After she was raped, the young Marine knew exactly what she would do.
Report nothing. Not to a doctor. Not to her mother back in Omaha. And definitely not to her commanding officer at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.
Nor would she again confide in a chaplain she had once told about workplace harassment. What resulted that time — not coincidentally, she believes — was her lowest performance score ever.
So Sharon Robino-West, a single mother who loved the Marines and desperately needed her job, did the same thing nearly 30 years ago that so many other victims of sexual assault still do today.
Sharon Robino-West kept quiet. At least in the beginning. At least officially. Two Marine friends who were like brothers listened sympathetically. But did nothing. A Marine she eventually married listened and wanted to hunt the assailant down. But did nothing.
Her silence then and the silence of victims now is hardly surprising given what we know about sexual assault in the military:
» That 26,000 service members, according to the latest Pentagon report, said they had experienced unwanted sexual contact from a fellow service member. This is up 35 percent from 2010.
» That sexual assault by a fellow service member is such a dire threat for female troops, that a disgusted Sen. John McCain memorably said earlier this week he could not fully support advising women to enter the military at this time.
» That males are victims, too; over half the troops who said in the Pentagon survey that they had been sexually assaulted were men. This may have prompted Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., at this week's historic hearing with the military's top leaders, to declare sexual assault to be, not an issue of gender, but an issue of violence.
» That silence rules the day. Service members, citing fear of retaliation and a lack of trust in the military's in-house discipline system, generally do not come forward. That is borne out anecdotally and by different studies, such as the two high-profile Pentagon reports released last month.
The first is an anonymous survey on gender relations that found that 26,000 service members who received “unwanted sexual contact” in 2012. The second is the U.S. Department of Defense's annual report on sexual assault, which found that a fraction of victims — 11 percent — reported the crime.
Few cases are brought to trial. Of 1,714 sexual assault suspects investigated in 2012 by the military, 238 were convicted.
The vast majority of reported sexual assaults are investigated by commanding officers who can decide whether a case moves to trial.
Some members of Congress and advocates for victims believe that taking sexual assault and other serious offenses out of the chain of command would reduce what they see as systemic bias. Top military leaders vehemently oppose it.
Sharon Robino-West said few believed that reporting a rape in the early 1980s, when she served, would do much good.
She had entered the Marines at age 17, getting her mother to sign the forms because of her age.
Sharon speeded up her coursework to graduate from Westside High School early. She married an older airman stationed at Offutt Air Force Base. She entered boot camp at Parris Island, S.C.
Few women were in the military then. Sharon was proud of where she had landed, proud of what she learned she could do: run fast and far, and, later, handle classified communication.
Sharon was used to being the only woman or one of a few women on assignment. She brushed off things she figured went with the territory — like the sergeant who walked up to her during the course of a work day and asked if she wanted to dance.
Some things, however, irked her enough to complain.
Like some male Marines around her, her equals in rank and performance, being promoted at a faster rate. When she asked the commander what could she do, he'd say: “You'll never be in combat.”
Like her male co-workers who brought their sexually explicit magazines into the naval warfare publications library, where she handled classified communications. When she asked them to take the magazines home, they ignored her.
Like the co-worker who, perhaps jokingly or threateningly, said he could get her fired.
Sharon went to the base chaplain for help. The chaplain said he'd take care of it. Within weeks, Sharon was marked down for the first time ever on a quarterly progress report that determines promotion.
Then came that night in the spring of 1984. By then she was divorced and was raising her 2-year-old son alone.
A Marine had asked her out. He'd seemed like a nice guy. He was a lifeguard. They went to a bar and had a drink — Sharon stopped after one because of a bad vibe — but he talked her into stopping at her place to watch some TV.
She asked him to leave. He refused and began putting his hands on her.
She told him to stop. He refused and overpowered her.
She cried. He left.
Sharon believed she could do nothing about it.
|Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.|
At best, she figured, she'd be ignored. At worst?
She feared retaliation. She needed her job. She loved the Marines.
A whirlwind courtship to another Marine resulted in marriage that October, right before her four years were up. Her commanders asked her to re-enlist. She said no. Sharon Robino-West left the Marines.
Some weeks later, military investigators contacted her about the Marine who raped her. Fearing for her Marine husband's career, she wouldn't speak.
Not long afterward, Sharon saw a news account about a Marine going to jail for rape. It was the same man who had assaulted her. He had done the same to another female Marine who did report it. Sharon felt a mix of relief and deep remorse. Had she spoken up, could another woman have been spared?
Sharon returned to Omaha in 1997. She earned a bachelor's degree in marketing and master's degree in leadership. She now counsels veterans through a program offered by Lutheran Family Services. One of her two sons is a former Marine who served in Iraq.
In April, Sharon traveled to Washington, D.C., to learn how she could help veterans in Omaha dealing with MST — shorthand for military sexual trauma. She went to lobby for legislation that would remove sexual assault crimes from the chain of command's purview.
And she went to lend her voice.
Silent no more, Sharon Robino-West, age 50, is sharing her story because she wants change.
“People need to know that this has happened,” she said, “and continues to happen.”
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