Top U.S. Army Defender of Sexual Assault Victims Was Assaulted Twice
Lt. Col. Celia FlorCruz helped lead a revolution
U.S. Army lieutenant colonel Celia FlorCruz graduated from one of the first West Point classes to admit women. Today, she’s the soldier readiness officer for the Army’s 7th Infantry Division at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington State.
This summer she’ll be deploying to Afghanistan. She’s a trailblazer and a model soldier. And for years, she lived with a terrible secret.
FlorCruz has survived sexual assault. Twice.
Before taking her current job, FlorCruz managed the now two-year-old organization at Lewis-McChord that works to prevent, and respond to, sexual harassment and assault.
But it wasn’t until Feb. 17, during a speech at Pacific Lutheran University near Lewis-McChord, that FlorCruz went public with her own experiences with assault.
FlorCruz said she decided to talk about her past because she wanted victims to know they don’t have to be ashamed — something she said she struggled with for decades as the military, and American society in general, have struggled to address a sexual-assault crisis.
From victim to soldier
FlorCruz was just 17 years old at the time of her first sexual assault. She was a student at the University of Virginia. An upperclassman — a resident adviser who had taken an interest in her — undressed her and pinned her to her bed.
FlorCruz’s roommate opened the door, interrupting the assault.
“I was vulnerable, away from my familiar environment,” FlorCruz recalled. “I was humiliated — I felt guilty because my own convictions had been compromised. I was also ashamed because I thought I was more competent than that — how do you find yourself naked with a guy you don’t even like?”
She reported the incident to her own RAs. She credited the RAs — one of whom was a young Katie Couric — for believing her and supporting her. She said that the university handled her case well — considering what it had to work with in the late 1970s.
But the experience was jarring for FlorCruz. She quit the varsity track team and her grades suffered. She decided she needed a change. So she enrolled in the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
It was a bold move for a young woman at the time.
West Point had only just begun accepting female applicants. The academy was still very much a man’s world.
During her junior year, FlorCruz attended a tailgate party at a football game. Like many of the cadets, she drank.
A male classmate kept giving her beers, trying to get her more drunk. She said she had a bad feeling.
FlorCruz left the party and went back to her barracks. She didn’t know the young man had followed her. She woke up with him in her bed, fondling and trying to undress her.
She had no hope of overpowering him — he was close to six feet tall — but she fought back hard enough to make him leave.
“He told me he wouldn’t be so nice next time,” FlorCruz told students at PLU. “I was frightened. I felt nauseous and defiled. I went to the shower and turned on the water as hot as I could stand it, which is a universal response of victims.”
She would later learn that her attacker had also assaulted others.
“Being assaulted by someone who is supposed to be like a brother to you is a betrayal with a pain that cuts very, very deeply.”
Another male cadet, a childhood friend, came to check on FlorCruz. He saw the assailant — whom neither he nor FlorCruz liked — leaving the barracks. He feared the worse.
He asked FlorCruz what had happened and she told him. He asked her if she wanted to report it. At that time, FlorCruz said academy authorities would have seen her as a disruption and would likely have reassigned her to a different company. She told her friend to keep quiet.
Her friend, a skinny young man, offered to go beat up her much larger attacker. “He’s so sweet,” FlorCruz quipped. She talked him out of his revenge scheme.
Later, she began dating a cadet named Kenny Dahl. “I was going to dump him after three months … [but] he treated all women with respect, as well as the men around him. So I married him.”
After commissioning, FlorCruz would go on to fly medevac missions during Operation Desert Storm and to command a medical unit at Fort Drum in New York. She resolved not to be defined by her negative experiences.
A long struggle
But the stories like that of FlorCruz’s assault are tragically common.
In 1992, a Navy lieutenant named Paula Coughlin reported that she had been assaulted at the annual Tailhook convention — an alcohol-fueled gathering of naval aviators — in Las Vegas in September 1991.
The Naval Investigation Service, at the time under the command of Rear Adm. Duvall Williams, concluded that the problems at Tailhook were isolated — and that a small number of junior enlisted men were the chief culprits.
Assistant Secretary of the Navy Barbara Pope was unconvinced, especially after Williams said in front of her that “a lot of female Navy pilots are go-go dancers, topless dancers or hookers.” Pope threatened to resign if the Navy didn’t take the allegations seriously.
A follow-up investigation found that 100 Navy and Marine aviators sexually assaulted at least 83 women and seven men during the convention.
“Everyone needs to seriously lighten up,” Lt. Gary Mandich, a naval aviator and one of the alleged assailants, told reporters. “What do they expect? This is Vegas, baby! They call this symposium ‘tail’ hook for a reason!”
Williams resigned his commission. The catastrophic failures of Williams’ tenure led to NIS reorganizing as Naval Criminal Investigative Service — NCIS. Lawmakers pressured the military to crack down on sexual violence in the ranks.
By 2004, FlorCruz had left active duty to become a reservist, allowing her to spend more time with her family. Dahl remained on active duty at Fort Sill in Oklahoma. FlorCruz underwent training to become a civilian victim’s advocate on base.
Since Tailhook, the military has established a number of programs and initiatives — all with different acronyms — to help prevent sexual assault. They met with uneven success.
Scandals still intermittently erupted, while many other incidents went unreported. Many activists placed the blame on a system that often drew commanders into an investigation — commanders who, in many cases, were in charge of both the accuser and the accused.
In the best of circumstances, the system forced well-meaning officers to make complex legal decisions they were not always qualified to make. In the worst of circumstances, commanders overturned rape convictions against popular subordinates — part of what many activists refer to as the “good soldier defense.”
In 2012, the Oscar-nominated documentary The Invisible War sent shockwaves through the Pentagon. The film features the testimonies of assault survivors and former military investigators, describing the crimes and how commanders dealt with them. Then-secretary of defense Leon Panetta viewed the film on April 14, 2012.
Just two days later, Panetta issued a directive requiring that all sexual assault cases be handled by senior officers — rank of colonel or higher — limiting the role of lower-ranking officers managing cases in their own units. Not long after, each of the services began instituting a wide range of new reforms and programs.
By 2013, FlorCruz was back on active duty. She and Dahl — now a general — were both working at Lewis-McChord. There, Army leaders approached FlorCruz about heading up the base’s assault-prevention efforts. FlorCruz would lead a team of army Sexual Assault Response Coordinators, or SARCs
FlorCruz was an obvious candidate for the job. Her time as an advocate at Fort Sill and her experience with medical units made her uniquely qualified for the position. At the time, Army leaders were completely unaware of that she had been assaulted at University of Virginia and at West Point.
“I didn’t want the job, honestly,” FlorCruz told War Is Boring. She said she had already spent a lot of time working on sexual harassment and assault issues — and had just concluded a stressful assignment.
But ultimately, she agreed to lead Lewis-McChord’s SARCs and organize workshops and discussion groups with soldiers.
It’s all about attitudes and culture, she said.
“All cases of sexual assault start with harassment,” said Capt. Emily Haynes, a subordinate who replaced FlorCruz when she took her current job at division headquarters.
By stamping out harassment, the Army can create a safer and healthier work environment — and more cohesive teams, Haynes said. To achieve that, the SARCs talk with soldiers about their attitudes and what shapes those attitudes — everything from their upbringings to pop culture.
FlorCruz said that one of the SARCs started a catchphrase —
“Sexual harassment is a gateway drug.”
During FlorCruz’s tenure, Lewis-McChord opened a Sexual Harrassment/Assault Response and Prevention resource center — the army’s first. It put SARCs, lawyers and medical personnel together in one building.
Lt. Col. Brian Watkins, an aviation officer in the 7th Infantry Division Headquarters, praised the SHARP team’s work. “Initially [prevention training] was a lot of PowerPoint presentations,” Watkins said. “But we’ve found better ways”
He also said soldiers are more aware now of what is and is not acceptable, as well as the resources available to them.
“I don’t think you could ask a single soldier who wouldn’t know about SHARP and couldn’t tell you where this center is,” Watkins said.
“We always keep our phones on us and we’re available 24 hours” said Sgt. 1st Class Chandale Keno, one of the SARCs. Every SARC is a nationally accredited victim’s advocate.
They make an effort at diversity. FlorCruz said that it’s important that advocates represent a wide mix of ethnicities, body types and ranks.
“Whatever makes an advocate approachable for victims and comfortable speaking about their experience,” she explained. “We have somebody for everyone.”
Sgt. 1st Class Chris Beauchamp is a former infantry platoon sergeant and a combat veteran. “I took this job because I wanted to help soldiers,” he told War Is Boring. “The same thing I did when I was a platoon sergeant.”
He said he’s talked to several male victims of harassment and assault. He explained that men are particularly hesitant to talk about assault. There’s a pervasive view that men can’t be raped or sexually assaulted.
“Quite frankly, it’s considered bullshit,” Beauchamp said, describing our society’s bias against male sexual assault survivors.
In late 2013, Pres. Barrack Obama signed legislation that prevents commanders from overturning jury convictions, requires civilian review when commanders that decline to prosecute, mandates dismissal or dishonorable discharge — or both — for convicted servicemen and criminalizes retaliation against soldiers who report assault.
Keno said that since the SHARP Resource Center opened at Lewis-McChord, both the program and Army policy at large have gone through a lot of changes. It’s been a learning process. Notably, reports of sexual harassment and assault actually increased in 2013.
But Army leaders, SARCs and even some activists say this might actually be a good thing. Many point to the statistic as reflecting a growing trust in the military’s resources and reporting practices — and a cultural shift toward holding people accountable.
The Army sees Lewis-McChord’s SHARP model as the way forward and has tried to replicate it at bases around the country and overseas.
“We’re moving away from the old attitude that used to be ‘that’s her problem, not mine,’” FlorCruz said. “We’ve moved toward a culture of ‘this is our problem.’”
But senior officers —and not prosecutors — still decide when to bring charges against troops. Many activists — and even several active-duty JAG officers — insist that prosecution should be fully under the control of military lawyers and impartial criminal investigators.
U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, has repeatedly pushed for legislation that would take investigations out of the chain of command. But she has never managed to get enough votes to pass a bill.
In a large percentage of cases, targets of harassment and abuse tend to be junior soldiers between the ages of 18 and 25. These are young people who are often away from home for the first time — and inexperienced with alcohol. Predators view them as easy prey.
FlorCruz said that rapists — whether in the military or civilian world —represent a minority of the population. She told students that a small number of serial offenders are responsible for most assaults.
These serial offenders aren’t necessarily lurking behind trees or in dark alleys. In many cases, they’re in positions of power.
They exploit their status — and their victims’ trust. In some military cases, perpetrators of harassment and assault have been soldiers in leadership positions who are quite good at their jobs.
That can make junior soldiers afraid to formally call out their abusers.
But that doesn’t make military leaders immune from justice.
“You’d be surprised how easy it is to bring down offenders,” Beuchamp said. He said he’s aware that officers and senior NCOs can appear untouchable, but that ultimately commanders have every reason to root out troublemakers — particularly if they demonstrate a pattern of misconduct.
Keno agreed. She said that in her experience, commanders have been incredibly supportive of the SARCs’ work. “They don’t want predators in their ranks.”
Even if a soldier makes a “restricted report” to Army Criminal Investigation Command — meaning they don’t formally come forward with charges and their commander isn’t notified — FlorCruz said the SHARP team can find ways of identifying offenders.
“CID can hint to us that there might be something there,” she explained.
Soldiers depend on each other with their lives, and it’s important that they know they can trust their chains of command. FlorCruz said that, at least at Lewis-McChord, commanders understand that soldiers who abuse their power and harass or assault their fellow soldiers erode that trust.
FlorCruz said that 99 of the 100 cases that Lewis-McChord’s SHARP team has been involved in have ended in convictions. “That’s not too bad.”
‘An insider threat’
There’s been significant progress in recent years. But not everyone in the military has so readily embraced these changes — or the role of SARCs.
In 2013, Ohio Army National Guard specialist Katie Rapp secretly recorded her interview with the colonel investigating her case. The officer openly disparaged the SARC working with Rapp … and told Rapp the advocate was incompetent — adding a racially-charged remark.
The investigator also defended Rapp’s harassers — one of whom was her company first sergeant — and asked her if she had a sexual relationship with her squad leader, a male soldier who defended her. The SARC on Rapp’s case has since been promoted, while the investigating colonel resigned.
In a 2014 report from the RAND Corporation, 62 percent of women interviewed said they’ve experienced personal or professional retaliation for reporting sexual assault.
There have even been high-profile cases of misconduct by those specifically tasked with fighting sexual misconduct. On May 6, 2013, Lt. Col. Jeffery Krusinski — then the Air Force’s officer in charge of sexual assault prevention — was arrested for sexual battery after groping a women in a parking lot in Arlington, Virginia.
On July 17, 2014, Lt. Col. Jay Morse — the Army’s top sex-crime prosecutor — was suspended for misconduct. A fellow Army lawyer alleged that he had made unwanted sexual advances — drunkenly groping and trying to kiss her — in a hotel room during a sexual assault prevention conference.
But possibly the worst case was Sgt. 1st Class Gregory McQueen, a soldier with Fort Hood’s SHARP program. McQueen ran a prostitution racket on the side, recruiting cash-strapped female soldiers to service his clients — mostly Fort Hood officers and senior NCOs. He even sexually assaulted at least one soldier who refused his efforts to recruit her.
McQueen lost his position at SHARP owing to poor evaluations, even before his arrest. In March, he took a plea deal with military prosecutors and will spend two years in prison followed by a dishonorable discharge.
“There will always be that small percentage of people like that who get through the cracks,” Beauchamp said of men like McQueen. “[But] you have to be really careful and make sure people are here for the right reasons.”
Over time, the screening process for SHARP personnel has become much more comprehensive. Early on, some SHARP recruits were merely soldiers who had some time on their hands, but who may not have been the most qualified. Today, recruiting is highly competitive — SARCs need to be enthusiastic about helping fellow soldiers and truly want to be there.
They also need to be re-screened frequently and pass a background check. “We’ve had a few surprises,” FlorCruz admitted.
In May 2014, Lewis-McChord hosted a SHARP summit. One of the speakers was Spec. Amber Eaton, a young soldier who experienced sexual assaults and frequent harassment during her time at Lewis-McChord.
Her first assault occurred at a party where other underage soldiers were drinking. She didn’t think she could report it without getting her friends in trouble, so she stayed quiet.
Later, she was randomly selected to meet with Lt. Gen. Stephen Lanza — Lewis-McChord’s highest ranking Army officer — as part of a roundtable for young female soldiers. She opened up about some of her experiences. Lanza told her neither she nor her friends would get in trouble.
Eaton’s attackers have since been court-marshaled. Eaton’s company commander and first sergeant accompanied her to court to show their support.
“The things we do in combat to protect our soldiers are the same things we should to protect soldiers at home,” Lanza told the audience at the SHARP conference. “It is not an aberration. It is an insider threat that needs to be resolved.”
Eaton told the Tacoma News Tribune that she would like to work with military sexual assault survivors. But as a civilian. She said she intends to leave the military when her enlistment ends later this year.
A societal problem
FlorCruz said that Americans need to work together to stop sexual assault and harrassment everywhere.
Even before her university speech, SHARP had been partnering with nearby colleges for some time. Like junior soldiers, college students are in their late teens and early 20s and in an unfamiliar environment — putting them in the demographic most at risk of sexual assault.
What’s more, many military bases are in or near college towns — and Lewis-McChord is no exception. Nearby Tacoma and Olympia both are home to college campuses and large student populations. College house parties are often popular with soldiers, as well.
Soldiers and students often strike up friendships and occasionally romantic relationships. Though the vast majority of these are positive for soldiers and students, there can also be a dark side.
“We share predators and victims,” FlorCruz said. “Hopefully we can work together to start connecting those dots.”
But the war against sexual assault will be a long one. FlorCruz said that pop culture all too often excuses or even celebrates it. She said that until that changes, problems will persist.
“This isn’t just a military problem,” FlorCruz said. “We need to have a cultural conversation.”