Commentary

How do we save prisoners of the cultural war within our military?

“You have one thing that no one can ever take from you. That’s your voice.”

While it wasn’t obvious to those who heard these words spoken by high school senior Thae Ohu during her Ted Talk on bullying, what was clear is she spoke with a sense of authority. As if she knew it to be true because she’d lived it. What no one in the audience could’ve known is she was a survivor who’d seen her share of hardship, which, like many in search of a stronger self identify, is why she joined the Marine Corps.

Knowing that gives context to why Ohu, an intel school admin specialist, now sits in a military brig in Chesapeake, Virginia. The charge stems from an incident where a mental breakdown she suffered had escalated into an altercation with her boyfriend in the home they shared. Police were called. Ohu was detained and taken to a mental health facility, not to jail. This matters. While her boyfriend was certainly shaken, he suffered no apparent physical injuries, and it was clear to him and the authorities that she was a Marine in crisis, not a criminal.

While she subsequently managed to recover in an in-patient treatment facility, it wouldn’t be enough to overcome what had been happening in both her mind and around her. As the facts of the case are unraveled, it appears to lend itself to a classic causality dilemma — the “chicken or the egg” metaphor, in lay terms — where the co-occurring legal and medical problems she faced made it hard to determine whether she broke the law or the system broke her first.

This legal-medical entanglement is typical in such cases. Beneath the allegations in Ohu’s case lies an unresolved sexual assault by a fellow Marine, a post traumatic stress diagnosis along with a history of suicidal behavior, and attempts to separate her rather than take responsibility for her mental wellness. Also, her supporters believe she is yet another case of “accuser blowback,” where unintended consequences follow a formally filed accusation, usually in the form of systemic retaliation. Taken altogether, these events offer no clear sense of whether their causal relationship is merely a coincidence, or whether we’re seeing one of those coincidences that take a lot of planning.

It is narratives such as Corporal Ohu’s that I think about when we lament the rate of suicide among veterans and service members. While most people I hear talk about “22 a day” often refer to the statistical rate of suicide in the abstract, it is Ohu who embodies the three-dimensional profile of someone at risk. A service member who has a history of mental vulnerability and faces seemingly insurmountable hardship, lacks a support system, then runs head on into a precipitating factor or event. In this case, confinement to a vault-like, 8-by-10 cell with a bed and mattress, no Internet access, or even photos of family on the wall.

Like most who served on active duty and have dealt with military assault cases, I believe key relevant questions have to be answered. Is the accused still on active duty? If so, is where he’s stationed important to consider? Might he or those in his unit have influence in any way on the case? Most alarmingly, why did the DD form 2910 she filed never make it into the Defense Sexual Assault Incident Database, according to her sister? All fair questions.

Fair because unanswered questions such as these are not contemplated in a vacuum. While we know U.S. Army Spc. Vanessa Guillén was murdered and dismembered, base officials still contended there was no proof she’d been sexually assaulted or harassed. This at Fort Hood, a base that led not only in reported cases of sexual assault, suicides, and misconduct, but also had a senior-ranking unit victim advocate convicted for luring soldiers into a prostitution ring.

While Fort Hood’s reputation may not be dispositive to the case against Ohu, it does help recast what’s reasonable to consider in the mind of a jurist being asked to apply a “reasonable person” standard. An imprecise thought process that will factor into the decision on whether a person is either guilty or not guilty based on a hunch. A line of thinking that must consider in this case whether it’s within the realm of possibility that her report of a rape in Okinawa, a mishandled investigation coupled with a retaliatory demotion, were causally related to the mental breakdowns she suffered because of it, including the alleged altercation with the individual who now supports her release and facially valid need for mental health support.

“Preventing sexual assault is our moral duty,” said former Defense Secretary James N. Mattis. “By its nature, sexual assault is one of the most destructive factors in building a mission-focused military.” Today, Cpl. Thae Ohu sits in a cell, living through the destructive fallout from the attacks on her, starting with one in Okinawa and culminating in Chesapeake. She couldn’t have fathomed during her impassioned Ted Talk that someday her voice would indeed be taken in this way. The question is whether the same military culture that had successfully muted tens of thousands of other accusers, including Spc. Vanessa Guillén, is preparing to do the same to the 26-year-old corporal in Chesapeake who’s determined to be heard.

Sherman Gillums Jr. is a retired Marine officer and chief advocacy officer for AMVETS.

Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, haltman@militarytimes.com.

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