A Growing Problem: Sexual Assault within the Special Operations Community and How to Stop It

Enlisting or commissioning in the U.S. Armed Forces is an honorable decision. The decision to commit to the national defense of one’s nation and serve honorably, representative of all that the United States stands for, is a decision not to be made lightly and one that requires true discipline and strength. The majority of the U.S. military are professional and dutiful soldiers who act within the rule of law and serve out of a sense of country and a desire to improve their own socioeconomic standings.

However, the military has an incredibly volatile problem of sexual assault within the service.

Sexual Violence in the Armed Forces

In recent memory, there have been many instances of sexual violence, assault, or harassment within the service that have been endemic and highly damaging to the force as a whole. The Vanessa Guillén case is perhaps the most publicized case involving sexual harassment and a failure of leadership within the military, yet other cases are easily able to be found across all branches. According to a 2018 survey, “…more than 20,000 [service members] had been sexually assaulted in the past year—6.2 percent of all military women, and 0.7 percent of military men” while a study by RAND Corporation “calculated that 8,000 service members left the military in a 28-month period after they were sexually harassed”.

In the aftermath of the Guillén murder in 2020, the U.S. Armed Forces and the U.S. government as a whole have significantly advanced their sexual assault, harassment, and abuse trainings. Multiple studies were commissioned and conducted throughout 2021 which largely laid the blame at the feet of commanders, finding they often fostered a toxic and hostile environment that allowed for sexual violence and harassment to take place. Also in 2021, the Pentagon and U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) created a “roadmap” which would implement many recommendations including the “establishment of offices for special victims prosecutors…[create] a workforce of independent investigators for sexual harassment…[eliminate] sexual assault response coordinator and victim advocate roles…in favor of a professionalized workforce” among many others.

Finally, in 2022, the Vanessa Guillén Act was passed which allowed for “the decision to prosecute sexual assault and sexual harassment [to] be made outside service members’ chain of command and they will be offered protections against retaliation”, an item that many had requested. Furthermore, President Biden signed an executive order which will “make sexual harassment an offense under the Uniform Code of Military Justice” and will “strengthen the military’s response to domestic violence incidents and increase penalties for service members who share “intimate visual images” without permission”.

According to Samuel Dordulian, a former Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney and sex crimes prosecutor, who successfully represented thousands of sexual assault survivors in California,  ” … U.S. Military Academies see increased sexual assault reports in 2020-2021 school year. Based on a  Defense Department released report claims of sexual assault increased by 25%, while claims of sexual harassment increased by 150% at U.S. military academies during the latest academic year.”

There is a growing change within the U.S. Armed Forces in regards to sexual assault. High-ranking officers and civilians within the DoD and Executive Branch realize the effect that sexual assault has upon the military and the national defense/security infrastructure of the United States. There is still a long way to go in terms of completely removing sexual assault and harassment from the military, but this

A Concerning Culture

While most of these assaults and harassments happen in the regular military, sexual assault is equally as prevalent in the Special Operations Forces (SOF) community of the U.S. Armed Forces of which many examples can be found.

In 2016, one Army 1st Lieutenant (promoted to Captain in 2019) alleged she was sexually assaulted by a member of Delta Force, Sergeant First Class Cristobal Lopez Vallejo, in 2016, during which her case was strangely transferred from the Fayetteville District Attorney’s Office to the Army’s Judge Advocate General (JAG) with the operator being acquitted by a jury of SOF operators. One civilian observer, who asked the Army to investigate the handling of the case, was later placed on administrative leave, investigated for possibly violating Operational Security (OPSEC), and eventually fired while losing her security clearance.

In 2019, an entire platoon of U.S. Navy SEALs were pulled from Afghanistan following incidents of drinking while on duty, but, more seriously, “a senior member of the platoon had been accused of raping a female service member attached to the unit”; the entire platoon decided to remain quiet and not cooperate with the investigation, leading to their removal from combat. The SEAL in question, Petty Officer 1st Class Adel Enayat, pled guilty “to a misdemeanor charge of battery and assault for biting the sailor’s face and grabbing her neck during [rough, consensual sex]” while the sexual assault charge was dropped; he was given “a general discharge under honorable conditions”.

Also in March of 2019, a pilot with the Air Force’s 919th Special Operations Group, Lieutenant Colonel Michael B. Black, was charged with sexual assault, yet found not guilty two months later of all charges, being able to remain within the Air Force Reserve.

More recently, a Sergeant 1st Class with the U.S. Army Special Forces, Kurt Williamson, was accused of “inappropriately [touching a translator] on multiple occasions during military exercises in 2020” while in Thailand. While the translator did not press charges as she could not afford a lawyer, Williamson was seemingly found by his command to have committed the incident given he was “disciplined over the incident”. Williamson was allowed to retire in January of 2022.

Finally, this January, a Chief Warrant Officer 4 with the U.S. Army’s Special Operations Recruiting Battalion, Kevin Gause, has been charged with sexual assault and currently is facing “a general court-martial”, scheduled to take place in May.

As one can see, there are many instances of sexual assault on the part of SOF operators, against members of the U.S. Armed Forces and members of host nation countries. In many cases, which is sadly not uncommon in U.S. military (and sexual assault) cases, the accused is often found not guilty, charges are never brought due to a lack of evidence, or the charges are dropped in exchange for lesser charges. In certain cases involving SOF operators (ones not purely sexual assault), the Armed Forces have seemingly protected soldiers and retained them in spite of finding issues with their performance.

How Sexual Assault Affects the National Defense Mission

There is not only a legal issue here, but also an issue that affects the entire national security and defense standing of the United States. When a soldier commits a sexual assault for a foreign nation translator or soldier (as Williamson did in Thailand), the relationship is impacted between the United States and that host nation. Some units, commanders, or individuals may desire not to work with any U.S. SOF operators while the government itself could work to no longer include a whole unit or specific persons from working within their nation. Furthermore, the entire goal of SOF units in this capacity is to build a positive, mutually beneficial relationship with host members; this criminal activity completely destroys any goodwill being performed and threatens the positive relationship being made, potentially weakening U.S. national defense/security measures and posing problems from a strategic perspective.

When a case of sexual assault occurs with an SOF operator assaulting or harassing a member of their own military (as the SEAL case illustrates), this can lead to a severe breakdown in unit cohesion, making accomplishing the desired goal difficult given there may be tensions between team members or conflicts between military units. Not only does the sexual assault taint the platoon’s, brigade’s, or battalion’s reputation as a fighting force (which affects their perception stateside and within the military as a whole), it can also cause problems when facing combat scenarios in which trauma may be re-ignited.

All of this goes without the individual costs of sexual assault; unbelievable psychological, physical, and emotional trauma. This can include panic attacks, PTSD related flashbacks, disassociation, eating and sleep disorders, and self-harm, among many others. While these are personal traumas, this has an effect upon one’s entire life which in turn has an effect upon one’s work life and the effectiveness of the organization as a whole. However, this is a secondary result compared to the individual costs.

While the strides being made to root out sexual assault and harassment throughout the entire Armed Forces is significant and seems to be truly developing, unlike in the past, the efforts seem to stop with the SOF community. The primary reason for this can be based upon the culture of SOF.

Andrew Milburn, a former commander of the Marine Raider Regiment, identified how the SOF community must identify and acknowledge the problem, starting with entrusting “members of the organization [usually Senior Non-Commissioned Officers (SNCOs)] who have access and influence with the rank and file, who can balance loyalty to the organization with trust and acceptance from those who make things happen at the lowest levels, and are thus well positioned to root out and resolve problems before they have a chance to fester”, adhere to the code of conduct and hold accountable those who break that code or engage in such dishonorable behavior, and continually work to remove those bad actors from the organization. Milburn closes by again noting that the organization should always work to acknowledge the problems within the service and continually check in on potential regression or backsliding.

The issue of sexual assault within the military as a whole affects the ability of the U.S. Armed Forces to carry out national defense and security strategies both abroad and at home. It degrades the professionalism of our forces abroad, it can damage foreign military relations with important security partners, and, most importantly, it severely damages individual soldiers who serve their nation honorably. The further lack of accountability (showcased most clearly through SFC Vallejo case) for those who commit criminal actions against foreign partners and fellow service members is damaging and gives the perception that the U.S. Armed Forces and the Special Operations community as a whole does not care about this very real and serious issue.

There is a very serious problem within SOF and the solution starts with leadership, having commanders who truly take this issue seriously and work to make their fighting forces wholly professional and accountable.

Alan Cunningham
Alan Cunningham
Alan Cunningham is a graduate of Norwich University's Master of Arts in International Relations program. He is currently working as an AP U.S. History Teacher in San Antonio, but intends to join the U.S. Navy as an Officer in the Summer of 2022. He has been accepted to a PhD in History program with the University of Birmingham in the UK. He has been published in the Jurist, the U.S. Army War College's War Room, Security Magazine, and the Asia-Pacific Security Magazine, in addition to many others.