Fighting Sexual Assault in the Military: A Q&A With Author Lynn Hall

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Q & A Violence

Fighting Sexual Assault in the Military: A Q&A With Author Lynn Hall

Sarit Luban

Commanders are the ones making decisions about how to handle sexual violence cases. If they don’t want to prosecute, then the case doesn’t go forward.

In 2014, approximately 20,000 members of the U.S. military were sexually assaulted. Most of these assaults are never reported, often due to fears of retaliation or mishandling of cases. These anxieties are not unfounded. Almost two-thirds of service women who report sexual assault face retaliation in some form, and a third of all victims are discharged after coming forward.

For Lynn K. Hall, author of the recently released memoir Caged Eyes: An Air Force Cadet’s Story of Rape and Resilience, it wasn’t speaking out itself that ultimately led to her dismissal from the Air Force Academy. After being raped by an upperclassman who had offered to help her study, Hall developed herpetic meningitis, which, mistreated by the academy’s medical personnel, led to chronic pain so severe that she was deemed unfit to serve.

That was 2004. In the months before Hall’s discharge, the now widely-known problem of sexual assault in the military had just hit the national stage. In 2003, seven Air Force cadets went on ABC’s 20/20 and disclosed having being assaulted and then penalized for reporting their rapes. Hall witnessed this conversation as she was beginning the process of peeling back layers of trauma from her rape at the academy, as well as molestation and abuse at the hands of two older men who had taken on father-figure roles during her teen years.

Hall’s work connects the dots between her individual story, military culture, and rape culture in the larger society, providing readers with an intimate and necessary portrait of survivorhood. It’s a project she spent more than a decade completing; during that time, she found her path to healing in the Colorado mountains, where she sought to climb all of the state’s 14,000-feet high peaks. That completed journey constitutes her next project, a Caged Eyes sequel tentatively titled Alpenglow.

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With her first major literary summit under her belt, Hall sat down with Rewire to talk about misogyny in the military, how command structures are failing survivors, and what can be done to end sexual violence among our country’s service members.

Rewire: You’ve written that your dream was never to be a writer but rather a pilot. When did it become clear to you that you were going to write this book?

Lynn K. Hall: Being a pilot or an astronaut was sort of a shallow dream. I don’t say that to minimize it, but it was just about the thrill of altitude. Being a writer, especially writing on such an important social justice issue, is so much greater, because it’s, I hope, one small piece of changing culture and helping people’s lives, rather than just living out my own fantasies about flying really fast.

I started writing this book a long time ago, right out of the Air Force. I knew I had a story to tell, and I felt like conversations around sexual violence were not getting to the crux of the problem. Now there’s so much more discussion about rape, yet the media doesn’t necessarily get it right. So I wanted to write my story and thought a book would be a better outlet to get into the nuance of these issues. I didn’t have a ghostwriter, I didn’t have anybody who was going to do it for me, so I slowly, slowly became a writer.

Rewire: You mentioned that the media doesn’t always get this conversation right. What’s missing?

LH: Jackson Katz does trainings that advocate for men in the military or sports to stand up and not be bystanders in sexual violence or harassment. The way he put it to me is so brilliant: The media is always headlines or invisibility. We keep talking about these cases that come up, which scrutinize every detail about what the victim was doing to deserve to get raped, but we don’t necessarily advance further than these case examples. There have been so many high-profile cases in the last several years. Yet it’s not extrapolated to, “Wait a minute, this isn’t just about one woman’s story, this is about one in three women worldwide.”

Rewire: Throughout your book, you weave between the personal experience of, at first, being silent in the wake of sexual violence and this bigger military culture of subservience. You even say that you didn’t own your body, the Air Force owned it. And the title, Caged Eyes, is used as an ongoing metaphor for how you were taught to follow orders and your life was controlled in that environment. Is there something about military culture that makes sexual violence particularly difficult to prevent?

LH: Definitely. It’s particularly difficult to prevent, and it’s particularly difficult to prosecute. For command structures to be willing to investigate cases, they have to acknowledge that some people are rapists, and I think that’s difficult for them. Speaking about the Air Force Academy specifically, there’s so much honor and pride in being an Air Force cadet that it can end up overshadowing women’s claims of being raped. People don’t want to believe it.

In the military, commanders are the ones making the decision to move a case forward. So if they don’t want to prosecute, then the case doesn’t go forward. In the civilian sector, prosecutors don’t have those allegiances to people or an institution that would make them hesitant to move a case to trial. It’s a very different dynamic.

That’s where Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s (D-NY) legislation, the Military Justice Improvement Act, comes in. This legislation would take sole decision-making power away from commanders and give independent prosecutors the ability to move cases forward. Unfortunately the bill hasn’t passed for several years now, and in our current political climate with Republicans in control of that process, I don’t think it’s likely to happen.

I’m a believer that until we can prosecute these cases, perpetrators are going to continue to rape. Consent education is a great step forward—it’s one of the gold standards in the civilian world and exists in the military as well—but that doesn’t necessarily prevent sexual assault when we’re talking about predators who know very well what they’re doing. And unless they’re caught and incarcerated, they’re going to continue.

Rewire: In terms of the culture, how much of the problem is inherent to the military structure versus how much room is there for change?

LH: Truthfully, I’m not sure where that boundary lies. I recognize that the Air Force Academy is trying to produce leaders for the Air Force. To a certain extent, they have to instill discipline and adherence to the rules and regulations. Some of the problematic aspects of the military climate are also necessary. Or we can talk about hyperaggression.

But I think there are things that could be changed. For instance, 21- and 22-year-olds are the ones training new freshmen. That creates a situation where the line between sanctioned, important training and hazing is indistinct. You can’t tell the difference between what cadets are supposed to be doing in training versus, “This was done to me, so I’m going to do it to you”-type rituals.

Another problem is the broader culture, which doesn’t recognize women’s important contributions to the military. When there’s more respect for women—and more respect for people of color and people who identify as LGBT; in other words, not just white, cis males—then I think rape culture will change as well. But there isn’t anything inherent about the military that makes that impossible.

Rewire: Military sexual assault has been exposed as a major problem in recent years. At the same time, we continue to see recent incidents like Marines United’s nonconsensual sharing of photos of and information about female service members. What, if anything, has changed since you were in the academy in the early 2000s?

LH: It hasn’t been until the last two or so months when that’s been answered for me. Since my book was published, men have emailed me saying, “Thank you for writing this. This was really important to read and witness.”

The harder emails to receive are the ones from women in the military, especially women who are still active duty and still being victimized. My sense is that the younger generation of men within the military is much readier to accept their women counterparts. I’m hearing less “my classmates are ostracizing me and calling me a fucking whore because I was raped,” and more about the command structure that’s still punishing victims. That’s a huge change from when I was in.

That said, there’s all of these subcultures within the military. I talk about that in Caged Eyes, how the second squadron I was in was much more hostile to women than the first or third. We could have a representative sample problem. But that’s how the trend seems to me.

However, I’m hearing stories of women who have been raped, who have reported, who knew right away that they should tell somebody and wanted the military to investigate, and yet nothing happening with those cases. It’s alarming how few cadets from the Air Force Academy [and the entire military] have ever been prosecuted or convicted for a sexual offense versus the number of women reporting having been assaulted. Perpetrators are still being treated as if they’re the good guys, as if they’re being falsely accused, and these women are being punished. It’s almost like the older generation, who are now the commanders, are the ones continuing to perpetuate rape culture.

Rewire: You write about an instance when you reported sexual harassment in your squadron under the false promise of confidentiality and were then ostracized when word got out that you were the one who reported it. You also talk about the backlash you saw when survivors from the military were first coming out publicly. Since leaving the academy, have you faced any backlash for speaking out, from the military community or otherwise?

LH: Surprisingly, I haven’t. It makes me so happy to say that. I’ve gotten a few emails here or there or a few things on social media—interestingly, I’ve gotten as much from women as I have from men. But for the most part when people reach out to me, they’re thanking me for telling my story, which is pretty awesome. There [are] more of us now talking publicly about what’s happened to us. Back in 2003, it was pretty groundbreaking for women to come forward about these things. Now I can reach out to so many other women who have also told their stories publicly. I wonder if that’s diffused the hate, if having so many of us is a form of protection.

Rewire: Do you find that any of your perspectives have changed over the course of writing your memoir?

LH: When I started writing, I still felt quite a bit of shame. I remember handing a first draft to my writers’ group and feeling like I was going to be sick for that whole month they were reading it. I felt like, how dare I share these stories? The further away I’ve gotten, the more I’ve written, the more I’ve studied about rape culture, the less I feel that. And as I’ve been exposed to more stories from other people, that’s deepened my understanding of my own story. But I think the core beliefs I had when I started the book are still the same, as far as how the culture impacted me and my perpetrators.

Rewire: Reading your New York Times essay “What Happens When a Rape Goes Unreported,” I was struck by your comment about the high monetary cost of assault. You note that your own rape has cost the federal government over $1 million. Can you break that down—what are those costs, and how typical are they?

LH: I was in the Air Force Academy for two years. That alone is an enormous expense, in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, that the military never had the opportunity to capitalize on. In other words, I never served in the military. I was active duty, but I was being trained that whole time. So that’s a cost right there. Then, because I got meningitis as a direct result of being raped, that’s been a huge medical expense that [the U.S. Department of] Veterans Affairs (VA) continues to be responsible for. So when I add up my medical bills from the last 15-plus years, it’s probably upwards of $500,000. Lastly, I have a VA disability because of the chronic pain. Every month I get a small check—not enough to live on, but it does help—to compensate me for having a service-connected disability.

Often survivors come down with something medical after they’ve been sexually assaulted. I’d propose the reason is we can’t deal with what happened emotionally and the body has a way of reacting. For me it was meningitis, but that plays out in many different ways. People aren’t as healthy as they would’ve been if they were never assaulted. They can’t necessarily prove that.

The difference in my story is there’s an obvious link: My perpetrator gave me herpes that caused meningitis. That’s irrefutable. So I would argue the military spends an enormous amount of money treating conditions that wouldn’t have occurred if those individuals had never been raped. I am in the minority in terms of having an official service-connected disability and getting financial assistance every month. It doesn’t seem like the bulk of survivors have that benefit.

Rewire: Your book chronicles the treatment, or lack of proper treatment, you received when you got sick. You were told you had to overcome your “psychological issues,” and a neurologist claimed your problems were an “adjustment disorder.” What do you attribute this misjudgment to, and what do you think providers need to know to better handle such cases in the future?

LH: I firmly believe if a male classmate of mine had come to him in the same condition, ended up in the ICU with meningitis, left the ICU, and continued to feel as sick as I was, that cadet would’ve been taken more seriously. Because I was a woman, though, and because that neurologist knew I had a sexually transmitted disease—he didn’t know at first about the rape accusation, but he knew it was from a sexually transmitted disease straightaway—I think it was misogyny. He didn’t believe the extent to which I was ill; maybe he thought my pain tolerance wasn’t as high as a man’s would be. This was also a time when one in five Air Force Academy cadets believed that women shouldn’t be there. I believe he thought women shouldn’t be there.

Service providers need to listen to their patients, whether that patient is a man or a woman, or a survivor, or they have a sexually transmitted disease. I would hope that as our culture continues to change, that type of mistreatment would happen to fewer patients, but I doubt we’re there yet.

Rewire: I can’t ignore the fact that I was reading your work in the months after the inauguration of Donald Trump who, as most of the country knows, has an awful track record when it comes to allegations of sexual assault. This person is now commander-in-chief. What are the implications of a Trump presidency for efforts to shift the culture of misogyny and sexual violence in the military?

LH: I never could have predicted the climate that I would be facing when this book finally reached publication date. It’s devastating. A Trump presidency is devastating for the movement to end sexual violence. I mentioned before how there was a difference in culture in those few squadrons I was in, and I truly believe that commanders make a large part of that difference. When I look at the leadership in my first squadron compared to the leadership in the second squadron, it was a 180-degree difference. One was a leader who respected all of us; the other one only respected some of us. That sort of attitude trickles down. It just does. Now that the military has a commander-in-chief who treats women the way he does, it normalizes and validates misogyny all the way up the chain of command.