Sexual abuse is a deep-rooted issue in the US military. Survivors hope new Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin can change that.

Sexual abuse is a deep-rooted issue in the US military. Survivors hope new Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin can change that.
People pay respects at a mural of Vanessa Guillen, a soldier based at nearby Fort Hood on July 6, 2020 in Austin, Texas.Sergio Flores/Getty Images
  • Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has vowed to address the issue of sexual assault in the military.
  • His appointment has given activists and sexual abuse survivors in the military hope.
  • Sexual abuse in the military has come to the forefront again with the murder of Vanessa Guillen.

Activists and survivors of sexual assault in the military welcome President Joe Biden's new appointment of Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin and hope his stance on the issue will finally bring some long-awaited change.

The US Senate confirmed Austin's position last week, making him the first African American ever to lead the Pentagon.

Austin has wasted no time since his appointment: his first act as secretary was to order a review of how the Pentagon handled sexual assault cases.

"This is a leadership issue," Austin said in his two-page memo, according to the Associated Press (AP). "We will lead."

Read more: 2020 brought a wave of discrimination and harassment allegations against major companies like Amazon, McDonald's, and Pinterest. These are some of the year's high-profile legal battles.


Sexual harassment in the military has dramatically surged in the last two years. According to the Defense Department's latest report, there were 7,825 reports of sexual harassment involving service members as victims in 2019, a 3% increase from the previous year.

Conviction rates remain alarmingly low: From 2018 to 2019, only 7 percent of cases that the command took action on resulted in convictions. There is no data yet for 2020.

Sexual abuse is a deep-rooted issue in the US military. Survivors hope new Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin can change that.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin (center) meets with National Guard troops deployed to the US Capitol on January 29, 2021.Manuel Balce Ceneta-Pool/Getty Images

Last year, the issue took on added visibility when the murder of 20-year-old US Army soldier Vanessa Guillen at her base in Fort Hood, Texas, attracted national media attention and sparked the #IamVanessaGuillen movement - the equivalent of the military's #MeToo.

Guillen had told her family members before her death that she had been sexually assaulted but that she was too afraid to report it because "she felt if she spoke, something would happen," her sister Mayra said at the time.

According to the New York Times, President Biden and Austin both have a significant interest in rooting out these problems.


The defense secretary met with sexual assault survivors in the military in December last year and was disturbed and moved by their stories, the Times reported. He is also reportedly open to considering revisions to how sexual assault cases are prosecuted, among other things.

Meanwhile, Biden has been vocal about moving sexual assault cases outside of the military chain of command to ensure that military prosecutors have no connection to the accused.

This is in stark contrast to his predecessor, Former President Donald Trump, who once suggested that the integration of women into the armed forces was an underlying cause of the sexual assault.

While it remains to be seen if Austin, as a former general, will grant Biden's wishes, activists and sexual abuse survivors told Insider that they are hopeful.

"In between this and the murder of Vanessa Guillen and all the interest that that resulted in, we are hopeful that this is finally going to be the time change comes," Col. Don Christensen, former chief prosecutor of the United States Air Force and President of Protect, Our Defenders, told Insider.


"I think it'll be a challenge for him [Austin] to be accepting that the system he operated in isn't working. The reason we haven't kept reform in the past is that previously, generals and admirals have gone to Capitol Hill and lobbied against it," he continued.

"But if their commander-in-chief makes it clear to them that it's time for a change, I think it could get passed easily."

On social media, groups raising awareness about the issue are also sharing the news. The "I Am Vanessa Guillen" Facebook page posted a link to an article about the harassment reviews, writing: "We need #JusticeForVanessaGuillen and passing the #IamVanessaGuillenAct."

One sexual assault survivor and former soldier, who was stationed at an Air Force Base in Texas in 2018, told Insider that there's a "sense of anticipation" among survivors.

The 24-year-old woman, who did want to be named for this article because her case is still under review, said she'd been involved in the "inspiring" #IAmVanessaGuillen movement since the summer.


"Having gone through it myself, I know the system is deeply flawed and victims like me rarely get what we ask for," she told Insider. "In the past, military and political leaders have always made promises of wanting to fix this problem, but a lot of it has just been talk, no action."

Sexual abuse is a deep-rooted issue in the US military. Survivors hope new Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin can change that.
US Army

"How Austin does is something we will only know in the months to come. I just hope that we can start getting some justice and see some real change," she added. "The trauma we've had to go through has been horrible."

Someone who witnesses this trauma first-hand is Dr. Eugene Lipov, a trauma expert for the Stella Center and a board-certified physician in Anesthesiology.

Lipov, who works closely with military abuse victims and treats them using a treatment called the Stellate Ganglion Block, told Insider: "The new administration seems to be moving in a very positive direction. So I'm hoping this will all be worked out nicely. I proof is in the pudding."

"Even if they manage to make reforms that reduce these cases, first of all, you're going to stop a huge amount of misery and you're also going to prevent people from leaving the military. And quite frankly, we'll be saving lives," Lipov added.


"So I'm hoping this will be the beginning of the change."