Hard Truths: The Navy and Marines Need Another #MeToo Moment: Part One

By Captain John P. Cordle, USN (ret.) and K. Denise Rucker Krepp

Hard Truths. This article is a collaboration between two authors with very different experiences, in the hopes that some combination of their views – one as a former Commanding Officer and the other as a federal agency chief counsel with 30-plus years of Sexual Assault/Harassment (SASH) experience – will resonate and drive tough conversations among mid-grade leaders. The Department of Defense has received over 65,000 reports of sexual assault since 2010 and each of us has a role in holding individuals who commit sexual assault and sexual harassment accountable for past crimes and creating an environment where sexual assault and sexual harassment are not tolerated.

Part One

Denise: Nine years ago, I testified before the Congressionally mandated Response Systems to Adult Sexual Assault Crimes Panel. My 2014 testimony was based on my experiences as a Coast Guard JAG and Chief Counsel, US Maritime Administration (MARAD). I was invited to testify after writing a September 2013 article for Roll Call entitled “Female Military Personal Aren’t Whores.” I wrote the Roll Call essay after reading Washington Post articles about a USNA female student who was sexually assaulted. She was required to tell defense attorneys in court whether or not she felt like a whore, how she performed oral sex, and whether or not she wore underwear to a party. That line of questioning was demeaning, and offensive. I was appalled that not a single Department of Defense (DoD) leader expressed outrage, so I put pen to paper.

A few months after I wrote the article, I was invited to testify in a closed-door, no press allowed hearing. In my January 2014 testimony, I spoke about the sexual harassment I had seen as a young Coast Guard officer. I also told the panelists about the Inspector General investigation that I requested in 2011 after being notified of numerous sexual assaults occurring at sea and at the US Merchant Marine Academy. I was serving as the MARAD Chief Counsel at that time, and shortly after requesting the investigation I was directed to resign or be fired. The panelists asked if I was ever aware of an illegal order. “Yes,” I responded, “Secretary of Transportation LaHood told Deputy Secretary of Transportation Porcari to fire me because I had asked for the sexual assault investigation.” But retaliation is illegal, is it not? And yet…

John. Two years ago, I assisted a young officer in drafting an article in which she told her story of how the system had failed her personally and professionally as a victim and as a Sexual Assault Prevention Representative (SAPR) for a staff. She advocated for change, especially the idea that the investigation process should be separated from the chain of command. This proposal was widely panned by senior leaders, as such a change would undermine the “sanctity of command.” She finally withdrew the article, despite it being selected for publication, because it was simply too painful and too personal.

To her credit, the idea did go forward and (I believe) contributed to the conversations that led to major changes in the treatment of sexual harassment and sexual assault investigations. Then something important happened – the DoD 2021 Annual Report on Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment1 revealed some very troubling data and findings, resulting in the Secretary of the Navy (SECNAV) directing an independent committee to produce a report entitled Hard Truths and A Duty to Changewhich essential repeated almost everything in my friend’s prescient white paper. Unfortunately one year later, many leaders do not appear to have read these documents. This article is an attempt to bring these findings to a larger, more junior audience along with a deck plate leadership perspective. Their words are included verbatim for one reason – they are profound and hard-hitting, requiring no amplification. A photographic from the DoD report is shown here:

Figure 1. Summary of DoD Sexual Assault Report for 2021(Source: DoD FY21 SA Report). USC = Unwanted Sexual Contact.

To bring this graphic closer to home, imagine you are in a room with 100 Sailors and Marines. You ask, “How many of you have been sexually harassed this year?” Twenty-nine raise their hands. “How many were sexually assaulted?” Nine raise their hands. Of these 38 people, you ask, “Keep your hand up if you were unsatisfied with the support you received?” Eighteen raise their hands. “Keep your hand up if you were retaliated against?” Nine hands stay in the air. The room falls silent, and everyone is looking at you. Look them in the eye. What do you say to them?

Common Themes: the following are provided verbatim (italicized portion) from the DoD report, followed by our respective comments.

1. Broken Trust – When it comes to sexual assault and harassment, the Independent Review Commission (IRC) concluded that there is a wide chasm between what senior leaders believe is happening under their commands, and what junior enlisted Service members actually experience. This is true across the enterprise. As a result, trust has been broken between commanders and the Service members under their charge and care.

John: Those are incredibly strong and damning words. They tell us what many junior personnel routinely tell us via Command Climate and other surveys, and told Task Force One Navy. That statement should drive leaders at all levels to take a long look in the mirror – and do something about it. More on that later.

Denise: In 2009, MARAD surveyed students at the US Merchant Marine Academy about sexual harassment and assault. We learned that students arrived at the school trusting school leaders to properly address sexual assault allegations. Per the survey results, the students did not have that same level of trust by the time they became seniors. Something clearly happened in three years to break their trust.

I thought back to that lack of trust when notified in 2010 of a possible sexual assault at Kings Point. I asked to talk with the student and the student declined to talk with me, the agency chief counsel, because the student did not trust the agency to properly address the crime.

I spoke about the lack of trust when I testified twice in 2014 before the Congressionally mandated Response Systems to Adult Sexual Assault Crimes Panel and again in 2019 at a US Commission on Civil Rights hearing about sexual assault in the federal government. The gist of my testimony was that the lack of trust in the system – and its leaders–creates a toxic environment that is harmful to victims. To read the same thing in 2021 was, to say the least, disheartening, and deeply disappointing.

2. Leadership is Paramount Preventing, responding to, and supporting Service members who are the victims of demeaning language, sexual harassment, and sexual assault is a command responsibility. Commanders must be held accountable for their unit climates and for their action—or inaction—when it comes to protecting their people.

John: This is a stark reminder that this is not a SECNAV or Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) issue. This is directed at the unit commander, the Command Master Chief, even the Department Head, Division Officer, and Leading Chief Petty Officer. Think back over the past year. Have you repeated, instigated, or ignored an off-color joke, a sexist or racist remark directed at one peer by another, or even worse, from a supervisor at a subordinate? Have you engaged your junior personnel about the work environment they face each day? Have you been guilty of looking away when your best performers step over the line? If so, look in the mirror, ask yourself “am I doing enough?” and act.

Denise: Last fall, I gave a SASH lecture at the U.S. Naval War College. I shared how sexual assault is a leadership issue, one that leaders have to address head on and not ignore. Ignoring SASH creates a toxic environment, one that encourages other negative – and sometime illegal – behavior. During my visit, U.S. Naval War College professors shared that sexual harassment and sexual assault are becoming common topics in class and students are advocating for more discussion on the issue. Students want to talk about the problem because they want to be ready to address it when they take command. This was actually quite encouraging to hear – their proactive requests for help should be encouraged.

3. The Military Justice System is Not Equipped to Properly Respond to Special Victim Crimes
Special victim crimes disproportionately impact certain victims because of who they are, or what motivated the crime. These crimes are often interpersonal in nature, in which the victim and the alleged offender may have a pre-existing relationship or acquaintance. Special victims—particularly survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence—deserve all critical decisions about their case to be made by a highly trained special victim prosecutor who is independent from the chain of command.

John: This finding is a slap in the face of the “Big Navy” as reflected in the 2021 DoD report where only 60 percent of those reporting an incident were satisfied with the way it was handled. Another damning statement—and percentage. To their credit, SECNAV has made drastic changes in policy and process, including to separate the investigative process from the chain of command, to not prosecute the alleged victim for minor offenses, and to fund a cadre of investigators and counselors to improve the system. Is that enough? Not yet, but these are the largest steps in decades and a credit to the current leadership. At the unit level leaders must ensure that professional help is available and is used as soon as possible, and sound the alarm if it is not available.

One huge gap as noted in the report is in the cyber domain, where bullying and threats on social media are often considered outside the jurisdiction of the command, especially if cross command, and the rules governing this area are practically nonexistent – inexcusable in today’s day and age. Threatening or body shaming another service member on social media is not “free speech” and urgent action is required in this arena.

Denise: I have been part of the SASH community for 30 years. I have seen firsthand the trauma to victims, their families, their neighbors, their co-workers. Sexual assault is crime that haunts people for decades and each person reacts differently to the crime.

Training to help a sexual assault victim cannot happen via PowerPoint. Neither is it a one-day or one-week course. It takes months and, I would argue, years to fully train personnel to help sexual assault victims.

In Fiscal Year 2021, the Department of Defense was notified of 8,866 sexual assaults. Victims are reading the annual reports, they know the number of cases filed, and they are watching to see how many of these cases are prosecuted. A sizable number of the assault cases didn’t result in prosecution in 2021 and in past years. I encourage military leaders to ask why cases aren’t prosecuted. Victims won’t trust the “system” if the cases before theirs aren’t prosecuted, and absent trust, victims won’t report the crimes committed against them.

Lastly, I supported the recent changes removing the chain of command from prosecution because, as I painfully learned as MARAD Chief Counsel, the chain of command is often part of the issue and may not always support prosecutions.

4. Sexual Harassment and Sexual Assault Exist on a Continuum of Harm
Sexual assault does not stand alone, but rather exists on a continuum of harm which may begin with sexual harassment and escalate into sexual assault. This is particularly true in the military, where survivors of sexual harassment are at significantly higher risk of later experiencing sexual assault. To think of them as two separate problem sets is to fundamentally misunderstand the challenge the Department–and the force–face, especially with regard to unit climates.

John: I once heard a very senior SAPR officer, when asked about a sexual harassment issue, state that “that is not in my lane.” He later retracted the statement, but it is reflective of a system that treats the two as separate problems. It is still a weakness in these programs that at most levels they are tracked and reported by different people at the command, with little data sharing or recognition that the two are intrinsically related. The 2021 report stated that in commands where sexual harassment is tolerated, there is a fourfold greater change of sexual assault. Again, for the reader at the command level, it is imperative to look at these two issues together and holistically. In this author’s opinion, the Navy and Marines have work to do here at the higher echelons, but that should not stop all leaders from taking a fresh look at the data and engaging their wardroom and Chief Petty Officer (CPO) mess.

Denise: Sexual harassment and sexual assault are not separate in the eyes of the victim and they should not be separate in the eyes of leaders. To treat them separately is to facilitate both, and it shows in the numbers. To put it bluntly, if leaders do not stop sexual harassment, why should victims think that they will stop sexual assault?

Read Part Two.

John Cordle is a retired Navy Captain who commanded two warships, was awarded the Navy League John Paul Jones Award for Inspirational Leadership, and the 2019 US Naval Institute Proceedings Author of the Year.

K. Denise Rucker Krepp spent several years on active duty in the U. S. Coast Guard, graduated from the Naval War College, and served as Chief Counsel for the U.S Maritime Administration. Krepp also served as a locally elected Washington, DC official and Hill staffer. She is a longtime advocate for the rights of sexual assault and harassment victims.


[1] Department of Defense Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military, 2021

[2] Independent Review Commission Recommendations on Countering Sexual Assault in the Military, 21 July 2021

Featured Image: 190119-N-KW492-1054 MANAMA, Bahrain (April 11, 2019) Capt. Jason Rimmer, commanding officer of the Wasp-class amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge (LHD 3), speaks to the crew during an all hands call on the flight deck. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Ryre Arciaga/Released)

3 thoughts on “Hard Truths: The Navy and Marines Need Another #MeToo Moment: Part One”

  1. Kings Point has been a real problem for forever. The items mentioned here were absolutely common at least as far back as the 90s. Says me and crap that some people thought they could try to get away with at my house.

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