Audio transcript of the Where We Live show “Connecticut Veteran Writes About Lasting Impact Of Rape In The U.S. Military,” which aired August 15, 2019
Lucy Nalpathanchil: This is Where We Live from Connecticut Public Radio. I'm Lucy Nalpathanchil.
Most of us don't know what it's like to be in the military. About 1% of Americans are serving in the US Armed Forces today, less than 10% have ever served. Ryan Leigh Dostie is someone who has. Her love of foreign languages led her to join the US Army after high school. The Connecticut veteran writes in her memoir, Formation, "I chose the army after some debate. I came home from school that day, still holding my recruiters card and I said to my mother, 'The army has this language school that can teach me Japanese, and it's free.'" She enlisted and went through training in multiple states from Oklahoma, to California, to Louisiana. It was that last army post, Fort Polk, that changed Dostie in ways she never wanted.
Formation isn't the typical war memoir. Before Dostie was deployed to Iraq, she was raped by a fellow soldier. She writes about how the military responded to her allegation and the effect it had on her in Iraq and after. We're revisiting my conversation with her as Where We Live looks back on our most memorable interviews in 2019.
Ryan Leigh Dostie, thanks for coming on the show.
Ryan Leigh Dostie: Thank you for having me.
Lucy Nalpathanchil: Now, before we begin, for listeners, this conversation may not be suitable for all ears. In case your kids are nearby, you might want to sit the next hour out. Ryan, I mentioned your book. The full title is Formation: A Woman's Memoir of Stepping Out of Line. You served as a linguist for military intelligence in the US Army. At the time that you enlisted, how many women were serving? Were you one of the few?
Ryan Leigh Dostie: Oh, I'm not sure how many people were enlisted, but I would say we would probably make about 13% of the overall army, 13 to 15%. I know that percentage has risen over the years, so there's more and more women joining. In my particular job there was more women. In military intelligence, there tends to be more women. There was definitely less women at Fort Polk, which the rumor was that it was pretty much 30 men to one woman.
Lucy Nalpathanchil: So, remind us the time that you enlisted. This was before 9/11.
Ryan Leigh Dostie: Yes, I enlisted in 2000, right out of high school, and at a time where nobody was even thinking about war. It was in nobody's consciousness and we never thought it was a possibility. My recruiter said to me, "Oh, who's going to go to war with America?" And he didn't say it as a lie. He believed it. We all believed it. So I joined for adventure, to do something exciting, for free college, especially for the language school, it was something different that other people weren't doing, and it seemed exciting, and then suddenly, we were going to war.
Lucy Nalpathanchil: Before we talk about what it was like to be deployed in Iraq, I wanted to learn more about your upbringing. What was your mother's reaction, your family's reaction when you first said, "I think I want to join."
Ryan Leigh Dostie: When I said I think I want to join, my mother turned around in stark horror and said, "You didn't sign anything, did you?" She was concerned that I had signed something without knowing, without having her looking it over and being sent off, but she was very supportive of me. My father was very supportive of me. My mother had always had a love for the military and felt very patriotic. My brother had been part of the this organization called The Young Marines, which I don't know if it's still around now, but in the 90s, it would train young kids, it would drill them on discipline and stuff like that. So, we weren't a military family but we supported the military. So it was not like I ever felt she or anyone else said, "No, don't do this."
Lucy Nalpathanchil: I mentioned the different places that you trained. Let's talk about Fort Polk. Describe that place for those of us who don't know a lot about this particular army post, and it was actually a surprise to you that you were going to be stationed there.
Ryan Leigh Dostie: Yes. Military Intelligence doesn't typically go to Fort Polk. We jokingly call it the armpit of the world. It's in the middle of nowhere. And to give people a good idea of how in the middle of nowhere, I used to tell people, I would have to drive an hour to get to a bookstore. And this was sort of before the time of being able to order or just coming around the time of being able to order books online, Amazon, and having books shipped to you, so every weekend I would have to drive an hour to go to a bookstore. And most of the stuff around there was more explicit activity. There were tattoo parlors, there were stripper places, and that was pretty much it, and one movie theater that periodically caught fire, it literally happened like three or four times.
Lucy Nalpathanchil: So you did boot camp where?
Ryan Leigh Dostie: I was supposed to do boot camp at Relaxin’ Jackson, which is Fort Jackson, a little bit more laid back and it's meant more for the supply, Military Intelligence, those of us who aren't expected to be doing the hardcore stuff. And they had too many people there so they sent us to Fort Sill, which is affectionately called Fort Kill, during the very short time that they allowed women.
Lucy Nalpathanchil: Is it in Oklahoma?
Ryan Leigh Dostie: Oklahoma, yes. So they didn't have women, and it opened up to women just before I got there, so they almost didn't even know what to do with us. And then pretty soon after I left, they closed out and didn't have women for a while again. So I guess we were a failed experiment, I'm not sure.
Lucy Nalpathanchil: So a circuitous route to Fort Polk in Louisiana. What was that place like on base, on post?
Ryan Leigh Dostie: It was old and we used to joke about it ... really, It wasn't a joke. There was a black mold growing all throughout the barracks. It did not have a very good Language Center, for example. It's our responsibility to keep up with our language, so we didn't have the the language training that we needed. And most of the time I spent in the motor pool working on Humvees. So that was definitely on-the-job trading.
Lucy Nalpathanchil: In your book when you talk about your time at Fort Polk, you talk about the casual misogyny, the things that were said. Can you describe some of your reactions when you heard this? Was this just your thought that this is just the army and I just need to deal with it?
Ryan Leigh Dostie: Oh, absolutely. And I think if you talk to almost any military woman, they're very familiar with this, and men too actually have to go through this as well, women, more so, but men are tried and tested on this as well. You can't be offended. It's sort of like a rite of passage to be able to go through something that's either jokes or actions that are offensive and you don't report it, and that, sort of, is going to determine how good of a soldier you are. And I say that in air quotes, meaning how well you can handle insulting and offensive material.
Lucy Nalpathanchil: I'm talking with Ryan Leigh Dostie, who's a Connecticut resident. She's a veteran, served in Iraq. She's written her first book, a memoir; Formation. We're talking about her experiences before and after deployment. You can join our conversation. Find us on Facebook and Twitter at @wherewelive. So it was at Fort Polk where something happened to you that you never expected. Can you talk about that night?
Ryan Leigh Dostie: That night, I went out with some friends and actually, I was on some medication for having positive PPD, which means they tested me positive for tuberculosis. And they said, "Oh, don't worry. It's sleeping inside you. Here, just take this medication for nine months and don't drink because it ruined your liver in general, and if your liver starts failing, we'll worry about that later," kind of thing. But I was 21, so you're not really thinking of how this is really going to damage your body. And so I said, "Oh, I'll have just a couple of drinks," not realizing how quickly that would affect me. And so I came to a point that I was very drunk, and I said to my friends, "I've had too much to drink. I need to go home." And they agreed with me and they took me home and I went home to my barracks. I went to my room.
Ryan Leigh Dostie: And my friend, Andre, who I call Andres in the book, he brought me up to my barracks room and there was another guy there, an analyst who I didn't know. Like we knew in passing because he was in the unit but I'd never had a conversation with him before. And Andres thought he was my friend, I thought he was Andre's friend, so he came up to the room with us and he was like, "Here, I have some more alcohol," and he pretty much shoved this wine bottle in my hand and even at one point tipped the bottle up to make me drink more. And then finally I was like, "I can't. I'm done, I'm going to bed." And they left, and the door closed, the door locked and I went to sleep where I thought I was safe and where I thought I did everything right. I drank too much, but I went home, and it didn't end up the way it should have.
Lucy Nalpathanchil: You woke up to this analyst assaulting you, raping you.
Ryan Leigh Dostie: Yes.
Lucy Nalpathanchil: What happened after that assault?
Ryan Leigh Dostie: Afterwards, actually even as he was leaving, I tried to normalize the moment and I said to him, "Oh, it's okay. It's not like I don't know what rape is." So I told him right away that I felt he raped me. And he said, "I'm sorry you feel that way. Call me if you ever want to do this again." And then he left. And I pretty much broke down, and across the hall was Andre's room and I ran right there and was pounding on his door. And he came and he was all confused. He's like, "What happened." And he led me into his room, and the people in the next room, one of them was an MP.
Lucy Nalpathanchil: So a Military Police.
Ryan Leigh Dostie: Yes, sorry. Military Police. Yeah. So they, I guess, knew what was happening. I don't know if whether they saw him go into the room because they came into the room and said, "Oh, we were afraid this was going to happen." And the MP said, "Do you want me to call the MPs?" So she called them for me. I don't know if I ever would have on my own, and I don't know if it was a good thing or a bad thing considering how the army treated me having reported.
Ryan Leigh Dostie: But the MPs came and right away it was a very uncomfortable situation. They made me go back into my room and do this interview there, which I didn't even want to go into the room, and my room was messy because it was a weekend, and your rooms have to be clean for Monday because they have inspection, but it was a weekend so it was a mess, and I would have had it clean for Monday, but they wrote in the report that my room was a mess. That made me look like a bad soldier. So right off the bat, they were looking for reasons why we don't want to believe her. This is a bad soldier. This isn't somebody who we want to stand behind.
Ryan Leigh Dostie: And then I got in the vehicle to go to the MP station and the MP officer in the vehicle was talking to me. And again, I don't know why, but I guess a part of me wanted to just keep normalizing everything, like to not to fully realize what was happening. So he was just having small talk with me and I just talked back, and part of it maybe was just so I didn't have to think, and that went into the report. "Oh, she was able to talk back," and they pretty much said she didn't act like a rape victim. And I didn't realize it at the time, but right from the beginning they were looking for ways to discount and disprove what happened.
Lucy Nalpathanchil: So you were taken into the hospital, examined. Do you know if anything had happened to the person who assaulted you right away? Was he being questioned?
Ryan Leigh Dostie: I know he was being questioned. The MPs went over there, and initially, he said he was never there, he was never there that night, and they said, "Well, we have proof you were there." So then he changed the story and said, "Oh, yes, I was there, but it was," he said, "consensual." And I learned about that later. I'm like, "So you're going to trust this guy who already lied but you still think him saying it was consensual, you're going to trust and believe that?" And it even went into the report that after he had left my room The first time, he went to his friends, and he said, "Oh, that Dostie chick is so drunk. I'm going to go back to her room." So he knew and he targeted me because I was drunk and he knew that. That was what he set out to do. And that went in the report and it didn't even matter.
Lucy Nalpathanchil: You mentioned this report. You didn't see the report until after you were told the results of the investigation, the investigation going on for weeks. You actually found out sitting at a meeting with your full company.
Ryan Leigh Dostie: Yes. Yeah.
Lucy Nalpathanchil: I was wondering if you could read that excerpt from your book.
Ryan Leigh Dostie: Sure.
Lucy Nalpathanchil: Again, Ryan Leigh Dostie in studio with me here on Where We Live as she reads from her debut book: Formation.
Ryan Leigh Dostie: "I don't know what unsubstantiated means. I'd never heard the word before. It isn't part of my vocabulary. So when Captain Wells says it in front of the entire company, head swiveling in my direction, I don't know what he means or why it's so significant. The investigation has been going on for months, long weeks where I hear nothing from the case, almost like everyone has forgotten all about it. Now we're sitting in the Equal Opportunity briefing, the company's sprawled out across the small theater, seated in heavily worn blue seats. Captain Wells scans the crowd and his eyes linger on me slightly as he nears the end of his speech. He hesitates, showing me the tiniest lift of his lip in a sneer, then turns away.
'Now, everyone knows about that sexual assault case going on in the company right now,' he says. I go cold, my heart sputtering in shock. Captain Wells stares back at the upturn faces of his company and says, 'And that case has been found unsubstantiated. So guys, if a girl accuses you of something you didn't do, don't worry, you won't get in trouble unless you actually did something wrong.' Is he talking about what I think he's talking about? Andres' face is dark with anger, his mouth open aghast. I sit rooted in place, incredulous, thinking he can't be talking about my case. He's not talking about me. I can feel the eyes of the company turned towards me drinking in my reaction and I wonder how many minds were made up in this moment. What does unsubstantiated mean? I asked no one.
The briefing is over and I jump up from my seat pushing through the bodies, forcing my way to Sergeant Pelton. Everything has slowed. A buzzing in my ears dulls the noise of the crowd. 'Was he talking about me?' I blurt out to him and grasp his elbow forcing him to face me. It's aggressive and inappropriate and I do it anyways, as if having him pinned in my hand will force him to take me seriously. Sergeant Pelton freezes, his normally bright eyes jumping to the side looking for an exit plan. 'He couldn't have been talking about me, right?' I persist. Sergeant Pelton sighs. He doesn't want to be here. 'Captain Wells just told me today the case was found unsubstantiated. I don't know what that means,' I say. I rest my palms against the wall to hold myself up.
Sergeant Pelton's eyes flutter shut, as if asking for strength. He doesn't want to have to be the one to do this. He shouldn't have to. Captain Wells should have. His absence, as usual, is telling. It means that they can't rule one way or the other. It's your word against his. The words fall like physical blows. I'm still holding his elbow, my grip tightening, 'But this is how he tells me? This is how I find out?' Sergeant Pelton says nothing. 'But what about the photos?' I shake him, trying to knock loose all the answers I need to hear. I remember the MPs calling me back into the small side office asking me to strip, standing half naked in a stark cold room, while a woman officer held the camera up to my skin, capturing the bruises that lined my rib cage and arms, her nose inches from my flesh, the bare light bulb swinging on the court overhead as she examined me. 'Don't those prove anything?' I say. 'I'm sorry,' is all he says. And I drop his elbow. How sorry can he be? It's not like he believes me anyway."
Lucy Nalpathanchil: Ryan Leigh Dostie, again, reading from her memoir; Formation: A Woman's Memoir of Stepping Out of Line. As I was reading your book, Ryan, I went through a lot of different emotions, at this point, feeling rage. How did you feel when you realized your chain of command felt like this was the appropriate way to tell you, someone who was assaulted, that this was the outcome of the investigation the way they went about and told you?
Ryan Leigh Dostie: I think I was in shock at first, I just couldn't believe it, and then I moved straight to rage. I stayed very angry at Captain Wells for years, and I think I projected, probably rightfully so, all my anger, all my emotions onto him, a lot of it because I couldn't face or even think about the analyst at all, who was still around, who I would still have to see and work with. And so I just had this buildup of rage that I just kept directed at Captain Wells. I felt betrayed. I felt hurt. My sense of justice was totally violated. This was supposed to be my command, they're supposed to look out for you, and everything I believed about my command that was the foundation of me serving my country and my army was just broken.
Lucy Nalpathanchil: During the investigation, it wasn't like everything went back to normal. You mentioned you saw your rapist, and at the same time you were also treated differently. Describe that to us.
Ryan Leigh Dostie: Being treated differently. Unfortunately, being ostracized is a very common side effect of reporting rape in the military. I definitely had people who were there for me, I had a support system and those who believed me, and then I had those who didn't, who wanted to call me names and wanted to believe it was all made up. And at one time, my platoon sergeant, who I loved, he was a great platoon sergeant, I don't think he meant to betray me. I think he didn't know what to do. I think that's part of the problem too in the military. They're not trained properly on how to handle this sort of situation. And he sort of just kind of said, "Are you sure? Are you sure this happened? Are you sure you were raped?" Like this is something I'm not going to know or I'm going to mistake. And that hurt the most because I was so close to him. He had let me, up until this point, sleep on his couch because I wouldn't sleep in the room. He had let me hang around his family.
Ryan Leigh Dostie: And I don't know if he asked to move me out of the company. Nobody will give me an answer. To this day, I'm not really sure because I even asked him years later, and he doesn't know. But I got kicked out of his platoon and I was supposed to move into another platoon, but that platoon sergeant didn't want me at the time. And so I'm in this formation and I'm supposed to be falling in with my platoon and I have no platoon. So I go to one platoon and my Sergeant Pelton is like, "No, you're not in this platoon anymore." And I go to the other one, and Sergeant Daniels is like, "What are you doing? You're not one of mine." So I ended up standing in between these two platoons by myself at the back of the formation, and it was just a total isolation, and it felt horrible. I wanted to leave, I wanted to go AWOL, but as a Military Intelligence with top secret security clearance, that wasn't even an option.
Lucy Nalpathanchil: During that time, did you feel like they're making an example of you, Ryan, that you reported, that you were making things difficult, and if others did what you did, they'd be treated the same way?
Ryan Leigh Dostie: That's a very good question. I don't know if they were intentionally doing that. I don't know if they set out to do that. I think they just didn't believe rape victims. I think either they didn't believe it or they believed it and didn't want to deal with it. I don't think they maybe set it up as an example, but it most certainly probably was. I think they just didn't want this. The way it works right now, if a commander for example has somebody raped in their company, that can affect how he looks as a commander, and so of course, he doesn't want to have that on the books. If it's unsubstantiated, then it never happened, it doesn't exist.
Lucy Nalpathanchil: When this was all going on, did you feel torn because you still loved the military, you still loved being part of the army?
Ryan Leigh Dostie: Yeah, In a really weird way, I never blamed the army at that time. And I don't necessarily blame the army, and I still have a love of my service and my memories, and I know now that they have definite cultural issues that they have to fix. I didn't blame the army, I blamed my command, my very ineffectual command, and a part of me wondered if it happened somewhere else if it would have been treated differently.
Ryan Leigh Dostie: In retrospect, I don't know if it would have been. After having this book come out, I've had an outpouring of women privately contacting me and said, "This happened to me, this happened to me," and all very similar stories, up to even recently, we're talking within the past couple of weeks, and it's all the same type of story on repeat, from different units, different branches and different ranks. I've had officers, which shocked me, officers who you always think are safe because they're officers, telling me that these things happen to them and the way the military treated them. And I had one woman say that ... this broke my heart. She reported it and they sort of dealt with it, but everyone who she worked with stopped talking to her, like literally just stopped talking to her. And it was a job she loved and she was totally isolated and ostracized. She would say something and they would just ignore her. How do you deal with that?
Lucy Nalpathanchil: This is Where We Live from Connecticut Public Radio. I'm Lucy Nalpathanchil. My guest today, Ryan Leigh Dostie, a combat veteran, author of the new book; Formation: A Woman's Memoir of Stepping Out of Line. We're going to continue talking with her after the break, and later, what will it take to change the culture within the military? We want to hear from you. You can join us. Find us on Facebook and Twitter @Where We Live.
Lucy Nalpathanchil: This is Where We Live from Connecticut Public Radio. I'm Lucy Nalpathanchil. If you're just tuning in, today's topic is not suitable for all ears, especially if you have children nearby. My guest is Ryan Leigh Dostie. She was deployed to Iraq just weeks after being raped by a fellow service member. She had to recover from the trauma on her own while being attached to a combat unit in a war zone. It didn't matter that she reported it. More than one commander told her, "Do you really want to ruin his life?" Instead, she was the one who was vilified, made to feel like the assault was her fault, and she was expected to just move on. Dostie writes about her experiences in her debut book; Formation: A Woman's Memoir of Stepping Out of Line. Again, I mentioned she lives in Connecticut. She's with me today in studio.
Lucy Nalpathanchil: So, you found out that this investigation was deemed unsubstantiated, he said, she said and they weren't going to do anything to the man who assaulted you. You actually went to the inspector general's office. Your mother even got involved. Tell us what they told you.
Ryan Leigh Dostie: Well, they said to my mother as well, "Do you really want to ruin this guy's life?" As if I was the wrong one trying to seek justice. I went to the Inspector General and she was sympathetic in a professional kind of way, and essentially sort of like, "Oh, honey, just move on with your life," sort of thing. She pretty much said there's nothing she can do and that it was my job to just deal with it, move on.
Lucy Nalpathanchil: When you found out that you were going to be deployed to Iraq, in one sense, were you looking forward to that because you would be able to distance yourself from this post, from what happened to you?
Ryan Leigh Dostie: Well, you're going with the same unit, so you don't really get any distance from the unit. It was still my same commander and platoon sergeants and everyone I served with or everyone I was at Fort Polk with, and I thought that the analyst was going as well. And I was not in a very good head space, and as I say in the book, even I knew nobody should have been putting a gun in my hands. And I went to my first sergeant and I told him this, and he said, "Well, the analyst is staying behind because he's ETS-ing," which means he's separating from the military, his time was finished. So you could stay here at Fort Polk with him in rear deployment or you can go to Iraq. And so I chose to go to Iraq.
Lucy Nalpathanchil: Remind us what year? Was it the beginning of a war?
Ryan Leigh Dostie: Yes, this was 2003. So we went into ... and we being the military army, the military in general, invaded in March, 2003, and I left for Iraq in April, 2003, so the next month. We were the first occupying force.
Lucy Nalpathanchil: What was that like, from going to the time when you talked to your recruiter just a few years before saying, "We're not going to end up going to war," and now there you were?
Ryan Leigh Dostie: It was scary. I always say I wasn't Rambo. I never expected for that to happen, but it also was sort of one of those things where you're like, "Oh, okay." You're sort of used in the military just kind of end up having to do what you're told. And for a long time, nobody believed it either. Everybody said, "No, we're not really going." And so we were on the plane, and we were actually going and then people said, "Oh, my God. We're going to Iraq." So, yeah, you just sort of kind of roll with the punches, kind of thing.
Lucy Nalpathanchil: Meanwhile, you're still trying to recover from the trauma that you experienced. So how did that manifest in you?
Ryan Leigh Dostie: Iraq gave me, for a while, some distance, especially from the analyst, and as I got better, in some ways in Iraq, it was able to give me a new slate so I thought I was getting better, and by the end of Iraq, I thought I was in a much better place. I've come to find out I was really just suppressing a lot of things that would affect me very, very much later on.
Lucy Nalpathanchil: You write in the book that you were almost punishing yourself. You were binge eating, you went on to cut yourself, and you had moments where you felt rage, where you felt out of control. Later on, did you find out that these were some symptoms or that you were going through post-traumatic stress.
Ryan Leigh Dostie: It took me a long time to realize that I had post-traumatic stress, because like I said, in Iraq ... before I went to Iraq, I had an eating disorder. I was binge eating, and I'd gained a lot of weight. In Iraq, I guess it was still sort of an eating disorder, I changed how I addressed it and I was very, very regimented. I lost a lot of weight, so I thought that meant I was doing better, I thought that meant I was healthy. And later on when I started exhibiting signs of PTSD, I didn't feel I deserved PTSD, and also my PTSD symptoms were different than what I thought they were supposed to be.
Lucy Nalpathanchil: Tell us more about that, you didn't think you deserved being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress. So you thought this was something that only people on the front lines of combat dealt with?
Ryan Leigh Dostie: Yeah. So I always used to say I wasn't kicking down doors, I wasn't in raids, I wasn't in firefights. I mean, I was shot at a couple times and mortared but it wasn't anything major in the sense of what other people go through in Iraq or Afghanistan, so I thought there's no way I could or should have PTSD. I didn't feel I earned it. So when I first started showing signs, I was a little upset with myself, which I know now is a terrible and wrong thing to think. But my PTSD was also different. It wasn't just combat-related. I started having feelings of intense shame, I felt dirty, and a combat trigger could make me react in a way that I now know was my PTSD from the rape.
Ryan Leigh Dostie: A lot of that was because I never had sat down and spoke with fellow rape survivors and I had never heard about the type of PTSD that rape survivors have or go through, so I just thought I was crazy, to be honest. It took a long time and a lot of therapy to come to the epiphany that I have some combat PTSD and I definitely have military sexual trauma PTSD.
Lucy Nalpathanchil: Ryan Leigh Dostie is my guest today. She wrote the book, Formation. It's her first book. Formation: A Woman's Memoir of Stepping Out of Line. You mentioned other rape survivors. While you were in Iraq, you heard of other cases of women, other service members being raped. What happened there?
Ryan Leigh Dostie: When we were in Iraq, I had heard, everybody heard ... you always hear these rumors, which is how everybody knew about my story as well. The rumors just keep going on. I had heard about a fellow person who was raped by several people, she was gang raped. And everyone just didn't want to believe her and made up all these stories about her. And I'm, I guess, upset at myself now. I never went to her and tried to talk to her and see what really happened, and neither of us talked to each other, even though we both had gone through something very similar. We just sort of avoided each other.
Lucy Nalpathanchil: Why do you think that is? Do you think it's the way the culture is setup that this happened to you, but now that you were deployed, and there have been months past that this is not something that you should be still fixating on?
Ryan Leigh Dostie: Yeah, absolutely. That's a very good way of putting it. I shouldn't be fixating on it, I should be over it, and it was just easier to not deal with it. And I don't know if either both of us thought that if the two of us were together there would be more rumors like, "Oh, look at the two rape girls are talking. What are they going to come up with next?" So you're extra isolated even from the very people who you should be able to lean on.
Lucy Nalpathanchil: Ironically, there was an incident involving an Iraqi, a young boy working where you were stationed that he tried to kiss you and it was reported. How did the military, the chain of command deal with that?
Ryan Leigh Dostie: This made me so angry. He was just a little 18 year old kid or so, and I handled it. He grabbed my hand and he tried to kiss me. I threw him against the wall and told him to get out, and I was proud of myself. I was like, "Oh, okay. I handled this. I did this right." So I told a friend not thinking she was going to be so upset by this, she's like, "Oh my god, you have to report this." And I was like, "No, I don't." Because in comparison to what I'd been through, it was nothing. And then she told my platoon sergeant, my platoon sergeant told my commander, and he told the Command Sergeant Major, and it just went all the way up.
Ryan Leigh Dostie: All the chain of command that I had tried desperately to reach about my rape were all there to deal with this little Iraqi kid who had tried to kiss me, and they made a big production of it, and they had all the ... this was horrible, actually. They had all the Iraqi guys that worked on the camp in like this formation and they made me stand out at the front and pick out the kid who had tried to kiss me. And I told them, "I'm not even really sure." It was dark in the area, and I said to them more than once, "What if I'm wrong?" And they said, "Oh, don't worry. We're just making an example of them so that they don't try to do that again." And they felt so good about themselves like, "Oh, we're protecting you. This is what we're doing to make sure that you're taken care of." And it just made me angrier. I mean, you do that for this situation but you can't help me when actual rape happens.
Lucy Nalpathanchil: This is Where We Live. I'm Lucy Nalpathanchil. My in-studio guest, Ryan Leigh Dostie, a combat veteran, author of the new book; Formation: A Woman's Memoir of Stepping Out of Line. She was a linguist for military intelligence when she was in the US Army.
Lucy Nalpathanchil: Coming up. Why is sexual violence in the military surging despite efforts to prevent it? We'll talk about that after the break. We also want to hear from you. Are you a veteran? How do you think the US military should handle this problem? Join us. Find us on Facebook and Twitter @wherewelive.
Lucy Nalpathanchil: This is Where We Live from Connecticut Public Radio. I'm Lucy Nalpathanchil. Awareness about sexual assaults in the military has grown in the last decade. Hundreds of millions of dollars, taxpayer dollars have been spent by the Pentagon for prevention efforts, including education programs and resources for victims, that's according to the New York Times, but sexual violence within the ranks is only getting worse. The Pentagon said more than 20,000 service members experienced some type of sexual assault in the last two years. That number is 38% higher than 2016. In this latest anonymous survey, six out of 10 women in uniform reported being assaulted.
Lucy Nalpathanchil: I've been talking with Ryan Leigh Dostie, an Iraq War veteran and Connecticut resident whose memoir focuses on her combat experiences after being sexually assaulted by a man in her US Army unit. I want to welcome into our conversation now, Ellen Haring, she's a retired Army Colonel and the CEO of Service Women's Action Network, also known as SWAN. Ellen, welcome to the show.
Ellen Haring: Thanks for having me.
Lucy Nalpathanchil: You heard Ryan's story. How typical is this?
Ellen Haring: Well, unfortunately, it's incredibly typical. And, frankly, Ryan, you should have been mad at the army and not necessarily your command because it was happening all over the army and it continues to happen in actually greater numbers today. It's shocking and we've got to get a handle on it.
Lucy Nalpathanchil: When we talk about get a handle on it, I'd mentioned that lots of money and time have been spent on this particular problem. In your view, Ellen, as a retired Army Colonel, what are the barriers to figuring out why this continues to happen?
Ellen Haring: Well, I think one of the biggest barriers is our focus has been on helping victims, and it should have been going after perpetrators, but it's really the culture that allows this kind of behavior to develop and occur that we need to be tackling. And we haven't done anything to tackle our culture or to really examine what is it about military culture that allows this.
Lucy Nalpathanchil: We heard from Ryan earlier in the show, she talks about this misogyny that plays out from boot camp and beyond. Is that what we're talking about here, about the language that we use, how women are viewed, not only in the military, but in our culture?
Ellen Haring: Yes. I think it's reinforced in the military, so yes, certainly, it comes from our culture at large. But then you join the military and it starts at boot camp, where you begin seeing cadences that are misogynistic. They've only eliminated the most overtly misogynistic kinds of cadences and behavior. Many of the things that people do casually, as she mentioned today, aren't even viewed as misogyny. The term bitch ... I hope that's okay to say on this radio, is commonly used to describe people who are wimpy or can't handle something, and that word is thrown around constantly, not just in the military, but outside of it. And that is a misogynistic term, and women use it as well. So we've got to examine our culture, we've got to examine our language, we've got to examine behavior that we've found acceptable. And the military is uniquely positioned with this boot camp and training to root it out in a way that the broader population isn't positioned to do.
Lucy Nalpathanchil: In the civilian side, we're used to the way our criminal justice system works. Ellen, I'm curious if you can talk more about the military justice system. When there is allegation of assault, what is supposed to happen now in 2019, many years after when Ryan served in the US Army?
Ellen Haring: So, one of the things that happens today, and actually, her case was investigated, though in the way that it ideally should have been, although clearly there were mistakes that they made, and by the way that it should have been, it should have been turned over to investigators. It should have been turned over to trained investigators, those that are trained in how to do a sexual assault investigation. It doesn't sound like that happened with her. Today, that is what's required. Any report of sexual assault has to go immediately to an investigative team. It cannot be left in the hands of commanders. Commanders must immediately report. That's a change that's been made.
Ellen Haring: But unfortunately, even those investigators are typically ... they're rooted in the culture as well. And she said something that really struck me, and she said, "It's your word against his." And when it's your word against his, it's always the him that gets believed. Women simply still are not being believed. They trust and believe the man, the woman is not telling the truth.
Lucy Nalpathanchil: Ian's calling from Wallingford. Actually, I can't seem to click on that call, so we'll try to take it in just a few minutes. But you mentioned even the culture of those that are investigating. Senator Gillibrand has been pushing this military improvement, I believe it's the Military Justice Improvement Act, how this process should play out. A few years ago, there were calls that this shouldn't even be within the military criminal justice system. Maybe there should be outside people investigating. The military does not want to see that happen. So I'm curious, Ellen, if you could talk about when we look at these proposals before Congress, is this particular proposal with what kind of authority will be looking into this, could that be more effective?
Ellen Haring: Yes. So our organization has long supported the Military Justice Improvement Act, and basically what that does is that for any felony crime, it will immediately be removed from the chain of command and be investigated by trained investigators that are not related to the command in which it happened. First of all, commanders don't have the expertise to investigate felony crimes, and second, there's always a conflict of interest when a crime occurs within your unit. Ryan mentioned it, this notion that you don't want people to see your command as having a problem, so there's an effort to sweep things under the rug, to downplay them, because it reflects poorly on you as a commander. So Senator Gillibrand is trying to take that all away, which is remove commanders from that process, and we fully support that.
Lucy Nalpathanchil: I'm going to try taking this call one more time. Hopefully, technology is with me today. Ian's calling from Wallingford. Ian, go ahead.
Ian: Yes. I'd just like to ask what happened to the analysts? That seems to be the missing piece in what we heard, and obviously, it's so different probably to what happened to you, but perhaps you can tell us about that.
Ryan Leigh Dostie: Sure. What happened with him is they did move him to another company. They told me they moved him off post, but that ended up not being true. They eventually moved him to another company, and then he separated from the military and went on with his life.
Lucy Nalpathanchil: Ellen, we were talking about some of the suggested ways to tackle this issue. I understand there's also been some movement where there's a database of where people who've been assaulted or harassed can report this person and the US military then pursue an investigation there.
Ellen Haring: Okay. So the new CATCH Program, which was just launched last week, and it's something we've advocated for, for over a year, is a database of perpetrators essentially. If you have been sexually assaulted in the military and you report it, regardless of whether you do a an unrestricted report, which is what Ryan did, or a restricted report. So a restricted report allows you to report your assault and get the medical care you need but not go after your perpetrator for prosecution. So Ryan went with an unrestricted and she went after her perpetrator. Many women and men choose the restricted report route. Well, the problem with the restricted report route is that that perpetrator's name never gets identified.
Ellen Haring: So the new CATCH Program will allow the person that files a restricted report to enter the perpetrator's name into a database. And what DOD plans to do with that database is then look for, has this person ever been entered in our database before either by an unrestricted, so for instance, Ryan's perpetrator, he should be in a database at this point. His name should be in there, and if he pops up a second or a third time, then you've got a serial perpetrator. Now, unfortunately, he's out of the military, so the military is not going to be able to do anything with him anymore.
Ellen Haring: But these serial perpetrators, they move from you unit to unit and they impact many people over time. And what they do once they find a match, then they go back to the victim and they say, "Okay, we've got a match. He hasn't just done this to you, he's done this to somebody else." And then ideally, well, it gives you a sense of I'm not the only person but then also allows you to potentially move forward with an unrestricted report and to prosecute. But now this guy has a track record. It's not like in Ryan's case where it was her word against his word. It's not just your word now. You're not the only person that's been impacted by this perpetrator. It's called the CATCH Program. It was designed to catch serial perpetrators.
Lucy Nalpathanchil: We just have a couple of minutes left. I wanted to go back to Ryan Leigh Dostie who's been telling us her story, the focus of her book: Formation. What do you think needs to change, Ryan, so that other women and men won't experience what you did?
Ryan Leigh Dostie: I think everything the Colonel said was brilliant and I think some of those changes are working. I agree that it's definitely a cultural problem. I think that they need to work on dispelling the myths that surround rape, a lot of the myths that the people want to believe. There's a lot of times where they say, "Oh, well, she only reported it for attention or retaliation or because her reputation is going to be ruined, or because she's married," and I think they need to focus on dispelling those myths and talking about why women actually report, what happens to women when they report, and teaching a level of empathy. And I think by directing that in the culture will hopefully prevent these sexual assaults from happening.
Lucy Nalpathanchil: I should've mentioned, you made it through this particular assault. You made it through more than a year in Iraq, you came back, you got some care from the VA and you're still making it each and every day. You have a lovely family that's here with us today. You mentioned earlier that you've been hearing from other women who've been assaulted. What's it been like for you now that this book is done? How do you feel about the message that you've been able to put out there?
Ryan Leigh Dostie: I've been happy that others have been able to reach out. One of the best things that I've perpetually heard since this book has come out is, "You made me feel seen and I don't feel alone." And when people tell me that, I could never ask for anything better to hear as an author. And even though it was hard to write and sometimes still hard to talk about or deal with, the fact that somebody out there has connected and feels seen and understood and heard, I mean, it makes it all worth it.
Lucy Nalpathanchil: Well, Ryan Leigh Dostie, we appreciate you coming in here today to talk about your story. And we'll have an excerpt of your book; Formation, on our website, wnpr.org/wherewelive. Thanks so much, Ryan.
Ryan Leigh Dostie: Thank you so much for having me.
Lucy Nalpathanchil: I also want to thank Ellen Haring, retired Army Colonel and the CEO of Service Women's Action Network or SWAN. Ellen, thanks for joining us today.
Ellen Haring: Thank you.
Lucy Nalpathanchil: Today's show produced by Carmen Baskauf. Special thanks to Lydia Brown on the phones, and Chion Wolf, who's our technical producer. You can download our show anytime, just search Where We Live on your favorite podcast app. I'm Lucy Nalpathanchil. Thanks for listening.