trauma?
Military Sexual Trauma (MST) is an experience of sexual assault or sexual harassment during military service. Unlike the often talked about post-military mental health condition PTSD, MST is not a diagnosis or mental health condition. It is one of the highest forms of betrayal where those who are depended upon for survival end up violating their own colleagues or subordinates, breaking the social agreement of trust. The victim, while still in a dependent situation, is unable to confront or break ties with the perpetrator of the violation. This damages the victim’s well-being, self-concept, relationships and view of the world. Rape and interpersonal violence, which causes PTSD, is made even worse when it occurs in the military because of continued exposure and involvement with the perpetrator.
If you'd like more information or need resources, we've provided a list below to get you help help today.
American Grit Podcast w/ Janae Sergio
American Grit Podcast: #iamvanessaguillen
American Grit Podcast w/ Don Christensen
What is Military Sexual Trauma: By Janae Sergio
Pink Berets Foundation
Vanessa Guillen Foundation
Protect Our Defenders