Should the military continue to be allowed to police itself on sexual assault? Retired general and Pentagon weigh in

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WASHINGTON (NewsNation Now) — A retired major general in the U.S. Army is blowing the whistle, calling the military’s handling of sexual assault and harassment the greatest threat to our national security.

This comes as NewsNation has brought a series of reports on sexual assault and harassment in the military, including the case of Asia Graham.

She was a Fort Bliss soldier who reported being sexually assaulted on base and was later found dead in her barracks on New Year’s Eve.

Officials at Fort Bliss have declined NewsNation’s requests for an interview, but a senior official at the Pentagon agreed to speak to NewsNation, calling it “a tragedy on every possible level.”

NewsNation investigation

The outrage over Vanessa Guillen’s death in 2020 spread nationwide after her family said the 20-year-old Army Specialist had previously been sexually assaulted.

People pay respects at a mural of Vanessa Guillen, a soldier based at nearby Fort Hood on July 6, 2020 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Sergio Flores/Getty Images)

It drew anger at the military’s lack of response, and it brought the issue of sexual assault in the military to the forefront.

“This is the Military’s #MeToo moment,” said Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier (CA-4) in September.

In July, the Army ordered an investigation into “command climate and culture” within its program to prevent and respond to sexual harassment and sexual assault at Fort Hood.

In December, it issued its Fort Hood report, which found the program ineffective and the command climate “permissive of sexual harassment and assault.”

14 Army officials were either fired or suspended from Fort Hood.

Pfc. Asia Graham

Just two weeks later, Pfc. Asia Graham was found dead in her barrack, on a different Texas base — Fort Bliss. Her cause of death is still under investigation.

According to her family, she was the victim of sexual assault months before her death, and they say she had reported her assault up the chain of command.

In a letter to her mother before she died, Graham wrote:

“I reported it in February.”

“all they cared about the army doctrine and cover up themselves”

“I want to be heard and they not hearing me.”

Asia’s family said they told her to “shut up about it” and accused the Army of a cover-up. NewsNation talked to her brother Anthony and mother Nicole.

Anthony: They don’t really care, that they just really just want her to just tell her that they’re fine. Tell her that she’s fine. Move on in her life. Just shut up. Quit talking about it. You keep talking about it. That’s why you keep feeling about it. So just shut up about it. Keep it moving. Be quiet.
McHugh: They told her to shut up?
Anthony: Yeah. Keep it moving, and all they wanted to care about was her saying that she’s fine.

Officials at Fort Bliss have declined NewsNation’s interview requests.

Dr. James Helis, retired U.S. Army Colonel and the Army’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Program (SHARP) director, agreed to speak with NewsNation at the Pentagovn.

McHugh: In your experience, is retaliation for sexual assault for people who report sexual assault in the military an issue?
Helis: Yes, and that is completely, totally unacceptable. I would say in Asia Graham’s case, that case is a tragedy at every possible level. And I feel for her. I feel for her family and what they went through. But hers is a story where the chain of command heard, where the chain of command listened, the chain of command ran the case down, and we’re going to bring her justice.
McHugh: But Asia Graham herself said she wasn’t being heard, that she reported it in February, and that she was not being listened to.
Helis: The information the command has and that we have is that she reported the case in the summer of 2020 in June, goes through the investigative process, goes to the legal review. The charging in the arraignment is held in January. The case has proceeded in what I would consider a timely manner for a sexual assault case.

In response, Asia Graham’s mother, Nicole, provided a statement to NewsNation insisting that Asia reported her assault in Feb. 2020 to “her lieutenant and two sergeants.”

Nicole said that Asia was emotionally tormented and forced to live across the hall from her assailant.

“The chain of command failed… Asia did not live to see justice.”

Nicole Graham in a statement to NewsNation

Retired Army Major Gen. Robert Shadley has been focused on sexual assault in the military for three decades.

“The system quote, unquote, failed her and someone needs to be held accountable for this,” said Shadley.

Robert and his wife Camilla Vance Shadley, with Never Alone Advocacy Group, are providing support to the family of Asia Graham.

In the 1990s, Gen. Shadley uncovered the U.S. Army’s sex abuse scandal at Aberdeen in Maryland. He later wrote a book about it called “The GAMe: Unraveling a Military Sexual Scandal.”

Shadley: Commanders are not enforcing rules, policies, regulations, and laws. They are doing the easy, wrong instead of the hard, right. They look to make the problem go away instead of solving the problem. Oftentimes you ignore it, and a soldier goes away forever. It is a leadership issue. It is failure to establish and force high standards.
McHugh: In your opinion, how widespread, how big of an issue is this in the military?
Shadley: It is huge. In my humble opinion, the greatest threat to national security it’s not China or Russia. It’s the United States military.

Amy Franck is a sexual assault advocate for the Army.

“Because we can’t protect our own soldiers, they’re being assaulted and murdered and committing suicide at a higher rate than they are being murdered by our enemies in the Middle East,” said Franck.

The Army hired her to help soldiers who report sexual assault and harassment navigate the process and protect their rights.

But Franck says the Army suspended her when she reported some of her findings up the chain of command.

According to the suspension letter, the army said they suspended her for possible ethics violations.

Amy Franck Suspension Letter

“The leaders from, from the very, very top, they set the narrative,” added Franck. “And if they’re not telling it to all of their levels that protecting a victim is paramount to anything else, because it is, it’s a national security crisis.”

Last week, a video of a Marine tearfully calling out her command brought the topic of how the military handles sexual assault back into the national conversation.

McHugh: Who is not listening?
Shadley: In my mind, you can start with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General (Mark A.) Milley, go down through General (James C.) McConville and other general officers. I can’t recall, in the last three years, a three or four-star general being punished except for the four-star who indecently assaulted my wife.

In 2018, Camilla Vance Shadley made an official complaint against Gen. Leon Salomon, accusing him of groping her at a Fort Belvoir party in 1994. Camilla said when she went to say hello to Salomon — her then husband’s commander — Salomon put his hands on her breasts.

Gen. Leon Salomon

“Suddenly, I realized his hands were on my breasts, and I stopped. And my first thought was: ‘what the hell just happened?'” said Camilla. “I looked up at his eyes, and then I realized he hadn’t changed one flicker of his expression, and I said to my husband, ‘I’m absolutely furious.’ But in 1994, there was no place to go. I would have reported it up through him. And so I said, the truth is as mad as I am, it is not going to destroy me, and if I do anything to argue this, it will destroy your career because this is not a man who will take this and say, ‘Oh, you’re right. I did something wrong.’ And so I said nothing.”

Camilla said when she filed a complaint, nothing happened.

Gen. Salomon Complaint

“They refused to in any way investigate, which was my original concern and complaint,” said Camilla.

“Did the Army go back and investigate? No,” said Gen. Shadley.

Camilla then brought it to the attention of New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.

“Senator Gillibrand and several members of Congress got involved,” said Gen. Shadley.

“I think they sat there and realized this is now sitting at the very senior levels of the Army,” said Camilla. “And the answer was: We’re going to have to explain to the senator why we’ve done nothing. So we’re going to fix that immediately, and we’re going to send a reprimand to him.”

Gen. Salomon "committed the offense"

“And within a matter of just a few days, we were informed that General Leon Salomon retired four-star and received the general officer memorandum reprimand,” said Gen. Shadley.

In a June 2019 statement, the Army wrote:

We take all sexual assault allegations seriously. Gen. Salomon was reprimanded following the completion of a formal investigation. Appropriate action was taken.

Cynthia Smith, Army Spokesperson to USA Today in June 2019

According to the Army’s records, the special victim prosecutor investigating the case concluded in December 2018 that there was probable cause to believe Salomon committed the offense of Indecent Assault; however, no action was taken until a reprimand was issued May 2019.

Gen Salomon reprimand

Gen. Salomon did not respond to NewsNation’s request for comment.

One of the key findings of the Fort Hood independent review was that failures were in leadership.

“We own what came out of Fort Hood. We’ve acknowledged it. We’ve accepted it. There’s no if’s, and’s, or but’s. We absolutely accept the findings. And we understand that we, as an institution, have failed our soldiers,” said Dr. Helis. “We have lost the trust of too many of our soldiers.”

Moving forward, continued debate surrounds what may be the crux of the issue: Should the military continue to be allowed to police itself?

Gen. Shadley says no.

“We need to take felony prosecution of felonies in the military, outside the chain of command, to a separate legal system. Murder, rape, armed robbery… the military commanders are not designed to do that. Send those off to a separate legal system that can’t be influenced by commanders who don’t want bad press,” Shadley said.

Last September, Rep. Jackie Speier introduced the “I am Vanessa Guillen Act” to do just that — move prosecution decisions of sexual assault and harassment cases out of the chain of command. President Joe Biden has supported the legislation in the past.

McHugh: Do you agree with them?
Helis: I think it’s a valid question. I think it’s a question that we’ve examined in the past and, you know, in the past have concluded that this in our judgment that this best remains under commanders. I think commanders have got the capability to do this. They’ve shown that they are capable of doing that.

“The commanders make a very huge point that they have to continue to have authority over sexual assaults. But with great authority comes great responsibility, and you’re not using your authority to protect these service members. So you’re not being responsible with your authority. So why do you need to continue to keep your authority,” Franck said.

“Vanessa Guillen, all these beautiful vibrant young souls are no longer with us. And for what reason? Because they weren’t important enough to protect?”

Amy Franck

The new Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has vowed to tackle this issue. Helis told NewsNation that change is coming. He even invited NewsNation’s investigative team back six months from now to discuss what has been done.

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