(NEW YORK) — For Jenny McClendon, joining the Navy meant “being there for each other, struggling, pulling together, being a team.”
Growing up with a father in the Marine Corps, she always expected to serve her country in some capacity, she said, but it was the Navy that really captivated her.
“The Navy seemed exciting,” McClendon told ABC News. “The idea of going out on the high seas, it was exhilarating.”
But McClendon’s ideals about serving her country were upended when she attended training camp in San Diego in 1997. Her class officer started to verbally harass her and other female cadets, she said, asking them “if their vaginas hurt,” and calling McClendon “bitch” and “feminazi.”
When McClendon reported the harassment to a higher-ranking officer, telling him, “This is not the Navy I signed up to serve in, this is not the America I signed up to serve,” she said she was ostracized by her fellow service members.
Out at sea on a Navy ship, where McClendon said “you’re pretty much trapped,” she recalled how a petty officer 2nd class — one rank above her — would order others out of the room so that he could grope her. The groping escalated to rape.
Fearing ostracism or reprisals if she complained, McClendon started wearing multiple layers of clothing to evade further attacks. When she finally did report the rape to her senior chief, she said he told her, “To this command, you are a known feminist, lesbian and Democrat. You’re going to prove that you’re just trying to get this guy into trouble.”
McClendon’s ordeal happened 16 years ago, but it’s just one in a list of military sexual-abuse scandals that goes back to the Navy’s 1991 Tailhook Convention, where 100 officers sexually assaulted more than 80 women. Five years later at the Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground, a dozen Army officers were charged with sexually assaulting female trainees. More recently, at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, 32 basic training instructors are under investigation for allegedly attacking at least 59 victims beginning in 2008.
According to the Department of Defense’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, 2,420 servicewomen reported they’d been victims of sexual assault in 2011.
A recent report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, undertaken in response to women taking new positions on the frontlines of combat, found that although the Defense Department had “taken steps” to meet the health needs of deployed servicewomen, it still fell short when it came to providing medical and mental health services to victims of sexual assault.
The GAO report found, for example, that first responders, including chaplains, victim advocates and health personnel, did not always have a clear understanding of where to take sexual assault victims for a forensic examination, which has the potential of becoming doubly problematic, as the current guidelines state that forensic evidence is only to be collected up to 72 hours after the attack.
The report also found that some health care providers became confused by medical provisions that seemed to conflict with their command obligations, especially when it came to keeping a victim’s identity confidential. As a result of this continued confusion, military women were not comfortable reporting sexual attacks.
But the ongoing Lackland investigation, and the release of the documentary The Invisible War, which examines sexual assault in the U.S. military and is up for an Academy Award, have driven policymakers to act.
Last April, days after outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta saw The Invisible War, he announced changes in how sexual assault allegations would be handled within the armed forces.
The changes included elevating the authority to prosecute sexual assaults to colonels rather than leaving it to unit commanders — such as the one who initially presided over McClendon’s case — perhaps in the hope that this would encourage more women to come forward.
According to the Defense Department’s own estimates, only 14 percent of sexual assaults were reported in 2010.
Panetta also announced that a Special Victims Units would be created for each branch of the military, and a record would be retained of the outcome of disciplinary and administrative proceedings related to sexual assault, and that these records would be kept in a central place.
Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio