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Your Career

Calling the Red Light Ugly

Commands are doing a better job of handling sexual assault cases

When I was an E-4 on board a ship, I remember sitting across from my command master chief, who has long since retired, during a holiday party committee briefing and him sliding an envelope across the table and asking me to look inside.

When I did, I found about five photos of him naked and in very lewd poses. I put the photos back in the envelope and sat silent. He said, "My wife sent those back to me, I guess she doesn't want them anymore. Do you know anyone that might?" He must have sensed my unease, as he quickly dismissed me. We never spoke of that incident again, but I also quit the holiday party committee and avoided the CMC at all possible costs.

Looking back now, more than 10 years later, I see that I was as much a part of the problems we have today as he was. I may have been a test subject, opening the door for this man to further harass. I was also serving as a poor example of someone not afraid to speak up - while also being afraid my command would not support me.

I was giving the green light to red light behavior. And I'm thankful now that commands are not afraid to call that red light ugly.

Take Petty Officer 1st Class Stephanie Purpish for example. Coming from a military family, she has always felt safe in the Navy. She is passionate about what she does, and she has co-workers she trusts. And when one of them sexually assaulted her, she told her command. And the safety she felt, and the trust she had, only grew stronger.

"My assault happened in September 2012," said Purpish. "I was working at the National Naval ICE Center in Suitland, Md. A Navy civilian grabbed my breast and stated 'You owe me an hour and a half of that,' as he pushed himself against me and stared at my vaginal region. I was apparently in debt to him because I had just asked him to open the door for me due to having left my badge at home that day. I should have seen it coming. He was always offering to 'pay for some time' with me, flirting and being all in all inappropriate. Not just to me, but many females."

Like me, Purpish had brushed it off before, but with the amount of focus being put on the prevention of sexual assault, she knew she had to do something.

"I pulled my senior enlisted advisor aside and asked him to make sure the Navy civilians are aware of Navy policy in regard to sexual assault and harassment," said Purpish. "I told him what happened. He was furious that this type of thing was going on at the command. He immediately brought it to the CO, XO and NCIS."

Purpish said in that moment she was not worried about her career, and if reporting would bring adverse consequences. She was only worried about her safety and the safety of others. Her command had made it clear through training and daily interaction that any misconduct would be dealt with. And it was.

"My chain of command did everything by the book," said Purpish. "I was given resources that day. They constantly checked on me and made sure I knew they were available, even if it was just to talk. NCIS found enough evidence to bring charges on the man. NCIS investigators were very kind as well. They did everything in their power to make me feel comfortable."

Purpish didn't take advantage of the counseling services offered until she reached her breaking point.

"I discovered that the man who assaulted me was having me and my family followed by a private investigator," said Purpish. "I was in the process of transferring to San Diego at the time, and I was referred to a wonderful therapist who helped me deal with the stress of the situation."

The case was eventually taken to trial. Purpish said she had so much support from her chains of command, both in Maryland and San Diego. They drove her to court, to get meals, to her hotel, and stayed huddled around her at all times during the court proceedings.

"I did feel some frustration from having to retell the incident, but I knew it was for the greater good," said Purpish. "The people who asked are the people supporting and helping me."

Although the judge ultimately ruled to dismiss the charges based on the grounds that he felt the district attorney overshot with the harshness of the charges, Purpish feels satisfied.

"My career has not been negatively impacted," said Purpish. "In fact, this experience has helped me grow as a Sailor and a woman. I see those stories of how the military 'brushes it under the rug,' and I for one never felt that in any way."

For another Sailor, who wishes to remain anonymous, her story was very similar in regard to trusting her command to do right by her.

"I joined the Navy Reserves in 2006 for financial stability and education benefits. I always felt safe in the Navy, and I still do. I had been on active duty for about four years, and the incident occurred at a small command during working hours in a naval facility. The individual always made me nervous, and I had even commented to a co-worker on that same day that he seemed unstable that day. I never in a million years thought that what took place would have or could have at work, in daylight, during working hours ... but it did.

"I was always nervous around him, and I did my best for him whenever I could. But I was also very scared to provoke him. On the morning this took place, I told him that I wasn't interested in him, his jokes, or his constant talking about his body in a sexual way. I have wondered since then if that was conversation that provoked this.

"Later that day we were having a cigarette, and I was talking about how I wanted to learn more self-defense. He offered to show me some different things and I didn't oppose him. We had a lounge area, and he asked me to follow him in there, except that after I entered he killed the lights and shut the door. If you can imagine all of your senses telling you to get out, then you know what I felt like on the inside. At that point, he told me that he was going to give me some training, and that training was all it was, but that it was going to seem very realistic. From that point he charged me, and threw me into a side room where no one could see through the door. He pulled my top off, threw me into walls and furniture, pinned me to the ground, exposed himself, bit me, shoved his hands down my pants, attempted to kiss me, etc., all the while yelling at me to fight him back. I did my very best to do just that, and every time I tried to get away he threw me back into the room telling me that he wasn't finished with me yet. I don't remember ever crying or even telling him to stop. The only thing I could do was fight my very hardest and try to get away. It wasn't until he heard noises from the hallway that it stopped.

"After the incident, I didn't really know what to do other than get out of there as fast I could. As I headed back toward the other Sailors, he recounted different statistics about victims knowing their attackers and continuing to see them in social settings and praising me for how well I fought back. He also told me that next time he wouldn't be so rough on me and that he was a little concerned that I had felt that to be too realistic. I recognized two things at that point: one, this wasn't the worst that he could do to me, and, two, he thought that he had enough control over me that he could do it again and it would be OK. Those were the two factors that scared me the most.

"I told a friend first, before I even left work. One of the first classes was a female that I trusted and respected very much. She was very adamant that I needed to report the incident. I knew how strong I was, and at that point I decided that no matter what the outcome was I needed to report it, if for no other reason than to keep something like this from happening to someone else.

"From the very moment that we went to the chain of command, they followed every line of instruction. I was assigned a victim advocate, who took me to the local police department and filed a civil report, and we started the Navy process as well. I was never once made to feel like it was my fault, and the commanding officer automatically gave me two days away from work so that the command could issue a military protective order for my safety. I believe it was during those two days that two others came forward as well.

"I went to counseling via Military OneSource, I had a wonderful victim advocate through the process who continued to check on me for months after.

"My command did everything that you could imagine. They followed every single guideline and instruction and constantly reached out to me to ensure that I was alright.

"It was nerve racking, and I was scared of going to trial, but the reporting process was very easy. With the amount of training that Sailors are given these days, I had no questions and knew what I was entitled to and the different reporting procedures.

"Ultimately, the defense offered a plea deal where the command lowered the charges, and he pleaded guilty to them. In return, he received 30 days of incarceration, rank reduction, and an other-than-honorable discharge.

"I know it's scary, but don't be afraid. There can be good that comes from all of this, and you are strong enough to make it happen. I have put it behind me mostly. I still wonder if I had done things differently if I could have avoided all of it. But on the other hand, if it hadn't been me it may have been someone else, and at least I was strong enough to get through it and keep him away from other women in the Navy."

I don't know if reporting my situation all that time ago would have made any difference in my career or his. I don't know if I would have been believed or not. However, I do know that the atmosphere was different, the conversations were different and the stigma surrounding these sorts of things was different. The Navy has come a long way. Commands have evolved. Sailors have gained a louder voice. Sexual assault prevention isn't just a poster on the wall; the walls these days are talking.

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