Army Spc. Sarah Reyes’ instincts had always prompted her to run toward danger, not away from it.
“I lived for it, and I was good at it,” she said of her time as an Army combat medic, which included a nine-month stint in Afghanistan.
But today, she is a different person.
Reyes still fears talking about the night she says she was raped by a “monster” disguised in combat fatigues at Ft. Stewart, Georgia – a member of her own platoon who had served at her side while deployed overseas.
“I am terrified that my story isn’t good enough … that it doesn’t represent what’s going on,” Reyes said. But despite that fear, she is speaking out for the first time, telling CNN she hopes her words can help others.
Reyes said she now suffers from extreme anxiety and has a tendency to “run away and avoid things” due to the pain inflicted by a man she had grown to trust nearly four years ago.
Like the vast majority of military victims who report crimes of sexual violence, Reyes said she remains dissatisfied with the way she was treated by investigators who decided not to pursue charges against the alleged assailant.
Her experience is an illustration of what many survivors described as a broken system that they say perpetuates a culture that suppresses the reporting of sexually violent crimes.
Recent reports of sexual misconduct by high-profile politicians, entertainment moguls and media personalities have revived a public discussion about sexual assault and revealed a deep-seated culture of tolerance of inappropriate behavior that also extends into the US military.
While the issue of sexual assault in the military has been widely reported for years, the recent spate of allegations against individuals and momentum of the #MeToo movement has prompted a renewed effort for transparency within the armed services.
In November, 200 women working in national security signed a letter titled #metoonatsec, stating that this is a problem they also face.
Those who signed the letter included women who have worked as ambassadors, civilians at the Pentagon, military officers, staffers on Capitol Hill and professors as well as women in the nonprofit and think tank worlds.
“This is not just a problem in Hollywood, Silicon Valley, newsrooms or Congress,” the women said in their letter. “It is everywhere.”
‘He had his hand around my neck’
Reyes said she has actively avoided speaking out because she felt that some of the circumstances around the alleged assault – including the use of alcohol and gaps in her memory – delegitimized her case in the eyes of Army investigators and many of her fellow soldiers.
Prior to the alleged assault, Reyes said she was at a party in the barracks, where she and her fellow soldiers were drinking.
Reyes told CNN that she did not feel like she drank too much but noted that she was “not making her own drinks” and “does not have much memory” of the night.
Although the timeline of the evening is still fuzzy at times, Reyes said she now recalls more about the what occurred – including feeling very tired during the party and lying in the bed of a male soldier.
“Next thing I remember is being in his bed and him being so nice to me,” Reyes said. “Then I kind of zone out and don’t remember much … I think we were kissing at that point.”
The next morning, Reyes said she woke up feeling confused and physically sick but initially did not recall having sex.
“All I could remember were the nice things he was saying – like my own brain had tricked me into believing or remembering the good things,” she said.
At that point, Reyes said that she still did not fully realize that she had been raped and even wrote the man a message on Facebook to apologize for leaving his room so abruptly.
“At some level I must have known, but it was not what I was focused on,” she said.
The realization that something beyond her initial memory of the night had occurred did not fully set in until the next day, when her friends asked if she had consented to everything that happened during the encounter.
“That moment was like someone flipped on a light switch – I realized I didn’t want it all to happen,” Reyes said. “My body went numb and I was crying. … (I) felt like my world had ended and I couldn’t figure out why.”
Reyes maintained that she was incapable of giving consent at the time and emphasized that she would not have willingly agreed to have sexual intercourse under normal circumstances – highlighting that the soldiers in her platoon were aware that she and her best friend, Melissa, had both recently decided to abstain from sex until marriage as part of a pact to recommit themselves to their Christian faith.
“We had both been in relationships that had gone bad. We wanted to start fresh, and we were committed to abstaining from sex until marriage,” Melissa told CNN.
“We were the church girls, everyone in our platoon knew this,” Reyes said, adding that some of her fellow soldiers said she was acting provocatively during the party but that behavior “is not who I am.”
CNN has agreed not to use Melissa’s last name to protect her privacy.
Additional memories began to surface over the course of the next few days, according to Reyes.
“Now I know more happened,” she said. “He had me bent over and had his hand around my neck and was behind me and was raping me.”
“He was still saying nice things while he was doing it. … I remember trying to turn around and push him off me, but he kept saying nice things and kept going,” Reyes added. “If someone had asked me if I had suicidal thoughts at that moment, I would have said yes – that terrified me.”
That realization drove her to initially tell Melissa and Kim Speedy, a counselor working at Ft. Stewart at the time.
Speedy ultimately encouraged Reyes to report the incident.
Reyes told the investigators – all of whom were males – as much as she could remember about the assault but was informed that there was not enough evidence to pursue charges against the accused assailant due, in part, to the gaps in her memory.
“He asked if I said no,” Reyes said about the investigator, a detail that, at the time, she was not completely certain about.
“I said, ‘I don’t know,’” she said, adding that she kept wondering to herself why they did not believe her.
After a series of interviews over the course of several days, completing a rape kit and getting a CT scan, Reyes said she was told by investigators that the soldier “admitted it happened” but that they “don’t have anything to prove it.”
The soldier had admitted to “a sexual encounter that was violent (enough to almost break her neck) but claimed that she never said no,” according to Speedy, a mental health therapist who has treated victims of military sexual trauma for years and was the counselor who handled Reyes’ case in 2012.
But despite Reyes’ testimony, investigators found that the man did not rape or assault her because of his claim during the investigation that he stopped when she demonstrated an unwillingness to participate and that she was not incapacitated to the point where she was incapable of performing sexual acts.
Investigators also determined that although the man did place his hands around Reyes’ neck, the action was not done with the intent to force sexual acts or cause her bodily harm.
“There wasn’t enough to prosecute,” they kept saying, according to Reyes. “I don’t know what they would expect to have … should he have broken my neck?”
Speedy, who was the first person Reyes told about the incident and who advised her to report it at the time, said the investigators’ conclusion “shows exactly how a sexual assault is dismissed in the military” – particularly cases involving decorated soldiers.
“Based on the bruising around Sarah’s throat and the fact that she was sobbing, fearful of all touch and was found on the floor in the fetal position, rocking back and forth in a dark exam room, coupled with her statements about what happened, I can say with a 99% certainty that a sexual assault occurred,” she told CNN.
“People who engage in consensual sex do not present with those symptoms. This is exactly how these cases get swept under the rug. Facts are misrepresented by investigators and attorneys,” Speedy added.
Reyes said her “case was not straightforward” but that after talking to military investigators, she believes “there is a preconceived notion what the story should sound like, what the timeline should look like and what the reaction should be.”
The male soldier was ultimately allowed to continue his normal duties at Ft. Stewart and was never charged in military or civilian courts related to Reyes’ accusations.
CNN reached out to Ft. Stewart and the Pentagon for comment but they declined to discuss details pertaining to a specific investigation.
What is being done?
The Pentagon said that it remains committed to addressing the issue of sexual assault and harassment within the ranks as survivors demand accountability from military leadership.
“The Department of Defense continuously works to eliminate sexual assault and assault from the military, and we encourage service members to report all instances of sexual assault so we can provide support services and hold offenders accountable,” spokesman Col. Rob Manning told reporters last month after a #MeToo protest held outside the Pentagon.
In 2015, a bill sponsored by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, passed that ended the statute of limitations for rape cases in the military, banned commanders from reversing jury verdicts in sexual assault and rape cases, made it a crime to retaliate against personnel who report sex crimes, and permitted victims to have their cases handled by civilian authorities in certain circumstances.
President Donald Trump called the issue “a massive problem” during the 2016 election at a forum, where he was questioned about a 2013 tweet that said: “26,000 unreported sexual assaults in the military-only 238 convictions. What did these geniuses expect when they put men & women together?”
When asked if that meant the “only fix is to take women out of the military,” Trump said: “No, not to kick them out.”
“But something has to happen,” he said. “Right now part of the problem is nobody gets prosecuted. You have reported … you have the report of rape and nobody gets prosecuted.”
The Department of Defense recently released data showing that the number of reported sexual assaults that occurred at military bases and installations around the world have increased since 2013.
But in 2016, 68% of military victims did not report sexually violent crimes, according to data from the annual Department of Defense report on sexual assault.
“The truth is that the scourge of sexual assault in the military remains status quo,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, said about the 2017 Pentagon report. “(It) disappointingly shows a flat overall reporting rate and a retaliation rate against survivors that remains at an unacceptable 6 out of 10 for a third year in a row.”
Hiding in plain sight
Reyes is one of several former and current service members who told CNN that the military failed to properly address their reports of sexual assault, despite implementing programs like SHARP, or Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention.
CNN talked to five women who said they were assaulted while serving in the military, and data says 1 in 4 women are assaulted by someone in their chain of command – numbers that have led the Pentagon to target what it calls a pervasive issue of sexual assault within its ranks.
“There is a lot of victim-shaming that happens … the justice system has an archaic view of sexual assault,” according to Speedy.
“A lot of people are largely unaware of how the military justice system functions,” Speedy said, specifically referencing issues with what she called the “good soldier defense.”
The military tends to give decorated and successful soldiers the benefit of the doubt even when they are accused of a crime, she told CNN. “That mentality sets up a perfect breeding ground for someone who wants to assault women.”
“Eighty-five percent of assaults that occur in military are acquaintance rape,” she added, noting that service members are often “brainwashed to think these people would lay down their life for you or take a bullet for you.”
Capt. Celina Baldwin, who was recently deployed to Iraq, said she was raped after a night of drinking by an “acquaintance” – who was a member of the West Point Military Academy hockey team – while she was attending the academy in July 2011.
Speedy, who has seen all the related documents in Baldwin’s case and was present with the prosecution during the preliminary hearing, corroborated her story.
According to Baldwin, the assailant was a teammate of an ex-boyfriend.
“I woke up a couple of times during the act and told him to stop, but he continued,” she said. “I remember waking up the next morning feeling like something felt strange and remembering that he had sex with me while I was asleep.”
Baldwin did not immediately report the assault to Army leaders and also had trouble remembering the details of the encounter at first.
She told CNN that she “even apologized to him for falling asleep during sex as a way of asking for confirmation that it actually happened.”
“My rapist responded mentioning it was OK, and ultimately acknowledging that I fell asleep while he had sex with me,” she said.
But the process of piecing together memories of that night was something that took years and extensive therapy, according to Baldwin, who, like Reyes, described feeling confused about the idea that she was “raped” by someone she knew.
In addition to the July 2011 encounter, Baldwin said she was also subjected to unwanted touching and experienced sexual harassment throughout her time at West Point.
Over the span of two years, Baldwin said she was touched against her will on several occasions by two members of the West Point rugby team and was one of several female cadets mentioned in a series of “sexist and violent” emails disseminated by rugby players.
Baldwin was dating a member of the rugby team at the time.
“The culture on the West Point rugby team was very disgraceful toward women, especially female cadets,” she told CNN. “This behavior was so widely accepted and considered funny, cool and popular that it became a necessity to assimilate to if you wanted to be accepted into this community.”
Baldwin said she and several other female cadets were sexually harassed in the form of an email chain that the rugby team called “the highs and lows.”
“Each week, players would submit the ‘highs’ – things which deserved praise by the other teammate – and the ‘lows’ – things which deserved shaming by the other teammates. Female cadets were often the subject of the ‘highs and lows,’” Baldwin said.
The emails were ultimately turned over to West Point leadership, but the subsequent investigation resulted in a minimal one-week punishment for the team, and those involved were allowed to graduate from the academy with their 2013 class.
“On multiple occasions, the leadership at West Point and throughout the Army commended the rugby team for sticking together and taking the punishment as a team instead of singling out those who were ‘worse’ offenders than others,” Baldwin said.
The case resurfaced in the summer of 2013, when the Pentagon’s Inspector General’s office opened an investigation into how West Point leaders handled the situation.
During the course of this investigation, Baldwin said she disclosed that she had been touched against her will by members of the rugby team on multiple occasions.
Investigators also discovered that Baldwin had revealed the 2011 rape to her boyfriend at the time – prompting a separate inquiry into the incident.
But although investigators found probable cause of rape and sexual assault, officials determined that Baldwin’s “character was questionable and the statements I made could not be relied upon,” she said.
“The case went no further than this,” Baldwin added.
When she pushed investigators for more information, Baldwin said she was told that the case involving the two rugby players was “put on hold because they were at Ranger school.”
While soldiers who are under investigation or pending any sort of legal, UCMJ or Administrative Action are typically prevented from receiving “favorable action” – like admission to US Army Ranger School – Baldwin told CNN that she was notified that the two rugby players were not flagged due to a “mistake” and would not be removed from the program.
Baldwin has previously spoken out about what happened but told CNN she is “still very disappointed” in the way it was handled.
“The Army promised on multiple occasions, even at some of the most senior levels (Pentagon), that this would be handled the right way, but at the end of the day, no repercussions have been taken,” she told CNN.
The Washington Post reported in February 2017 – prior to the rise of the #MeToo movement – that Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, who currently serves as Trump’s national security adviser, was the commanding officer who presided over Baldwin’s assault case involving the two rugby players.
The Inspector General’s office investigated McMaster’s handling of the case and found that he had directed the indicators of a pending assault investigation be removed from the two rugby players’ records so they could attend Ranger school.
McMaster later said that he did not know all the rules for removing that information, and he was not formally reprimanded for his actions despite a memo from the Inspector General that said he mishandled the case.
“I still do not know the answer to this question – whether anything was done in response to these two Rugby players sexually assaulting me,” Baldwin said, adding that she recently found out that McMaster was also a rugby player while attending West Point as a cadet.
McMaster did not respond to multiple requests for comment from CNN on the case.
All three officers named in Baldwin’s reports now have leadership roles in the military, she said.
“They are still active-duty Army officers, and as they continue to be promoted and progress in their careers, they will take command at higher echelons over larger units of soldiers,” Baldwin told CNN. “I am concerned that one day they, accused of sexual assault themselves (and admitting to it), will be in a position, as commanders, to preside over other cases like this.”
When asked why she decided to remain in the service after her experience reporting sexual assault and harassment, Baldwin said that while she has the “utmost respect for those survivors” who chose to leave that she wanted to promote change from the inside.
“I think a lot of survivors are given an escape route and pushed out the door. However, for me, I want to be a part of the change,” she said.
A ‘pervasive pattern’ of silence
While the call to address the issue of sexual abuse in the military has gained momentum in recent months, many victims and experts said the Pentagon must do more to address cultural and systemic issues that exist if it is serious about meaningful reform.
“Despite the many efforts made by the military to address sexual assault and harassment, 58% of those who report a sexual assault also report being retaliated against, and only 4% of cases result in conviction,” said Lydia C. Watts, CEO of the Service Women’s Action Network, or SWAN. “True progress will be measured when there is a wholesale culture change in which retaliation is not tolerated, survivors feel safe coming forward and there are swift and fair prosecutions.”
In November, the Defense Department’s watchdog named “ensuring ethical conduct” one of the top 10 “management and performance” challenges for the Pentagon in 2018.
“In the category of personal misconduct, there has been a steady trend in substantiated allegations of improper relationships and sexual misconduct,” the report said.
When asked what message she would like to convey to Defense Secretary James Mattis about the issue of sexual assault, Reyes said, “Something needs to change. What they are doing now isn’t working.”
The ongoing public discussion about sexual assault perpetrated by celebrities and politicians also reveals an ironic truth about a “pervasive pattern” of silence that has existed for decades, according to Speedy.
“I think there is just a big veil of secrecy,” she said, noting that the military maintains a similar history of failing to report crimes to revelations within the entertainment, political and media realms.
“We protect our own,” Speedy said, “but we are protecting perps, not victims.”