Military sexual assault victims say the system is broken

Two women who made allegations spoke out to ABC News.

August 28, 2020, 5:06 AM

The death and alleged sexual harassment of Fort Hood soldier Vanessa Guillen prompted widespread calls for both justice and change.

The Army itself announced that five civilians would review the "command climate and culture" at Ford Hood after her killing, with Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy saying, "the Army is committed to taking care" of its soldiers, civilians, veterans and families.

Yet for some women in the military, it was a breaking point -- a story all too familiar, they said.

"These [sexual harassment or assault] cases are not handled properly and the follow-up care for the victim is not right," Kayla Kight, now a first lieutenant in the 322nd Civil Affairs Brigade, told ABC News in a recent telephone interview.

Earlier this year, ABC News profiled a former Army officer who said she was raped -- an event that she said began what she said was a long nightmare for her in the pursuit of justice, including having her trial moved at the last minute from civilian to military court. The suspect in her case was ultimately acquitted in a court martial.

Sexual harassment and assault in the military has been at the forefront of discussions for years as the military tries to address the problem and make it easier and safer for victims to report cases.

Out of the four branches, the Army and Navy had the highest reports of sexual assault, according to the most recent data from the Department of Defense (DoD).

In the fiscal year of 2019, there were 2,684 reports of sexual assault made by service members in the Army. In the Navy during that same time period, the number was 1,676. In total, there were 7,825 reports of sexual assault in all branches of the military, representing a 3% increase in the number of reports filed by or about military members during 2019. However, Pentagon officials have attributed annual increases to better awareness among service members about the importance in reporting assaults.

The 2019 report only provided a snapshot of sexual assault in the military because a much larger report, which is carried out every two years, measures whether the prevalence of sexual assault crimes in the military has gone down or up. That report, which was released last year, estimated that the number of sexual assaults increased from 14,900 in 2016 to 20,500 in 2018, almost the same levels as five years ago. Two years before the 2018 report, the Army reported a drop in numbers.

The DoD also notes that sexual assault remains "an underreported crime among both the civilian and military populations," therefore, the number of service members who have been sexually assaulted is likely higher than the reports.

The focus over the last year has been educating young enlisted service members, according to the Pentagon. The education initiative was solidified after a 2018 sexual assault prevalence report showed most assaults targeted female service members aged 17-24 years of age and that their assailants were male and mostly of the same age group.

'Have we failed this officer'

Kight said she was sexually assaulted as a new U.S. Army Nurse at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in June 2013. At the time, she was a second lieutenant and the man she accused, who ABC News is not naming, was a first lieutenant she met during her training.

Kight said she was driving him home because he was drunk after an evening out.

"I had never known this person before. I was just giving him a ride home," she said. "I was like why is this happening. I was just trying to do the right thing."

When Kight pulled up to the man's home, she said he tried to kiss her, allegedly telling her, "you know you want it."

After Kight said she turned her head and told him she was not interested, he began to touch her breasts, pulling one out and fondling her.

"That's when I froze," Kight said. "I didn't know what he could physically do to me so I kind of froze."

After about 30 seconds of what Kight described as him assaulting her, she said she managed to put him in a chokehold and kicked him out of the car.

Kight said in those last moments she felt in control of the situation.

PHOTO: Kayla Kight said she felt the system was working against her after reporting.
Kayla Kight said she felt the system was working against her after reporting.
Kayla Kight

It was the last time she would feel that, she said.

What followed, Kight said, was multiple transfers, a dropped case and a lack of support for the trauma she says she experienced.

"I didn't get a good solid chance at a career because I was always starting over," she said.

In a 2017 email between commanders about Kight's case obtained by ABC News, a colonel writes, "When [Kight] left my office she stated, 'I could have been a great Army Nurse if I had the chance...maybe I shouldn't have reported it.' This statement deeply saddens me."

"What bothers me, however, is the question: 'Have we failed this officer?'" the colonel, writing to another colonel, continued.

Shuffled around

Kight said she reported the alleged assault in early August 2013, a few weeks after it happened. She filed an unrestricted report with the Army, meaning a criminal investigation was opened.

From there she was given a compassionate reassignment from her unit at Joint Base Lewis-McChord after requesting to be transferred and moved to a different unit. Yet while there, one of her new mentors was a man, she said, and Kight felt uneasy.

He was the same rank as the man she accused of sexually assaulting her and she also said she learned that the two were friendly.

She said her behavior at work began to deteriorate at that point.

"A supervisor noticed that I was not right. I was all gung ho and she just said, 'I noticed you were high speed and all of a sudden you're just more irritable and short-fused,'" Kight said.

She said another supervisor also noticed a change in behavior, however he was less sympathetic.

I didn't get a good solid chance at a career because I was always starting over

Kight said this supervisor, who knew about her report of sexual assault, told her that she needed to "stop playing the victim card" and that her performance at work and the incident were "two separate things." She said it was also this supervisor who gave her an officer evaluation report (OER) as "referred," a mark that holds a negative connotation in the military and means further action is needed to remedy the behavior.

Her supervisor described Kight as someone who failed to complete tasks and was behind compared to other peers, according to a copy of the evaluation.

Prior evaluations referred to Kight as a nurse dedicated to the work with great potential, according to documents reviewed by ABC News.

"But that [OER] made me uncompetitive and unable to progress and even have a career," Kight said. "It creates a picture of a negative person without knowing the details."

Unusual disciplinary move

Stephen Xenakis, a retired brigadier general and Army medical corps officer, told ABC News that "referred" OERs are rare, but immensely damaging to a person's career.

"The connotations of a referred OER is the performance is so poor ... there will be other administrative reactions that will be considered against the individual depending on rank or where they're at in their career," Xenakis said.

"I mean, you will probably never recover from a referred OER," he added. "Once you’ve had one of those, that's a dead duck."

Xenakis said standard procedure is that if a service member's performance is declining due to a personal grievance or a specific condition, such as PTSD, that person should be referred medically for evaluation and support. This kind of referral is not the same as a referred OER, according to Xenakis.

"If you see a change in duty, you bring in the soldier and really before you take any adverse action, you go through a series of counseling sessions," he said.

Kight said she was offered counseling and put on an improvement program, however she said after five days she was told that she had not shown enough improvement. She then received the referred OER.

After her referred OER, Kight said she was transferred again, and again, and again: five times from August 2013 to February 2014. Each time, she had to start anew with what she described as zero support from supervisors regarding the incident and her behavior after.

Kight said she was delivered another blow in March 2014 when she learned that her case had been dropped because the man she accused received a DUI and was discharged from the Army.

"I never even got to prosecute him," she said. Kight said she had previously been told that he would receive an Article 32 preliminary hearing, which decide whether a case should continue to a criminal court hearing. That hearing did not happen because he was discharged.

In response to an ABC News' inquiry, an Army spokesperson said that Kight's case was fully investigated by the Army's Criminal Investigation Division and "administrative actions were taken." However details on the administrative action were not provided to ABC News.

When asked about Kight's allegation that she was not properly supported and moved around without any prospect of furthering her career, the spokesperson said that details on personnel or subsequent action could not be released because of the Privacy Act and Army policy.

The spokesperson said that victims of sexual assault can file either an unrestricted report, which would trigger a criminal investigation, or a restricted report, in which a person can receive healthcare and support services.

"All unrestricted reports of sexual assault are referred to the Criminal Investigation Command (CID) for appropriate law enforcement investigation," the spokesperson said. "Currently, all eligible Service Member sexual assault victims are offered services of a victim advocate, a special victims’ counsel, and medical care."

Kight, though, said she felt as if she had handled everything properly but still did not receive adequate, or in her mind any, support.

'I've been assaulted. Do you have any other questions?'

Another woman shared similar complaints about the handling of sexual assault in the military, however in a different branch.

Sasha Georgiades, who served as a petty officer in the Navy, told ABC News that in 2013, right around when she first entered the Navy, she was sexually assaulted by someone she had considered a friend.

Georgiades said her ship had been in port and stationed in Pearl Harbor when she was returning home from a night out to her personal barracks.

PHOTO: Sasha Georgiades, who served in the Navy, said she was discouraged from reporting her sexual assault.
Sasha Georgiades, who served in the Navy, said she was discouraged from reporting her sexual assault.
Sasha Georgiades

She said that she had previously complained that the door to her barracks would not properly lock, but was told not to worry about it and just to slam her door shut.

However, after the evening out, Georgiades said she returned with an ex-boyfriend who walked her home and did not know about her faulty door when he went to leave. It was left open, she said.

When she next awoke, Georgiades said it was in the early hours and she found a friend of hers had entered her room through the unlocked door and had his hand in between her legs and mouth on her nipple.

"I panicked and pushed him off of me. I'm laying in my bed in complete shock," she said. After what Georgiades said was about 30 seconds, her friend just walked out of the room.

The next day, Georgiades said she applied to take a few sick days. When she went to the doctor asking for the SIQ chit, which grants time off, she asked the doctor if she needed to tell her chain of command why she was taking off. She said the doctor responded no and she was granted the SIQ chit.

"I go back and I hand [my senior-ranking petty officer] my chit. He then shuts the door and so it's just me and him and he says, 'you do have to tell me why,'" Georgiades said.

After going back and forth with him, she said eventually, "I just snapped and screamed at him and was like, 'I've been assaulted. Do you have any other questions?'"

Georgiades said the petty officer said he did not have other questions and she was allowed to leave the ship for a few days.

When she returned, Georgiades went to another superior to report the assault.

She said what she was met with stopped her from going any further with the report.

"I told him who had done it and he says, 'He's a good sailor. Do you really want to ruin his career? I looked at my [him] and I was like, I guess not. I guess I don't matter," Georgiades said.

"I continued to have to work with this individual on a daily basis and continued to see him on a daily basis," she said.

Georgiades eventually left the Navy two years later.

PHOTO: Sasha Georgiades, who served in the Navy, said she was discouraged from reporting her sexual assault.
Sasha Georgiades, who served in the Navy, said she was discouraged from reporting her sexual assault.
Sasha Georgiades

A spokesman for the Navy, Lt. Cmdr. Adam Cole, did not respond to specific questions regarding Georgiades' claims, citing privacy concerns.

Cole said in a statement that the Navy takes "seriously all allegations of sexual assault."

"The Navy’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (SAPR) Program continues to evolve to meet victims’ needs, including the addition of Victims’ Legal Counsel, options for Expedited Transfers, and ways for victims to report retaliation as a result of their assault," Cole said.

He also noted that if a victim reports sexual assault to anyone in their chain of command, the Commanding Officer is required to refer the allegations to NCIS [Naval Criminal Investigative Service] and notify the local SARC [Sexual Assault Response Coordinator] for support. When asked by ABC News if the higher-ranking petty officer who Georgiades said she spoke with is considered part of her chain of command, Cole said it would depend on the unit and varies by situation.

Georgiades said the petty officer was part of her chain of command and "he should have reported it to someone."

Progress for the military, but not enough

Both women said Guillen's story and their own are reminders of how far the military has to come in handling sexual harassment and assault cases.

Guillen's mother, Gloria Guillen, told ABC News' "Nightline" that months before she went missing, her daughter told her she’d been sexually harassed by a superior. Her mom said that she didn't report it out of fear of retaliation.

“[Vanessa] told me, ‘I am being sexually harassed by a sergeant,’” Guillen said. “‘Jesus Christ no,’ I said, ‘Have you already reported that bastard?’ [She said,] ‘I haven’t reported him Mami, because they won’t believe me. They laugh at all the girls that have gone and they don’t believe them.’”

The Army said in a statement it is “committed to the reduction, with the eventual goal of elimination, of sexual assault and sexual harassment,” with a goal of “an Army-wide, prevention-focused culture of dignity and respect that fosters healthy command climates in which the behaviors and attitudes that lead to sexual offenses are rare and victims feel free to report without fear of retaliation.” Fort Hood officials said that Army’s criminal investigation did not find indications of sexual harassment in the investigation into her disappearance. The Army's review of command and culture is due in late October.

When asked if they believed the problem of sexual assault and victim support was more widespread than just one branch, both Kight and Georgiades agreed.

"It's a problem that's deep in the culture of the military," Georgiades said.

In a letter Kight wrote to Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, who currently serves as major in the U.S. Army National Guard, she said she hoped to bring attention to not only her case, but what she called a failed system.

"If the systems I am suppose (sic) to use to report properly have failed, then who can I trust or turn to?" Kight wrote. "I did not ask for my assault and I did not expect fighting for my rights and for others would continue to be so difficult. I have waited long enough and the system has failed."