What happens when the U.S. Military – the most powerful institution in the world – fails to protect those who protect us?
When Narelle Helmer (Comm’03) woke up, she couldn’t see through the darkness. At first she didn’t know where she was or what time it was. She felt her head throbbing, but within moments she realized her whole body ached. Her mind raced. Did he dump her in an alley? Or was she still in his office?
As her eyes adjusted to the darkness, her heart raced as she saw a sliver of light coming from a door, which was slightly open. She crawled toward it quietly, terrified because she did not know where he was. When she reached the door, she glimpsed into the hallway. She was still in the major’s office in the Marine Barracks building in Washington, D.C., where she and he worked. As she stood to run, she caught sight of his naked leg on the couch.
The prestigious Marine Barracks is the oldest post of the Marine Corps with beautiful historic buildings that are some of the oldest in D.C. In 1801 President Thomas Jefferson and Commandant Lt. Col. William Ward Burrows rode their horses all around the new capital before choosing the land where the barracks sits today. Located within walking distance from the Capitol, it supports security and ceremonial missions in the capital, including presidential inaugurations and weekly evening parades open to the public.
It also is guarded 24 hours a day by 15 internal Marines. Four of them were in Helmer’s building that night, patrolling the halls. Days later some of those guards would tell investigators that they caught sight of a female’s unclothed leg through the major’s partially open door. They also said they saw the major walking to and from the bathroom with cleaning supplies.
None called the military police.
As she raced down the empty, fluorescent-lit hallway at midnight, all Helmer could think about was getting into her office and locking the door. But when she reached for her keys in the back pocket of her black fleece pants, her pocket was gone. Disoriented, she looked down. Her fleece pants were gone. Someone else’s large military-issued green shorts hung off her waist. That’s when she saw the blood. It was all over her arm.
“I had complete paralysis,” says Helmer who grew up in Boulder and whose family has had someone from every generation in the military since the Revolutionary War. “I couldn’t run or scream. Two Marines found me crying against my door, and I told them they had to let me into my office. They asked me where my clothes were and I kept asking terrified, “Where is the major?”
Helmer had been up for nearly 24 hours. She had awakened at 3:30 a.m. to set up for a community blood drive she had organized in partnership with the Red Cross. As public affairs officer for the Marine Barracks, her job included finding ways to involve the community with the barracks.
She had joined the Marines after spending months post-graduation looking for a job in journalism, a field in which she had no professional experience. When a FOX producer recommended she join the military to gain professional experience and get paid, she signed up.
She enjoyed her work. She created a Myspace page long before Facebook seized the corner of the social media market, posting Marine of the Day articles. She revamped the quarterly Pass in Review magazine published by the public affairs office of the Marine Barracks Washington. A member of the All-Marine cross country and marathon teams, she became the first female marcher on the Ceremonial Parade staff in the history of the Marine Corps.
Earlier in the day, she had asked the major if she could be exempted from an afternoon-to-evening Marines pub crawl billed as a team-building exercise. It was St. Patrick’s Day, and she was going to be tied up with the blood drive. He told her no. She was visibly frustrated by his response. By late afternoon, people were still streaming in to give blood. Helmer stayed to help out, but it made her late for formation and she missed half of the rules established for the pub crawl. Later, when she ordered a glass of water at one of the bars, she had to drink a shot as punishment. No water was allowed.
The five-mile pub crawl ended at Finn MacCools on Eighth Street right across from Marine Barracks. At 7 p.m. she followed the major to his office because he told her he wanted to talk to her. As they entered the office, he shut his door and pushed her against the wall and tried to kiss her. She pushed him off, and they began to struggle. She got half of her 5-foot 4-inch body out the door before he, towering over at more than 6 feet, viciously yanked her back into his office, slamming her arm in the door. Reeling from the pain, she stumbled and hit her head on the corner of his desk. And then everything went black.
It became painfully clear in the fog of the night that Helmer had been violently assaulted and raped by her boss in his office that night in 2006. Her cell phone was found smashed in his office. Her sneakers were found in a dumpster behind the building. But what happened afterwards proved equally, if not more, damaging.
Nowhere in America do we allow a boss to decide if an employee was sexually assaulted or not, except the United States military.
The morning after the incident she was driven to the U.S. Naval Yard nearby the barracks to make an official statement to the Naval Criminal Investigation Service staff whose job, among other things, is to investigate crimes committed. Within three days, the inquiry into her assailant’s behavior was dropped, and Helmer, who suffered a concussion from hitting her head on the desk, was placed under investigation for public intoxication and conduct unbecoming of an officer.
“I was told by the colonel, ‘Well, Lieutenant Helmer, girls and boys and alcohol don’t mix. We’ll never know what happened inside that office. Only you and the major know, and he is not talking,’ ” Helmer recalls, noting that investigators closed the case for lack of evidence, pending results from her forensic rape kit administered at the Andrews Air Force Base hospital, known today as the Joint Base Andrews Naval Air Facility. The kit was “lost” for two years.Her story is one of dozens featured in the 2013 Academy Award-nominated documentary The Invisible War, a heart-wrenching film that reveals a military culture in which sexual assault and rape of both women and men are not consistently investigated, assailants are rarely prosecuted and victims endure retaliation, harassment, threats and the loss of their jobs for reporting the sexual assault.
Out of the five women, including Helmer, who were allegedly sexually assaulted at Marine Barracks Washington and interviewed by The Invisible War filmmakers, four were investigated after they reported a sexual assault or rape. No officer was disciplined for sexual assault, according to the film. Helmer says her assailant was promoted three years ago.
Others in the film who reported being raped were charged with adultery. Airman First Class Jessica Hinves watched her assailant be awarded “Airman of the Year” during the Air Force’s rape investigation of him.
“Most Americans assume there is access to a system of justice,” says Susan Burke, an attorney who has worked with victims of military sexual assault, in the film. “If you are a civilian and you are raped, you can call the police and then there are local, state and federal prosecutors that can bring the perpetrator to justice. The problem with the military is that instead victims have to go to their chain of command.”
While victims can report sexual assault to others, including sexual assault response coordinators and victims advocates, the process is funneled into a military justice system where power is vested in the commander.
In a 2012 Pentagon report, 25 percent of victims of sexual assault or rape in the military indicated the offender was someone in their chain of command.“Nowhere in America do we allow a boss to decide if an employee was sexually assaulted or not, except the United States military,” U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York said in a December statement. “We owe our service members better.”
Until last year, if a case made it to court-martial trial, the commander had the authority to overturn or lessen the sentence if the assailant was found guilty. In a well-publicized case, Lt. Col. James Wilkerson was convicted of aggravated sexual assault at Aviano Air Base in Italy in November 2012 only to have his conviction overturned by Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin who freed Wilkerson from prison, reinstated him in the Air Force and recommended him for a promotion. Wilkerson was transferred to the Davis-Montahn Air Base in Tucson, Ariz., where the victim’s family resides.
As of December 2013, commanding officers no longer have the power to overturn convictions.
In 2012, 26,000 service members experienced unwanted sexual contact, according to a Department of Defense report. Only 3,374 of the 2012 cases were reported to military officials. Why so few? Fifty percent of female victims stated they did not report the crime because they believed nothing would be done. Of those few who did report, 60 percent stated they were retaliated against.
“It really does a number on your psyche because it’s like being in a domestic violence situation where your partner in that intimate relationship is your boss whom you cannot get away from,” describes Jennifer Norris, an advocate at the nonprofit Military Rape Crisis Center and a military sexual assault survivor who lives in Maine.
When Helmer returned to work, with bruises on her arm and face, people didn’t salute her, referred to her as a “slut” and rumors flew around the office about her and the major. Meanwhile, the military continued its investigation of her.
“Some days, I would be in a dilapidated building and would look around and think, ‘Nothing has changed since Vietnam,’ ” she says, noting she grew increasingly depressed over the next several months. “I joined the Marine Corps to do better things and do bigger things. I thought I would be an asset with a great college education. I did a great job, but I realized they were never going to help me.”
The cost is high when the military fails to protect those who protect us. Women who have been raped in the military have a post-traumatic stress disorder rate higher than men who have been in combat.
One day, Helmer put all of her investigation files and a record of previous sexual harassment incidents into a Nordstrom shoe bag and alerted the colonel she was giving it to a Marine Times reporter. Subsequently, she was transferred to Quantico where she worked as a marketing officer before leaving the military altogether.
Since The Invisible War was released in 2012, Helmer has volunteered to speak on panels at universities across the country. She also has appeared on the TODAY show, CNN, and in articles in Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair, advocating to fix what she and others call a broken system of justice. Through voices like hers and advocates in Congress, the Department of Defense has made some critical changes.Two days after Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta watched The Invisible War in April 2012, he directed military commanders to hand over “certain sexual assault cases” to a higher-ranking colonel or Navy captain who possesses at least special court martial convening authority. He also announced that each branch of the armed forces would establish a special victims unit.
“We knew the film would have an impact, but we didn’t expect the changes in Congress and the Department of Defense,” says Kirby Dick, director and co-producer of The Invisible War. “I think because the film was so emotionally powerful, they couldn’t take the typical line of defense.”
Maj. Gen. Jeffery Snow, new director of the Department of Defense Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, says he appreciates the ongoing dialogue on Capitol Hill , including his weekly meetings with Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and others, to work to improve the defense department’s program of prevention and response.
“We must ensure that we create and maintain a culture where every service member is treated with dignity and respect, all allegations of inappropriate behavior are treated with seriousness, victims’ privacy is protected, bystanders are motivated to intervene, and where offenders know that they will be held appropriately accountable by strong and effective systems of justice,” he says.
In June Helmer quit her sales job in North Carolina to move to Boulder where she grew up to take care of her mom and biggest champion, Nancy Helmer, who was dying of neuroendocrine cancer. Passionate about educating young people, her mom spent 26 years mentoring youth while teaching consumer and family studies at area middle and high schools, earning “Teacher of the Year” and serving as commencement speaker.
How many nights did Nancy Helmer lay awake, struggling to reconcile her once confident, outgoing daughter who served as new member director of CU-Boulder’s Panhellenic Council to the one who called her at night from Washington, D.C., afraid to be alone for fear she would take her life? Nancy Helmer died last September just after turning 64.
In the invisible war waging in the world’s most powerful institution, the victims are not the only casualties. No one tallies the emotional damage suffered by family and friends.
“I’m volunteering and working to pass legislation, so that others do not have to suffer through what I went through,” says Helmer whose brother Barrett Helmer (Jour’05) also graduated from CU. “My family was torn apart.”
Photography courtesy invisiblewarmovie.com (portrait); Narelle Helmer (news conference, with her mom)