I Was Sexually Assaulted by Another Marine. The Corps Didn’t Believe Me.

By Justin Rose

At War

The author in Djibouti around 2005.CreditCreditCourtesy photo

I would never have guessed that closure would come to me in a small courtroom in Manhattan, Kan. A year and a half ago, on my 34th birthday, I sat on a witness stand and recounted how I was sexually assaulted on New Year’s Day 2006 by a fellow Marine — someone I had considered a friend while we were deployed to the Horn of Africa.

This wasn’t the first time I had told my story in front of a judge. Seven months after the incident occurred, my assault was the impetus for a military court-martial. I flew to MacDill Air Force Base, in Florida, with three other Marines from my unit, to testify against our assailant in front of a military judge. That judge found our testimony not conclusive enough for a conviction. According to the defense, we were liars, telling stories meant to ruin the career of another Marine who happened to come from a different place, geographically and culturally: He was a Midwesterner from a religious background, and we were from the Northeast and not accustomed to his kind of Christian fundamentalism. That we would try to conspire against this Marine for those differences was easier for the judge to accept than the truth: that a male Marine had sexually assaulted other male Marines. At that time, male-on-male sexual assault was not something that society was ready to talk about or think about, especially in a subculture as driven by the norms of heterosexual masculinity as the Marine Corps is.

In the immediate aftermath of my assault, my own thoughts spun in an orbit of stunned disbelief. I couldn’t stop asking myself, “Did that really just happen to me?” I’m not sure that feeling has ever totally left. My disorientation only worsened when I reported what had happened and the first question from my chain of command was, “Are you sure you’re not making this up?” That line of questioning, that attack on the victim’s credibility, persisted right up until the trial seven months later. And at the trial, it won.

Long after the attack itself is over, you’re left dealing with all the toxic doubts and self-blame that come with being sexually assaulted. I fought with the idea that I somehow invited this upon myself, that I deserved it or was somehow to blame for the assault. It stripped away my confidence and degraded the trust I had in my fellow Marines. I questioned the values that I first bought into when I became a Marine: the belief in honor, courage and commitment that was instilled by our drill instructors. I didn’t immediately confront my attacker face to face — so where was my courage or honor? How would I react to real combat? Where was the commitment from my fellow Marines, when I needed support in the aftermath of the attack? Would they be there for me if I needed their help on the battlefield one day?

I was promoted to corporal in June 2006, a few months after returning home from deployment. Though I had earned the title and the authority of a leadership position, my self-esteem had been ruined. I was a Marine who, while sleeping, had been sexually touched by another Marine, inappropriately and without consent — and I hadn’t done anything about it. A real Marine would have fought back, I thought. A real leader would have resorted to violence as an immediate and instinctual means of retribution against his attacker. My inaction that night crippled me, and I had no way to fix it. And the response of my fellow Marines only made things worse. In a Marine unit nothing stays a secret forever, and my confidence was misplaced when I trusted in my noncommissioned officers to keep my story quiet. Within days my story had spread throughout our small camp. Usually, when a Marine finds a weakness or something another Marine is insecure about, he is relentless in attacking it. It’s how Marines bond, in their own aggressive, competitive way. So I took the constant references to the incident when they came my way. I laughed along, hoping to be in on the jokes, instead of being the subject of them. To do anything else would be to admit how deeply I was struggling with what had happened.

During the court-martial, the defense lawyer built his case on challenging the character of me and my peers. We were called liars and co-conspirators. Our integrity, honor and loyalty to the Marine Corps were questioned. By the time it was over, the Marine Corps had failed me three times: It had failed to take my claims seriously; then made my attacker out to be the victim and me the criminal; and finally failed to provide adequate support and resources in the aftermath of my assault (whether through access to sexual-assault counseling or something as simple as believing my story).

In the years since then, I came to realize that it wasn’t the assault that had the most enduring effect on me. It was people’s refusal to believe that one man would assault another man. It was the mockery from leaders I had trusted and the implication that, if it had happened, I must have done something to invite it. The second trauma of losing that support structure was orders of magnitude worse than the first. I could no longer wear the same uniform as the person who had assaulted me and the many more who had let him get away with it. In 2007, I left the organization I had once so deeply loved and accepted a commission with the Army Reserve. I promised myself that no soldier under my leadership would experience the anguish that I had. Every year, I sit down with my soldiers and tell them my story, so that they won’t feel ashamed to come forward if something similar happens to them. I want them to know they will be treated with respect and empathy.

Ten years after my assault, I received a call from a detective in Kansas who was building a case against the man who had assaulted me. After he had left the Marine Corps, he had continued assaulting and violating people. In 2010 he had been convicted of a sexual assault, but served no prison time. Now he was facing 54 years for sexually assaulting three male soldiers from the Army post at Fort Riley. I was asked to testify to help build the case against him. On my birthday, I left my wife and 2-year-old daughter at home to retell the story of what had happened to me that night in the Horn of Africa — a story that, a decade before, no one had believed.

I felt no cascade of emotion when the guilty verdict came down, with a prison sentence of 49 years — only relief that my assailant was finally held accountable for what he had done and heartbreak that he had managed to hurt at least four other men before that happened. I also felt vindicated. Someone had finally listened to me and believed in my story. I opened Facebook Messenger and typed out a message to my old team leader: “I wish you had believed me.” Then I quickly deleted it. Instead, I fired off an email to my Army Reserve staff, the men and women that I’m in charge of leading and teaching. It said, “What do you want your legacy to be, and what did you do to accomplish that today?”

Justin Rose is a U.S. Army captain. He is an avid hockey fan, a Disney expert and a fun dad.

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