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Midwest Service Members Are Tackling Sexual Assault Within The Ranks

Heather Sexton
Heather Sexton served for 10 years in the Missouri Army National Guard.

Sexual assault remains a serious problem within the U.S. military, despite repeated efforts in Congress and the armed forces over the past five years to address it.

The Defense Department’s latest report estimated 20,500 service members were sexually assaulted in 2018, the highest number in four years. Many service members complain they face retaliation when they try to report the abuse, while nothing happens to the alleged perpetrators.

Now, a Kansas City-area woman and a St. Louis-area woman are sharing their stories as part of a larger national movement to bring attention to the crisis and demand solutions.

“I do agree there is a culture of almost protecting people or sweeping it under the rug instead of actually looking into the issue and trying to fix it,” says Heather Sexton, a St. Louis County survivor who spoke to KCUR’s Up to Date.

Sexton was a captain who served 10 years in the Missouri Army National Guard. She reported that she was sexually assaulted in 2017 by a junior service member under her charge.  An investigative team validated her claim of sexual contact but said it could not determine the perpetrator’s intent.

“Even my lawyer was pretty upset about it,” recalled Sexton, who has since left the National Guard. She wonders what good it does to validate service members’ complaints if no punishment occurs for misconduct.  “It completely broke my trust,” she said, “not just in people that I thought were my friends in the military but also in humanity as a whole.”

Marine Corps veteran Kelsey Harbor, of Overland Park, says she endured a series of military sexual incidents “where I was either coerced, attacked, hazed or alienated.”

One of those incidents, she said, involved waking up to a male Marine from her platoon on top of her. She says she reported it but the perpetrator received an honorable discharge.

She told Up to Date that she served 16 months from September 2009 to 2011 before she got what she described as a “retaliatory discharge” from the military. She believes her discharge was retaliation because it came right after she tried to report an incident.

“Previously when I went to a senior female Marine, she told me this is a part of the culture and if I’m not able to get in line or fall in line then I signed up for the wrong branch,” Harbor said. “I felt robbed of the opportunity that I tried to make for my life. I wanted nothing more than to serve my country and protect people, but the people that were supposed to protect me violated me.”

KCUR reached out to the Department of Defense, which did not respond.

Harbor is now a civic engagement director for the Military Sexual Trauma Movement, a national non-profit organization that formed this year to protect service members and to advocate for survivors. 

Stories like those from Harbor and Sexton are not uncommon, said Deidra Hubay, a Marine Corps veteran who is the director of operations for the Military Sexual Trauma Movement. Hubay said she has not experienced sexual trauma herself but has seen how it has affected others, including male survivors.

“There are immense amounts of women and men that go through this type of trauma on a daily basis,” she said.

The Defense Department’s recent report, based on an anonymous survey, estimated 13,000 women and 7,500 men were sexually assaulted in 2018, up from 14,900 in 2016. Only about one in three alleged victims reported an assault.

In 2014, U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., sponsored a measure to crack down on the rising rate of assault and rapes in military ranks. Among other reforms, her measure eliminated the “good soldier” defense that took the accused’s service record into account.

McCaskill resisted proposals to remove the chain of command from prosecutions, but Hubay and Harbor argued more independence is needed for accountability. Their organization is pushing Congress to enact a victims’ bill of rights that includes investigations being conducted by an independent review board.

The organization works with military chains of command to provide comprehensive training and education. But its leaders also believe more independent oversight is needed. 

“In my view,” Harbor said, “the power that is given to the chain of command to investigate themselves needs to be moved to a private sector.”

Lynn Horsley is a freelance journalist and was a veteran reporter for The Kansas City Star. Follow her on Twitter @LynnHorsley.