Colleen Bushnell

Saving Lives After Action Key To Military Sexual Assault Reform Movement by Colleen Bushnell

Feb 6, 2023

In 2012, taking action when cycling across the United States to raise awareness about military sexual assault turned around my seemingly irredeemable circumstances after multiple suicide attempts and military rapes.

Today, after personally assisting and consulting victims and their families during incidents for a decade, I share these experiences and my knowledge as a consultant. I educate and connect everyday Americans, academics, the media, policy makers, potential recruits, stakeholders, survivors, and their families on ways to contribute to the military interpersonal culture reform movement; indeed, it was taking action in 2012 when I cycled across the United States to share our plight, which gave my survival new meaning as a woman, mother, war veteran, medically retired Airman, and military sexual assault survivor.

Today, my focus is preventing further victim harm at the problems source to prevent suicide among fellow survivors. This is why I believe pro bono legal representation is key to protecting military rape victims long term legal and health outcomes. Pro-bono legal assistance for survivors is simply invaluable for under prepared, mostly working class enlisted military rape victims.

Legendary human civil rights activist Gloria Steinem put it rightly when she implies that my future depended on new “movement.” Steinem states, “The future depends entirely on what each of us does every day; a movement is only people moving.” A public effort to rally pro bono legal support for victims will accelerate victim protection and systemic change.

The 2012 Oscar nominated documentary film “The Invisible War” permeated Capitol Hill and military staff meetings, and powerful professionals finally heard survivors’ voices. In tangent, Protect Our Defenders, represented our numbers for the first time on Capitol Hill. Ms. Nancy Parrish, POD’s founder, coalesced and professionally represented military sexual assault survivors needs to bring about material and policy solutions like no time prior in our nation’s history.

The public’s support is essential. Now, armed with a decade of activism, the Department of Defense data and statistics, the general public’s willingness to help will accelerate systemic change, save lives, and strengthen the military. 

Therefore, our most pressing need is pro bono legal representation of active-duty military sexual assault victims.

If you are or know of an attorney who is interested in legally representing military rape victims, please contact Protect Our Defenders via email at Protect Our Defenders provides “a step-by-step guide that provides an overview of the military justice system, the benefits to survivors pro bono attorneys can provide, and what actions should be taken, when, and how.” Link: bono legal representation is essential to a victims outcomes because it assists victims and their families back home at the problem’s source.

The source of these problems begins with military sexual assault, but second to survivors rebound is the military’s response to survivors’ immediate legal, mental, emotional, and spiritual needs. Therefore, probono legal representation is essential to the legal and long-term health and welfare of military rape survivors.

Even today, as the Department of Defense strives to implement and assess the effectiveness of historic reforms, local unit chains of command are adjusting to policy and cultural changes. This system-wide, legal, and cultural transformation will likely continue for decades, which is why it is still essential for pro bono legal assistance to reach victims in a timely manner to provide support for unmet legal needs as military legal professionals respond to a victim’s report and the victim chain of command internalizes their servicembers’ needs.

The Department of Defense data indicates that professional retaliation trauma can sometimes eclipse military rape trauma due to its impact on the victims’ long-term health and welfare. Some studies indicate that military sexual assault survivors experience higher suicide rates than combat veterans do. Add to a victims military rape trauma, their service in combat, and the outcome statistics are grim. It has been the privilege of a lifetime to participate in shaping dialogue surrounding our nation’s military justice system, and indirectly our military’s strength and readiness.

Thank you for considering our stories and the ways you can contribute to strengthening our nation's military for generations to come. 

For more information regarding MST resources, visit our veteran resources page.

Notes from the Associate Producer:

I can write about military sexual trauma (MST) firsthand. In fact, many women in uniform can. In boot camp we were told, "Don't be that female." As in, don't sleep around, don't make yourself look vulnerable, and don't be sweet. My sergeant in MCT (Marine Combat Training), told me that I was too nice. I needed to be careful, because people would take advantage of me. But what did this mean? At the time, I wasn't sure, because why would I change who I was? But it meant that I would get taken advantage of, that I would have a platoon sergeant assault me, and that my command wouldn't take the necessary steps in preventing this from happening again. In the end, they made me feel like it was my fault. This isn't a one in a million story. Most women I served with have a story like mine. It doesn't matter if it's harassment or assault, it's a common and unfortunate theme. Listening to these incredible women in episode 105 of "After Action" share their stories and tell us about the incredible work they're doing now to help MST victims is empowering. These are the stories that are not often told but need to be. Women and men in uniform should feel safe, heard, and protected.