(CNN) — Shabren Kurtz-Russ wanted to join the military to start a family tradition. Her mother and father served in the Army. And now she sought to enlist in the Army National Guard.
She would follow classmates into the service. She considered active duty, too. The military offered an exciting future — plus college money.
She spoke to her mother, Sherry Kurtz, about the plan last year. That’s when a dark family secret, only hinted at earlier, was revealed: Her mother told her she was gang-raped in the Army in 1985.
Worse, the military stonewalled her mother’s effort to seek criminal charges, Kurtz alleges. Traumatized and betrayed, Kurtz had left the Army.
Her daughter was horrified.
“It was just like unbelievable, and I was disgusted,” Kurtz-Russ said. “I didn’t really know too much about what she went through. I understand why her and my dad said absolutely not (to her enlisting).”
Kurtz-Russ, now 20, won’t be joining the armed forces, she said. Ever.
Her mother, now 46 and living in Ohio, is relieved.
“There’s no way,” Kurtz said of her reaction to her daughter’s desire to enlist. She had just self-published a book about her experience. “I just told her that history has a way of repeating itself, and I wasn’t going to let history repeat itself on her.”
Their mother-daughter exchange is among the more extreme — but not necessarily uncommon — kind of conversation unfolding between parents and their children this high school graduation season.
‘A crisis and cancer’
The heartfelt talks — which have a profound impact on military recruitment — are amplified by how Congress and the Pentagon grapple with a growing crisis surrounding revelations of rape and sexual harassment in the armed forces. Equally disturbing is how so few of the crimes are even reported in the military, according to recent statistics.
Even one of America’s most prominent POWs and advocates for women in the military, Sen. John McCain, expressed deep reservations about enlistment in a recent conversation with a parent.
“Just last night a woman came to me and said her daughter wanted to join the military and could I give my unqualified support for her doing so. I could not,” McCain said earlier this month during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on military sexual assaults. “I cannot overstate my disgust and disappointment over the continued reports of sexual misconduct in our military.”
McCain agreed with testimony about how sex offenses are “a crisis and cancer that threatens the fabric of our military.”
The latest Pentagon estimates indicate a 37% increase in sexual assaults to 26,000 cases last year. Only 9.8% of those were reported, with the bigger picture being obtained through a confidential survey sent to serving troops. There were 238 convictions overall, the Pentagon said.
Those figures come as one proposed law would reform military justice by removing prosecution of sex offenses from the chain of command and giving it to experienced military prosecutors, as Britain, Canada, Israel, Germany and Australia now do, according to a spokesman for Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York.
Women make up almost 15% of the about 1.4 million enlistees, officers, cadets and midshipmen in the military, according to Department of Defense figures.
In the past 10 years, the number of women in the military has fluctuated around the 200,000 mark, down from the high of 215,156 in 2004.
Pentagon leaders and their 13,800 recruiters have made tackling the issue of sexual assault a priority in their efforts to enlist 280,000 young men and women annually for active and reserve forces, said Defense Department spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen.
“The leadership of this department has no higher priority than the safety and welfare of our men and women in uniform, and that includes ensuring they are free from the threat of sexual harassment and sexual assault,” Christensen said. “Leaders at every level in this institution will be held accountable for preventing and responding to sexual assault in their ranks and under their commands.”
But advocates of rape victims are skeptical.
Military sexual trauma — the term for rape as well as sexual assault and harassment — goes unreported because victims must report the offense to their commanders, not an independent prosecutor, and victims fear losing their jobs or reputation, the advocates say.
While the Pentagon says rape prevention is a policy priority, Shelby Quast, senior policy adviser for Equality Now, an international human rights group that focuses on girls and women, questions whether that happens in practice.
“Unfortunately there’s a lot of things out there” in the world regarding abuses against women, Quast said, “and I can’t say it’s the worst, but it’s just a terrible betrayal. You signed up to say I’m willing to fight and willing to die but you didn’t agree to be raped by your fellow soldiers.
“If the U.S. military wants to stop sexual assault in the U.S. military, it will stop,” Quast added. “We know they can change culture and policy, and they have. This has to be mission critical to them.”
Quast recently had her own mother-daughter talk about enlistment. She describes herself as “a military child;” Quast’s father was an Air Force pilot declared missing in action after being shot down in 1966 over North Vietnam.
But when her daughter expressed interest in joining a college ROTC program after graduating from high school this month, Quast urged against it. Her daughter decided against joining.
Wanting to force change from the inside
Sarah Strachan of Florida, however, was enrolled in her high school’s JROTC program, and next month she’ll enter the Army — even after enduring being groped by boys in the JROTC’s storage room, she said.
Her high school didn’t take her — or her mother’s — complaints about the groping seriously, both women said.
Strachan, 17, now wants to help reform the military from the inside: She wants to bring rapists and harassers before a court martial and put them in prison.
“I want to do intelligence in the military or military police where I can investigate these types of things and bring justice to the people who do it, because they never do” bring them to justice, Strachan said. After her military service, she might become an FBI agent investigating sex crimes, she said.
Her mother, Dianne, 46, is afraid for her daughter in the Army, but knows Sarah has a strong will. Once, her daughter even knocked one overly aggressive boy to the ground, even though she’s 5-foot-4 and 102 pounds, the mother said.
Dianne Strachan said she can only support her daughter’s decision. She believes her daughter is trying to live up to her father, divorced from the family, who was in the Army National Guard, she said. The family also has a son, 23, in the Army.
“I really didn’t want her to join because I see how they treat women, but I would never hold her back from doing something she wants to do,” said Dianne Strachan, a medical transcriptionist.
The rape crisis hasn’t deterred Kayla Wright, 20, from wanting to enlist, but it has influenced which branch of service she plans to join.
Wright won’t join the Navy because her husband, also 20, is now being medically retired from that service and has warned her that sexual assault is “more likely to happen on a ship because there’s more men to women” and “it’s not like you can get off a ship and get away from it,” she said.
“I told him I wanted to join the Navy, but he was adamant” against it, she said, referring to her husband.
The couple, married last year, plan to move from San Diego, California, to Phoenix, Arizona, where her family lives and she’ll enlist, she said. Her brother is in the Army, she added.
“The Air Force, they treat you the best,” Wright said.
Elizabeth Maglicco, 18, of Port Vue, Pennsylvania, isn’t afraid of the Navy: She’ll report to its basic training just north of Chicago next month.
McCain’s comments don’t faze her. “He didn’t want young women to join until this is all settled,” Maglicco said. “I don’t think obstacles should get in your way.
“Honestly, any job you go to could have sexual harassment. It’s not just the military,” she added.
The Navy chief petty officer who recruited her “told us not to put up with it and have zero tolerance for it,” Maglicco said. “So him talking to us made me feel a lot more comfortable, because there are guys out there doing the right thing.”
When Maglicco was 15 and began considering enlistment, her mother was worried. Her daughter is too naïve, too trusting, seeing only good in people, said Elizabeth Richel, 40, a certified nurse’s assistant.
Her daughter, who graduated from high school this month, actually signed up 11 months ago. In fact, because her daughter helped the Navy recruit two boys, she will enter the Navy with a promotion.
“She knows I’m not very happy about it. It’s more out of concern that things can happen,” Richel said. “I don’t feel good about any of the military branches. They’re hiding a lot of it, they’re covering it up.”
Pride to pregnancy to persecution
The “rape culture” in the military, as Kurtz puts it, is something she’s facing head-on.
She self-published a book about being gang-raped and used personal journals she’s kept since the 1985 event: “The ‘M’ Word: My Story of Being Gang Raped in the Military.” The “M” word refers to military sexual trauma. She wrote the book as an homage to other women and men raped in the military, some of whose lives ended violently.
As a teenager, Kurtz was proud to enlist, even dreaming of becoming an officer, but seven months into her service, several soldiers raped her at age 19 on the U.S. Army base in Kaiserslautern, Germany, she said.
Her assailants drugged her, and the rape left her pregnant. She had an abortion.
For 11 months, she demanded her chain of command file charges, but she suffered reprisals, she alleged.
“Every week I went up there, they said they’re still investigating and I was getting a lot of retaliation at the time, and demoted,” she said.
When asked for a comment Thursday, the Army said it couldn’t immediately respond to Kurtz’s alleged rape because research involves seeking records from nearly 30 years ago.
But Army spokesman Lt. Col. S. Justin Platt added Friday: “Army leaders are committed to — and accountable for — eliminating sexual harassment/assault incidents by creating a climate where soldiers feel safe from this threat and a climate stigma free pertaining to reporting.”
In 2006, the government found the military’s Criminal Investigation Division records regarding Kurtz’s 1985 case, and those documents allowed her to receive 100% disabled veteran benefits for the post-traumatic stress disorder she suffers from the assault, she said.
To this day, she said, she cannot trust people. She has been through more jobs than she can count, she said. She and her daughter’s father, whom she met in the Army, parted ways when the daughter was 2 years old. She hasn’t been able to date anyone since and now attends support programs with other women who have been raped in the military, she said.
“People say we’re demeaning our country and our service. That’s not it,” Kurtz said. “We love our country and our service.”
But, she said, “possibly being raped” shouldn’t be part of the job description.