Editor’s Note: Stephanie Flores (she/her) is a Navy veteran and communications manager for Common Defense, a veteran-led grassroots organization that promotes progressive values. She is an advocate in the areas of mental health, racial justice, immigration and power structures, and has served as Congressional Hispanic Caucus Public Policy Fellow, New Leaders Council Dallas Communications Chair, and New Virginia Majority Communications Director. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
Over more than three years as a Navy sailor, I bore a burden. I served during a time when the number of women in the armed forces was growing, but still saw firsthand the obstacles that exist for us as we serve our country and make history every day. Ten years removed from my time in active duty, those obstacles – and my story – are hardly relics of the past.
I can clearly remember, for example, a supervisor asking what my “Latina stripper name” would be and that it should be something “exotic.” I remember questions about supposed sexual favors – referenced with explicit, sexual language – I “must have given” in order to earn the qualifications I worked hard to achieve. I even remember the simple degradation of being tasked with the menial work my male counterparts didn’t want to do in our ship’s workshop. Those were some of the everyday aggressions I faced during my active-duty service, and those are some of the stories that defined my time in the United States Navy.
Looking back on that experience and those conditions, which would be unacceptable in any workplace, I recall approaching a superior to let him know how another supervisor treated me as a sailor, because I was a woman. To my dismay, I was told what many women in the military may have heard themselves: that supervisor “had been in the military for a while,” was “well-respected” and, as for me, well, “no one would believe me.” Worse yet, even if anyone did, I was told, “nothing would be done about it.”
At that moment, I felt discouraged from making a formal report. As a young sailor who didn’t fully understand my rights and who had seen how this sort of situation had played out in the past with other female shipmates, I came to terms with the idea that little could – or would – be done about my circumstances.
This is the reality facing women throughout the US military even today, and its impact on my physical health and well-being gave me a clear understanding of the dangers of sexism in the military.
Nearly two years into my service, I suffered a physical injury during a fire drill while performing a training exercise while out to sea, where I ripped the tendons inside my right wrist. I cried in pain after more than a week taking pain medication to no avail, but a Navy doctor assigned to my ship would not fly me out to a hospital and offered little more than a scoff at my circumstances.
“This is the reason why I never agreed with having females in the military. Y’all cry too much!” he said.
Those are words I will never forget.
Twelve years later, and after receiving surgery on my wrist and arm to repair severe nerve and tendon damage, I continue to face physical complications as a result of the negligence and sexism of that Navy doctor. Twelve years later, the mental toll remains, as well.
Yet my story – from the daily degradation to the medical sexism that’s left a lasting mark even today – is but a single example of the blatant sexism occurring too often in our armed forces today. I am just one of thousands of women who face or have faced this kind of adversity in our ranks. While it’s embarrassing that I need to say it, it should be understood that sexism doesn’t just tear at women looking to serve their country with honor and dignity, it harms the mission of our armed forces.
Women who serve face high rates of sexual harassment and assault and gender discrimination, and often have fewer promotional opportunities than men as we battle harmful stereotypes that deem us as weaker or less capable than our male counterparts. For women of color, racism adds to the assault on our service and our being.
And the struggle women in uniform face don’t end at the conclusion of active duty. Women receive less support in the transition back to civilian life than men, leading to higher rates of homelessness post-duty. According to a 2017 report, service women who have experienced sexual violence are nine times more likely to develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) than civilians, and their chances of being homeless are four times greater.
It’s important to recognize the systemic affronts to basic human decency women may face, as well as the need for systemic change to the largest employer in the world.
It’s reassuring to know that Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin is taking the first steps our women, our armed services and our country need. He has promised to examine the epidemic of sexual assault and discrimination in America’s military. Now it’s time to hold him and the entire Department of Defense accountable to that promise, for the sake of the lives and livelihoods of women who serve everywhere. It’s also important to consider the firm steps toward justice that can be taken right away.
First, we must reform the current Navy’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Program (SAPR) and similar programs in other branches of the military. During orientation sessions, SAPR informs service members of their rights and responsibilities when it comes to sexual harassment and sexual assault. As anyone can tell from the Pentagon’s latest report, rates of sexual harassment and assault in the military continue to rise, and the SAPR and this orientation aren’t nearly enough. A reformed SAPR orientation must address gender-based discrimination, emphasize the commitment to taking reports of discrimination and harassment seriously, continue to encourage service members to come forward and report and focus more clearly on prevention.
Service members – enlisted and officers – must know what they can do to dismantle the culture and system that enables assault and harassment, and potential bad actors must know the consequences that would follow if they harm their fellow sailor, soldier, airman or marine.
Second, it’s time to shift the focus of the SAPR Victim Advocate Program to recruit and train a dedicated team of service member advocates – who themselves have personally experienced these issues – to provide a safe haven for service members to come forward and seek solutions together. The SAPR Victim Advocate Program as it stands is problematic: some of the people currently serving in these roles are perpetrators themselves and others re-victimize service members who decide to come forward.
And lastly, Secretary Austin should strongly support Congress passing the I am Vanessa Guillén Act of 2020, named after a soldier stationed at Fort Hood who was brutally killed last summer at a base with a command climate that Ryan D. McCarthy, the secretary of the Army, described as “permissive of sexual harassment and sexual assault.” The bill details strict policy changes that would encourage victims to come forward by changing how sexual harassment and sexual assault cases are reported, investigated and how offenders are punished. If we have a true zero-tolerance towards gender discrimination and sexual harassment to include demotion and dishonorable separation, this will create a precedent for others to think twice before engaging in these or worse behaviors.
Women have served their country for generations in some way or another, and there’s no better time to honor that service with a true commitment to healing and recognition of their sacrifices. For the sake of dignity, respect and our country’s cause of freedom and justice everywhere, let’s give women service members and veterans the support they deserve.