‘A Poison in the System’: The Epidemic of Military Sexual Assault
Pfc. Florence Shmorgoner woke up one afternoon in 2015 and realized that she was in someone else’s bed in someone else’s room. Something was …
Pfc. Florence Shmorgoner woke up one afternoon in 2015 and realized that she was in someone else’s bed in someone else’s room. Something was wrong. The 19-year-old had been playing video games in her friend’s room in the barracks with the door open — the rule at their base at Twentynine Palms in California was that if male and female Marines were together in the same room, the door had to be left open. Although it was midafternoon, at some point she had dozed off on his bed. Now the door was closed, and her friend was groping her. She felt as if she was having an out-of-body experience, as if she was watching what was happening but not actually experiencing it. He took off her clothes and penetrated her.
Afterward, she got off the bed and couldn’t look at him. “I told him, ‘You know I didn’t want to,’” she recalls. “And I remember this distinctly — he goes, ‘I know.’”
Shmorgoner left, went back to her room and tried to scrub her skin raw in the shower. It didn’t occur to her to tell anyone what had happened, and she didn’t particularly want to. She was the only woman in the training course she was taking to become a computer-and-telephone-repair technician, and she didn’t get along with the few other women she had met in her barracks — women in the Marines often felt a competitive animosity toward one another, Shmorgoner says. She also didn’t know what resources were available to Marines in the aftermath of sexual assault. “I don’t remember that we were told who the victim advocate was when I was in Twentynine Palms,” she says. “I really didn’t have the resources to report if I wanted to.”
Shmorgoner fell into a deep depression. She saw her assailant a few times a week — they lived in the same building and used the same gym — and he acted as if nothing had happened. She was terrified that she would be attacked again, either by him or someone else. “Even walking from my room to where we ate, the chow hall — it was a task I had to prep myself for every day. It was almost a sit-down conversation with myself of, OK, it’s time to go to the chow hall. You’re going to pass all of these males and you need to prepare yourself. Just look down and keep walking,” Shmorgoner told me.
Soon, her fear gave way to self-loathing. She woke up every morning angry that she’d woken up at all. She began to believe that she deserved the attack and that the world would be better off without her. “It kind of tied back into the misogynistic view of myself,” she says. “I’m not as fast. I’m not as strong. It was a very weird rabbit hole that I went down of, well, maybe it was my fault. And maybe I was asking for it. And maybe I’m the bad person, and I’m the burden. And I’m just better off gone.”
Over the next four years, Shmorgoner tried to kill herself six times. She can still feel the scars on her wrists, but they are now mostly hidden by tattoos. Somehow, she always stopped just short of cutting deeply enough to die. “I don’t know what stopped me,” she says. “I was very prepared and pretty unafraid to take my own life.” Shmorgoner bore the pain and trauma of her rape without telling anyone, all while deploying to Bahrain, Japan and Australia as a computer-and-telephone technician and then returning to the United States to work on Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego in the same role.
In 2017, she met Ecko Arnold, another Marine who had also been sexually assaulted while on active duty. “Everything she told me about herself, I saw it in myself,” she recalls. That’s when Shmorgoner, whose friends call her Shmo, finally opened up. She told Arnold what happened, and Arnold encouraged Shmorgoner to report her rape. Shmorgoner first filed what in the military is called a restricted report in October 2017. This category of report allows a complainant to disclose what happened and receive counseling and health care, but the details remain confidential, with no investigation pursued. A month later, she filed an unrestricted report, too, initiating a rape investigation.
The Naval Criminal Investigative Service (N.C.I.S.) then began investigating. Shmorgoner had to tell the investigating agent, over and over again and in painstaking detail, what she could remember from that afternoon. By that point, her assailant was in Hawaii, and N.C.I.S. organized and recorded a phone call between her and the perpetrator to see if he would confess to the rape. The agent coached her on what to say and how to say it. It was the first time she had an extended conversation with her assailant since the assault, and she was terrified. “That was probably the most difficult thing I’ve ever done,” she says.
Shmorgoner started the telephone conversation casually, asking him about Hawaii and his job. Then she shifted the conversation to the assault. “I told him: ‘Hey, that really hurt me. I didn’t want to, we weren’t romantically involved,’” she says. “He ended up apologizing and said, ‘I’m sorry.’” An N.C.I.S. officer who was in the room with her signaled that she’d gotten what they needed and that she could end the call.
At this point, Shmorgoner assumed that the case was clear-cut — they had a recorded confession in hand. She was floored when a Marine commander and the N.C.I.S. recommended against a court-martial. They told her that, despite the confession, her assailant’s character witnesses had said good things about him and there was no physical evidence to prove that a rape had happened. They warned Shmorgoner that a court-martial would probably be hard on her and that she might not want to go through with it because it was unlikely to end with a conviction. (N.C.I.S. declined to comment for this article, referring all questions to the Marine commandant’s office, which confirmed that N.C.I.S. investigated the case and that a commander recommended against a court-martial but would not confirm that there was a recorded confession. Shmorgoner declined to name her assailant, so The Times was unable to contact him for comment.)
Shmorgoner was heartbroken and confused, but she agreed — she didn’t want to go through a trial if it was only going to end in an acquittal. And she had seen what had happened to Arnold after reporting her assault and transferring. “She was sexually harassed,” Shmorgoner says. “There were things that people said about her that were beyond awful.” One male colleague, she remembers, told Arnold that she deserved what happened to her.
Shmorgoner then asked N.C.I.S. if the military could at least take some kind of administrative action against her perpetrator. Again, she says, she was told no.
The rape investigation was closed in 2018, and Shmorgoner says her attacker was able to serve out his Marine contract and receive an honorable discharge. She fell deeper into depression and despair. “My viewpoint of the Marine Corps really changed from then on, to it’s an institution that doesn’t really look after the people that comprise it,” she recalls. “We’re not in the business of taking care of people — it seemed to me that we were in the business of using them.”
For decades, sexual assault and harassment have festered through the ranks of the armed forces with military leaders repeatedly promising reform and then failing to live up to those promises. Women remain a distinct minority, making up only 16.5 percent of the armed services, yet nearly one in four servicewomen reports experiencing sexual assault in the military, and more than half report experiencing harassment, according to a meta-analysis of 69 studies published in 2018 in the journal Trauma, Violence & Abuse. (Men are victims of assault and harassment, too, though at significantly lower rates than women.) One key reason troops who are assaulted rarely see justice is the way in which such crimes are investigated and prosecuted. Under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, military commanders decide whether to investigate and pursue legal action — responsibilities that in the civilian world are overseen by dedicated law enforcement.
Some politicians have been fighting, and failing, for years to change these military laws. Every year since 2013, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York has introduced legislation to move the decision to prosecute major military crimes, including sex crimes, out of the hands of commanders and into those of independent prosecutors. And every year, it has failed to move forward. Historically, the Pentagon has vehemently opposed the idea, saying that it would undermine institutional leadership. During a 2019 Senate hearing, Vice Adm. John G. Hannink, judge advocate general of the Navy, testified that removing authority over serious crimes from commanders “would have a detrimental impact on the ability of those commanders — and other commanders — to ensure good order and discipline.”
But this year has seen the arrival of a new administration, the end of a 20-year war in Afghanistan and the United States military’s reckoning with many of the politically heated questions also being debated across America, including demands to change the names of bases named after Confederate leaders, accusations of racial bias and sexism across the armed services and right-wing backlash over the supposed teaching of “critical race theory” to service members. It’s a combination of events that could help shepherd into the Pentagon some of the most significant policy reforms in a generation.
The bill that Gillibrand reintroduced in April, the Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act, has far more bipartisan support than ever. In May, Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, indicated that he no longer opposes the bill. Senator Joni Ernst, a Republican from Iowa, a sexual-assault survivor and a retired lieutenant colonel in the National Guard, is now co-sponsoring the legislation, after previously opposing it. Ernst has said that she had a change of heart because she spent years working to address the issue of military sexual assault within the existing system, yet “we are not seeing a dent in the numbers.”
At least 70 senators and President Biden have indicated their support for Gillibrand’s bill this year. But it still faces staunch opposition from the leaders of the Armed Services Committee — Senators Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island, and James M. Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma. Reed blocked an attempt by Gillibrand in May to bring the bill to a floor vote, saying that he found the legislation too broad because it seeks to change how the military handles all serious crimes, not just sexual assaults. In July, a bill with provisions put forward by both Gillibrand and Reed was incorporated into the annual defense bill, the National Defense Authorization Act, which will most likely be taken up by Congress for a vote later this year.
Yet support for change is also now coming from the Pentagon itself. In late April, a Pentagon-organized independent commission on military sexual assault made the first of a series of recommendations to Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III that included removing commanders from prosecutorial decisions for sexual-assault and related crimes. In a statement in late June, Austin said that he supported this recommendation, and in early July, Biden said that he, too, supported the change.
Col. Don Christensen, a retired chief Air Force prosecutor who is now president of Protect Our Defenders, a nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing rape and sexual assault in the military, says that this year is different in large part because of the murder of Specialist Vanessa Guillén, whose body was found in Texas in June 2020. Guillén had reportedly been sexually harassed by a fellow soldier before her death, and an Army investigation revealed a culture of harassment and bullying at Fort Hood where she was based. “The independent review of what was going on at Fort Hood was incredibly damning,” Christensen told me. In April 2021, according to The Intercept, the Army also had to suspend 22 instructors from Fort Sill in Oklahoma after a trainee was sexually assaulted.
If these policy changes move forward, prosecutions will no longer be at the whim of commanders and influenced so easily by military politics. Decisions may happen faster, too, Christensen says; right now, prosecutorial decisions go up the chain of commanders one by one, culminating in a final decision made by a commander of senior rank, which can take many months. But these prosecutorial reforms won’t eradicate the military’s sexual-assault problem, because the issue is rooted in military culture, not its justice system. “I hope it makes an impact, but I’m not sure,” says Col. Ellen Haring, a retired Army officer and research fellow at the nonprofit Service Women’s Action Network, which advocates for improved policies that affect women in the military. “It doesn’t get to the root problem, which is, why are the assaults happening in the first place?”
Sexual assault is often the initial signal event in a long line of painful traumas that can culminate in post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and suicide. In a 2019 study, scientists at the Denver Veterans Affairs Medical Center, the University of Utah and the University of Colorado surveyed more than 300 servicewomen and female veterans who had experienced a sexual assault and found that 29 percent were currently contemplating suicide. From 2007 to 2017, the age-adjusted suicide rate among women veterans rose by 73 percent; according to Department of Defense data, in 2019, women accounted for 31 percent of all suicide attempts among active-duty service members.
Because a military sexual assault triggers multiple traumas, victims frequently experience feelings of betrayal, isolation and worthlessness that can sap them of the will to keep going. For one thing, military sexual assaults happen in an environment in which, multiple surveys show, women feel they are repeatedly treated as if they don’t belong. And women are typically assaulted by the men they serve with — sometimes even their direct superiors — so they have to continually see and work with their assailants, wondering if it will happen again.
After their attacks, victims also rarely see justice. Of the more than 6,200 sexual-assault reports made by United States service members in fiscal year 2020, only 50 — 0.8 percent — ended in sex-offense convictions under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, roughly one-third as many convictions as in 2019. It’s unclear why sexual-assault convictions have gone down, but it’s part of a much larger trend: Courts-martial dropped by 69 percent from 2007 to 2017, according to Military Times, perhaps because commanders are instead choosing administrative punishments, which are bureaucratically easier but also result in milder punishments for the perpetrators, such as deductions in rank or administrative discharges.
Even when convicted, perpetrators often don’t spend time in prison. “Many people don’t receive a single day of confinement,” Christensen says. He pointed to the case of Brock Turner, the Stanford swimmer who was convicted of three counts of sexual assault but spent only three months in prison. “The uproar that was caused in California and across the nation by his sentence is kind of a weekly occurrence in the military,” he says. “That’s the lie that is perpetrated before Congress constantly — that ‘Oh, commanders are crushing these people. They want to hold them accountable,’” Christensen adds. “No, they don’t.”
Many service members leave the military soon after experiencing sexual trauma — and not voluntarily. Not only are military rapists rarely punished, but their victims are often punished for reporting what happened. According to a 2018 survey of active-duty service members by the Department of Defense, 38 percent of servicewomen who reported their assaults experienced professional retaliation afterward.
From 2009 to 2015, more than 22 percent of service members who left the military after reporting a sexual assault received a less-than-fully-honorable discharge, according to a 2016 investigation by the Department of Defense’s Office of the Inspector General. That’s nearly one and a half times more than the percentage of overall service members who received less-than-fully-honorable discharges from 2002 to 2013, according to data compiled in a March 2016 report by Swords to Plowshares, a veterans advocacy group.
Although veterans can apply to change their discharge status, it’s typically a long and losing battle: It can take up to 24 months for discharge-review boards to decide on a case, according to a report published by the Veterans Legal Clinic at the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School in 2020. On average, fewer than 15 percent of discharge-upgrade requests across the military were approved in fiscal year 2018, the report found.
Called bad-paper discharges, these administrative separations can cut veterans off from jobs and V.A. services, as well as education benefits via the G.I. Bill. (Veterans can apply to get a character-of-service upgrade to access V.A. health care, but few are granted.) Since 2010, the V.A. has been required by law to provide health care services to any veteran who has experienced a military sexual assault, regardless of discharge or disability status — but in reality, many are turned away and told they’re ineligible. The 2020 Veterans Legal Clinic report found that the V.A. has denied services to as many as 400,000 potentially eligible veterans. “They’re summarily just kicked out,” says Rose Carmen Goldberg, a California lawyer who for years represented veterans who survived military sexual trauma. “It is very, very frustrating.”
The original assault, the absence of a reliable system of justice and the lingering isolation can send victims into spirals of anger and self-blame and cause them to self-medicate with alcohol or drugs. They are twice as likely as other women veterans to later experience intimate-partner violence. (After her assault, Shmorgoner herself was in a relationship with a man who became abusive.) Women veterans who suffer a military sexual assault are also roughly twice as likely as other women veterans to become homeless. Yet many don’t “realize what the pain they were experiencing stemmed from,” says Sara Kintzle, a research professor in the University of Southern California Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, so they don’t know what kind of help they need.
Even when veterans can get V.A. health care, they don’t always feel safe enough to pursue it. In many V.A. clinics, women find themselves surrounded by men, some of whom harass and assault them, compounding their traumas: A 2019 study found that one in four female veterans was harassed by other veterans during visits to V.A. health care facilities.
In September 2019, Andrea N. Goldstein, then a lead staff member for the Women Veterans Task Force on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee and a reserve Navy intelligence officer, was assaulted at the V.A. Medical Center in Washington while she was waiting for a smoothie at the center’s cafe. As she recalls, a man approached her, pressed his body against her and told her she looked like she could use a good time. When she later reported the incident, no charges were brought against the man, and Curtis Cashour, then the V.A. deputy assistant secretary for public and intergovernmental affairs, told a journalist to dig into her past and see if she had made similar allegations before.
“There’s this very real life-or-death situation,” Goldstein says, “where if women are being deferred from care because they’re getting harassed, or even physically assaulted, they’re not accessing life-saving care.”
Seven women and a service dog in training named Jax sat in a circle on the floor of a dark, sparsely furnished cabin at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, N.Y. Everyone was crying, and every few minutes a box of tissues slid across the floor for moral support. The women had come from all around the country in June 2019 to attend an annual healing retreat for survivors of military sexual assault.
Kellie-Lynn Shuble in front of her storage locker in Coraopolis, Pa., in July. She was harassed and assaulted throughout her time in the Army.Credit…Danna Singer for The New York Times
These women and others in attendance used aliases with me during the retreat, introducing themselves as the adjectives they thought described them: Joyful, Caring, Grateful, Awesome, Lovely, Crazy Cool, Sassy and Diva, sunny names that belied the deep pain they all were clearly experiencing. Over the two days I was there, many of the women opened up and told me their real names.
At this gathering on the second day, the first veteran to talk was Kellie-Lynn Shuble, a 47-year-old former Army combat medic who was sitting cross-legged in a green T-shirt. Her voice shaking, Shuble told the group how she’d first been sexually harassed by a lieutenant colonel — although she reported it, he went on to be promoted — and then, while deployed in Kuwait and Iraq, she was raped three times by different soldiers. She never reported those assaults. Given how the Army had handled her harassment investigation, she felt it would be useless, and she feared retaliation.
On her third deployment, in August 2006, she suffered her final assault, which would lead to her discharge. While outside filling sandbags, she got into a disagreement with a first sergeant over a Gatorade. Suddenly, he ordered her to get on her knees, pressed the barrel of a loaded handgun against her forehead and started unbuckling his pants. He demanded she perform oral sex.
Shuble said she then stood up and told him, “If you’re going to shoot me, you better shoot me now and you will have to shoot me in the back.” Immediately after that, Shuble told a peer what happened and that person reported her for threatening to kill the first sergeant. Within 72 hours, Shuble said, she was on a military transport plane back to the United States. There, she was medically evaluated and eventually deemed unfit for service. She didn’t fight the decision for the same reasons that she hadn’t reported the men who assaulted her. (The Army would not comment on the harassment investigation, but a spokesperson said that “there is no place in the Army for corrosive behaviors like sexual harassment and assault.”)
After leaving the Army, Shuble struggled. Over the nearly 13 years she spent as a soldier, she picked up many military-style mannerisms — talking loudly, cursing, standing erect with her feet planted wide — all of which made it harder to transition back to civilian life. She was told by those around her that she was too brash, too different, and that made her feel more isolated and alone.
Later that summer, Kate Hendricks Thomas, a Marine veteran and a behavioral-medicine researcher at George Mason University, told me how difficult the transition into civilian life can be for women. “When I left the military, on one of my first job interviews, I was criticized for my handshake being too firm,” Thomas said. “I gave a talk and my stance was a little too wide to be feminine and somebody said, ‘You look like you’re standing funny.’” Kintzle, the U.S.C. professor, agrees: “The kind of characteristics that the military fosters aren’t necessarily characteristics that the civilian world celebrates in women,” she said.
Shuble’s experience was also made harder by the PTSD she developed from her sexual and combat traumas. She described her PTSD as two monkeys clinging to her back that she couldn’t reach to throw off. “You’re carrying that extra 50 pounds every day — sleeping, dreaming, waking — with everything you do,” she said. She is angry a lot. She often can’t sleep. She has considered suicide. She was homeless for about a year and a half, the only woman living in a veterans’ sanctuary with her service dog.
In 2011, the Veterans Benefits Administration lowered the threshold of evidence for veterans to “prove” they were sexually assaulted, which helps them qualify for PTSD-related disability benefits. A 2018 report by the V.A. Inspector General found that the agency nevertheless denied 46 percent of all medical claims related to military sexual-trauma-induced PTSD and that nearly half of those denied claims were improperly processed.
For women at the Omega retreat, the military had won their trust and allegiance and then betrayed them over and over again, fueling feelings of doubt and shame and making them second-guess their self-worth. “When the organization lets you down in that profound way — I feel like that’s one of the reasons the trauma is so powerful, because it gets at the core of identity,” Thomas said.
When veterans do access V.A. treatment, they often improve, although some sexual-assault survivors find the recommended regimens difficult. One popular approach used by the V.A. to treat PTSD is prolonged-exposure therapy, which requires that veterans repeatedly revisit the trauma memory and recount it aloud in detail, which can be challenging for sexual-assault survivors. Another common treatment is cognitive-processing therapy, or C.P.T., which teaches veterans to identify and change inaccurate and distressing thoughts about each of their traumas. But Shuble, for one, found C.P.T. excruciating, because the therapy focused on one trauma at a time and she had experienced countless between her sexual traumas and her combat experiences. “It was awful,” she said. “It was not effective for me.”
The women at the Omega Institute were receiving a form of therapy developed by the psychologist Lori S. Katz, an energetic woman who has worked for the V.A. since 1991 and has run this retreat every year since 2015 (except during the pandemic) at the institute, which offers scholarships for room, board and tuition but not for travel costs. Her program, called Warrior Renew, is based in part on the idea that people process information both rationally and emotionally, and that permanent healing requires tapping into that emotional side through metaphors and imagery. Through this holistic approach, veterans learn to manage their trauma symptoms, resolve feelings of anger, self-blame and injustice, identify problematic patterns in their lives (such as harmful relationships) and cope with feelings of loss.
All trauma survivors, Katz explained to the women at the retreat, come back to the questions: Why did this happen to me? What did I do? “You look back at the event with hindsight, and you say: ‘I should never have gone in this car. I should never have agreed to do that. What’s wrong with me? I’m so stupid.’ And we blame ourselves. We inevitably come to that,” Katz said. The women in the room, some of whom were crying, all nodded along. Military commanders sometimes blame victims for their assaults, too, compounding the problem. “There’s a focus on ‘Well, what was she doing? What was she wearing?’ And that has nothing to do with what happened,” Katz said.
Perhaps most important, the Warrior Renew program occurs in a group setting, where the women can bond and build relationships that will help prevent them from feeling isolated enough to act on suicidal thoughts. “One of the things that can thwart that risk is connection,” Katz said to the women at the retreat. “You guys have a connection, and you have a new family and people who do understand it. That’s a really important part of the healing.” As one of the women at the retreat, who called herself Awesome, said to the group at one point, “We’re queens, and we’re here to fix each other’s crowns.”
Shuble had never shared her assaults with a group before, and when she finished, she could hardly speak. The room was buzzing with grief, with pride, with anger. All of the women in the room believed her — it was as if they were giving Shuble, for the first time, a steady foundation on which to rest her heavy and unsteady pain. With tears streaming down her face, Shuble turned to Katz and thanked her. “It’s been the first real healing that I’ve gotten,” she said.
Next, a woman named Jessica raised her hand. She told the group about the time she jumped off a second-floor balcony and shattered her pelvis to escape a Navy sailor who was trying to kill her. Shelly, a blond woman with wide-set eyes and pink sneakers, spoke up, saying that she was tied up, threatened with a razor blade and raped in Japan on a Navy deployment when she was 19; even though she reported it the next day, her assailant walked. Linda, a quiet woman with short highlighted hair, described being raped multiple times in service, including by commanders and an Army chaplain.
By the end of the Omega session, the floor was freckled with tear-soaked tissues, and Katz spoke up. “You’re brilliant and you’re beautiful and you’re strong and you’ve got a voice and you are anything but worthless,” she said to the women, who nodded in response, some more convincingly than others. Then, quietly, she asked how many of the seven women in the circle had considered suicide. Every hand went up. She asked how many had actually acted on it, and four of the seven raised their hands.
What the women kept coming back to in the discussions were not the specific horrific assaults they had endured, but the ways in which the military had failed them over and over again — and the ways in which these failings had shaped their lives and identities years, even decades, later. Many of the women were stuck in cycles of self-blame that caused them to make terrible choices; most suffered from mental and physical disabilities that made it hard for them to function or hold a job.
Jennifer Leigh Johnson, a Navy veteran, may end up paralyzed because of her gang rape by fellow servicemen in Bahrain 20 years ago: The assault injured her back so badly that she was given steroid injections for the pain, yet as a side-effect of these injections, she developed a rare degenerative spinal disease. (Lt. Cmdr. Patricia Kreuzberger, a Navy spokeswoman, would not comment on Johnson’s case, but said by email that the service “continually strives to foster an environment of dignity and respect, where sexual assault and sexual harassment are never tolerated, condoned or ignored.” )
“Trauma doesn’t scare me anymore,” Johnson said one evening while lying on the floor on a pile of pillows. “It’s surviving the trauma that scares the [expletive] out of me. Because the four hours,” she said, referring to the rape, “yeah — that was horrible and hurtful. But it ended. This never ends.”
Under increasing pressure and scrutiny, the military and the V.A. have been taking some steps to better support survivors of sexual trauma. Since 2011, service members who experience military sexual assault and file an unrestricted report can request a transfer to a new unit or installation, as Arnold, Shmorgoner’s friend, did, so they don’t have to work and live with their rapists. Since 2013, service members also have the option of asking for special victims’ counsels, who provide them with information, resources and support after sexual assault. But according to Goldberg, there aren’t enough of these counselors, so they tend to be overwhelmed and unable to give each case the attention it deserves. “I’ve heard anecdotally about victims just not being able to reach their special victims’ counsel, not having enough time with them, not really getting to benefit from the program,” she says.
The V.A. is also trying to reach and support more veterans who have experienced military sexual trauma. It has mailed out more than 475,000 letters to veterans with other-than-honorable discharges informing them of available V.A. services. With a universal screening program, the V.A. now asks every veteran receiving health care whether they experienced a sexual trauma during service, and those who did are told about the support they can receive. There are also now designated veterans service representatives, located within five central offices, who specialize in processing military sexual-trauma-related claims, and the V.A. has eliminated follow-up phone calls that could retraumatize veterans.
In January 2021, President Trump signed into law the Deborah Sampson Act, a comprehensive bill named after the woman who posed as a man during the Revolutionary War in order to serve in the Continental Army. The law includes provisions to monitor and address sexual harassment and sexual assault at V.A. health centers, and requires V.A. centers to make it easier for women to report harassment or assault; it also requires V.A. employees to report harassment they observe (and be punished if they don’t). The department “is committed to a culture rooted in our mission and core values where everyone is treated with civility, compassion and respect. Everyone should feel welcomed and safe when doing business with V.A.,” a spokesperson for the V.A. said in a statement.
If Gillibrand’s bill becomes law, it will herald a major shift — a voting out of the old way of doing things, and an admission by the government that the military-justice system must finally change. It won’t, however, be a panacea. If independent military prosecutors, rather than commanders, handle the prosecutorial decision-making process, more accused rapists and other assailants may be brought to court-martial. But without sentencing reform, they may not ultimately be held more accountable.
For that, the military will need a pervasive shift in its culture and the mind-set of its leaders. Yet Christensen, the retired Air Force lawyer, says that in recent months he has noticed increasing backlash against the notion that servicewomen are being mistreated and deserve more respect. “There’s been a poison in the system — of disbelief,” he says, and some in the military now argue that the push for reform reflects nothing but a politically correct, anti-male witch hunt. Shmorgoner says she noticed these reactions, too. Men, she suggests, are “angry that women are finally standing up for themselves.”
Looking back, Shmorgoner says that perhaps she should have expected what happened to her. She was warned about the Marine Corps before she joined — by her recruiter.
Shmorgoner grew up with a passion for riding horses, competing in show-jumping events from age 7. But after graduating from high school in 2014, she decided that instead of continuing to compete, she wanted to serve her country. Her parents emigrated from the Soviet Union to the United States before she was born, and she felt joining the military was “almost a way to thank them for giving me this opportunity to live here,” she says. She made an appointment to meet with a Marine recruiter. “I think I was the very first female that he put in the Marine Corps,” she says. “He sat me down, and he told me, ‘You’re going to have a rough time.’” Yet Shmorgoner didn’t understand — she thought he was either patronizing her or using reverse psychology. “He was genuinely trying to warn me,” she says, “and I thought it was a challenge.”
The only reason she re-enlisted after the rape investigation was to encourage other women in her situation to report — just as learning about Arnold’s assault helped her come forward. “I thought, Maybe I could do that for someone else,” she says. Almost immediately, a woman was transferred into her battalion because of a sexual assault. “Within like three days of her arriving, her noncommissioned officers were giving her a hard time and making her feel as though she was a problem,” Shmorgoner recalls. But Shmorgoner was there, ready to support her.
Two years ago, Shmorgoner’s PTSD symptoms started affecting her more at work after she transferred to Camp Pendleton in California. On bad days, she would have six or seven panic attacks: Her heart would race, she would start visibly shaking and she would sit behind her desk trying to make herself as small as possible. Sometimes these attacks came on randomly; other times they were triggered by seeing a male Marine who resembled her assailant. Every time she started working with a new unit or under a new commander, she had to tell them about her assault and PTSD so they would understand her panic attacks, as well as her propensity to close and lock her office door when she worked. “It was just so exhausting mentally and emotionally,” she says, to have to explain “why I am the way I am.”
Around the same time, she started receiving intensive therapy to treat her depression, anxiety and PTSD. That was only because she was asked to complete a mental-health history form and filled out portions she wasn’t supposed to — sections intended for her superiors — which included questions about prior suicide attempts. “I just checked the boxes, for ‘all of the above,’ and I sent it up to my leadership, and they pulled me aside,” she recalls. “I was like, ‘Yeah, this is what happened.’”
The military, she says, can be blind to mental health issues because they simmer unseen beneath the surface. Mental health is often treated as a joke, as an aspect of military life that is kind of beside the point. When colleagues asked her how she was doing, she would sometimes say, “I wake up every day wishing I didn’t.” But everyone always assumed she was just trying to be funny. In the Marine Corps, “We joke about suicide in a very odd, dysfunctional and, frankly, toxic way,” she says.
In April 2020, Shmorgoner’s psychologist recommended that she be medically evaluated by the Marine Corps to determine if her PTSD was interfering with her ability to do her job. “I didn’t even feel comfortable standing duty,” Shmorgoner says, referring to having to work alone to guard the front desk of the barracks for 24 hours straight. “And with the suicidal ideations, they didn’t want me armed while on duty by myself.”
The results of the evaluation, which took longer than usual because of the pandemic, came back in early May of this year: The Marine Corps deemed her unfit for service because of her PTSD and eligible for medical retirement with V.A. benefits. At first, the news felt like yet another punishment for having been raped. Shmorgoner joined the Marine Corps hoping to stay in service for 20 years. Then she was assaulted, and everything unraveled — while her assailant suffered no apparent consequences. “My life has changed significantly over the last six years, and from everything that I know, his life has not,” she says. “I’m still kind of stuck picking up the pieces.”
Shmorgoner officially left the Marines in June. And although she is disappointed and angry and misses her colleagues, she’s relieved to get a fresh start. Earlier this year, Shmorgoner got married to a fellow Marine with two children who has since left the military. In July, she landed her dream job as a horse trainer at a training-and-breeding facility in Maryland, and she’s becoming close with the other women she works with. She is finding it easier to befriend civilian women than the women she met in the Marines. “I don’t think any of us meant to, but we all had a kind of a metaphorical wall up with our emotions — just because we were taught that that’s how Marines should be,” she explains. The women she has met this summer, on the other hand, seem willing to “build friendships and to be emotionally available.” She has also started seeing a therapist through the local V.A. Being so far removed from the Marine environment is helping her heal. “I’ve noticed I’ve gotten quite a bit better,” she says. She has been having fewer panic attacks, as few as one a day.
The biggest noticeable change came a few weeks ago. A man catcalled her while she was walking to a gas station, shouting, “Hey, mama, how you doing?” It was something that in the past would have immediately triggered a panic attack. This time, she felt anxious and gripped her keys, but she didn’t falter. “I just kept walking.”
If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK). You can find a list of additional resources at SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources.
Melinda Wenner Moyer is a contributing editor at Scientific American magazine and a regular contributor to The New York Times, The Washington Post and other publications. Her first book, “How to Raise Kids Who Aren’t Assholes,” was published in July. Danna Singer is an American photographer based in Philadelphia. In 2020, she was named a Guggenheim fellow; she currently holds the position of lecturer at the Yale School of Art and Rowan University.