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Messenger: 'Unsubstantiated' — the most painful word in military sexual assault complaints

Messenger: 'Unsubstantiated' — the most painful word in military sexual assault complaints

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Sexton Investigative Report

A section from the investigative report into the sexual assault complaint filed by Capt. Heather Sexton.

Capt. Heather Sexton thought she was prepared for everything.

When she filed a sexual assault complaint with the Missouri National Guard two years ago, she was prepared to be her own advocate.

Sexton was prepared to push back her planned resignation to make sure the Guard investigated her complaint. She was prepared for a negative finding. From everything she had read and heard from other women in the military, sexual assault complaints rarely lead to any real discipline.

She was not prepared for what the report actually said.

“The Investigative Team finds, by a preponderance of the evidence, that on or about 29 April 2017, there was physical contact between the reported perpetrator and victim involving the reported perpetrator grabbing the victim’s groin and breast and stomach,” reads the report prepared by the Army’s Office of Complex Investigations. “However, the Investigative Team found insufficient evidence to determine the reported perpetrator’s intent of the physical contact, thus, we were unable to establish that intentional sexual contact occurred.”

The report, which she had to fight to get long after it had been filed, hit her “like a wall.”

“I thought I was prepared for every scenario,” Sexton says. “I knew it was my word vs. his. I had mentally prepared for it to come back unsubstantiated. I hadn’t prepared for the report to actually say, yes, this happened to you, but it’s OK that it happened.”

After 10 years in the Missouri Army National Guard, Sexton is no longer in active service. She and her husband live in west St. Louis County. She’s telling her story in part because of an email she received in March, shortly before she left the Guard.

“Across the Total Army, we continue to focus on eradicating sexual harassment and sexual assault from our ranks,” wrote Gen. Mark Milley, Army chief of staff, and Secretary of the Army Mark Esper. It was an email sent to all senior Army leaders following years of criticism and congressional action seeking to force the military to take sexual assault more seriously. “We must do everything within our power to rid the Army of these crimes.”

The letter points out that sexual assault reports in the Army are increasing, an indication that “soldiers trust their leaders to address the situation in a professional manner.”

What good is that, Sexton wonders, if the reports validate women’s complaints but do nothing to punish predators?

“The perpetrators are not being held accountable,” she wrote in an email to the two military leaders.

The assault

Sexton’s assault happened in Utah. She and her unit were at Camp Williams for training. The local Guard unit hosted them for a social event. Alcohol was served. Afterward, as had been her practice, she had a male soldier walk her back to the women’s barracks, which was down a long, dark, secluded sidewalk. She was the only woman in the unit at the training exercise.

She and the sergeant who walked her to the barracks engaged in a personal conversation about gender issues. He explained, according to the report, that he was “struggling” with questions of gender. “I felt he needed to talk,” Sexton says. The investigative report says he asked if he could “touch” her. She thought he was going to give her a hug.

“He grabbed my vagina like a bowling ball and shook me back and forth,” she says. “I just kind of stood there in shock. I felt like I wasn’t even in my own body. He used my kindness as weakness.”

The next day, Sexton says, she couldn’t stop crying. She visited with a chaplain, called her husband and flew home. Two days later she filed a report of her assault. She told her story over and over again to an ever-changing sexual assault response coordinator.

Letter of concern

After the investigation determined that the sexual assault was “unsubstantiated” — even while finding that Sexton “did not consent to a violent touching” — every member of the unit, including Sexton, received a “letter of concern” from Gen. David Boyle, the Joint Task Force Commander of the Missouri National Guard for violating the Guard’s alcohol and “fraternization” policies.

“I hope going forward you will exercise better judgment and comport yourself appropriately,” Boyle wrote.

The letter, and the lack of action taken against Sexton’s perpetrator, spurred a strong response from her special victims’ counsel to Gen. Stephen Danner, the adjutant general of the Missouri Guard.

That letter takes issue with the legal conclusions in the investigative report, calling them “improper and unsupported by findings of fact.” It urges Danner to punish the perpetrator. “This intentional act violated Capt. Sexton’s reasonable expectation to be treated with dignity and respect while serving her country and state, and amounts to serious misconduct that should be addressed appropriately,” Sexton’s counsel wrote to Danner.

The letter, apparently, fell on deaf ears.

Sexton says Danner did not punish the accused.

The National Guard Bureau, through a spokeswoman, declined to discuss the investigation. So did the Missouri National Guard.

“Per legal counsel, both Maj. Gen. Danner and the Missouri National Guard are legally prohibited from commenting on administrative actions,” Maj. John Quin wrote in an email. “The Missouri National Guard takes all reports of sexual assault and harassment seriously.”

Sexton believes her experience belies that last statement. She has sent letters to Gov. Mike Parson, Missouri U.S. Sens. Josh Hawley and Roy Blunt, and U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, alerting them to the results of her investigation. She’s speaking out, she says, because her military training as an officer taught her to stand up for others.

“I’m an officer, and this happened to me,” Sexton says. “What happens when a private gets sexually assaulted? I felt a strong responsibility as a leader to make sure this doesn’t happen to other women.”

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