Courage for America Campaign
2023 (Photo/Kevin Lowery, Courage for America Campaign)

Surviving Sexual Assault and Harassment in the Marine Corps Made Me a Fierce Advocate for Change

The military can — and must — do better regarding military sexual trauma

As told to Nicole Audrey Spector

There was a time in the late ’90s when I didn’t feel like I had many options in life. I was a new mom, barely out of high school and was making minimum wage (only $4.25 an hour, back then) at a dead end job. I couldn’t keep up with my bills, and I felt terrible about myself and worried for my daughter’s future.  

One of my best friends — let’s call her Maggie — told me she planned on enlisting in the Marine Corps when she graduated high school in the next year. Maggie was excited about the opportunity and asked if I wanted to meet with her recruiter. 

“This could change your life,” Maggie said. 

I agreed to meet with the recruiter. Female recruits were hard to come by back then, and, partly because I was in top physical shape, the recruiter was eager to see me enlist. He spoke of all the ways that joining would indeed change my life for the better. He made it sound like, by enlisting, I’d finally be able to financially thrive in a world that had, until then, been so hard to survive in. But there was one major issue: I had a baby and I wasn’t married. 

The recruiter told me I could either give up my daughter for adoption or I could get married. Being wed would allow me to qualify for a two-dependent waiver, which would allow me to earn more than a recruit without dependents, so I could support my family. 

There was no way I was going to give up my daughter, so the recruiter brought my boyfriend in and talked us into getting married. He even offered to pay for the marriage license. We took him up on the offer, and though we’re still happily together today, a hurried courthouse wedding wasn’t what I’d imagined for myself. We were just kids ourselves, only 19 years old. 

Joanna Sweatt with her family
Joanna Sweatt with her family (from left) Jobiin M., Jordin D., Joanna, Jeriah, Jobiin D. January 2022.

My decision to enlist wasn’t only based on money; I was also passionate about serving and making a positive and meaningful difference in the world. I was ready to give it my all. 

But my big dreams were soon crushed when, upon enlisting, it came to light that pretty much everything the recruiter sold me on was a lie. I didn’t get any more pay than other new recruits, despite having the two-dependent waiver. And rather than being able to keep my family together, as my husband and I were promised, we were immediately ripped apart when I was sent to serve in Okinawa. 

It was also hard just being a woman in the Marine Corps. The culture was misogynistic and hostile. I often felt so alone and desperately missed my husband and daughter.

Then things got even worse. One night, while I was a student at Communications School, after an evening of heavy drinking, I was sexually assaulted by a male Marine student who I knew and thought I could trust. I considered reporting the incident but was discouraged by how complicated and alienating (for me) that process would be. I thought of all the scrutiny and possible retaliation I, and not my attacker, would be subjected to. 

So I just tucked the whole incident away, deep down believing it was my fault I was assaulted. My fault because I was blackout drunk

Not long after the assault, I got pregnant again. When I was in my third trimester and prepping to go back to the States to have my baby, I was sexually assaulted again in Okinawa by another male colleague. I tucked that horrible incident away, too. 

I was well aware that I was in a toxic and violent environment in the Marine Corps, but I was also incredibly successful and being recognized by leadership for my merits. I was making more money than ever before and was finally able to provide for my family. 

And so I stuck it out, determined not to quit. 

But the aggressive machismo of the military did not die down at all. After the two sexual assaults, I was a target of sexual harassment by a senior enlisted Marine who I thought genuinely believed in my talents and potential. In reality, he was just grooming me to serve him sexually. When I rejected him, he found ways to get back at me. I reported him and was able to gain distance from him, but not without consequences: I was excluded by friends and became the subject of cruel, relentless gossip. 

I did end up eventually leaving the Marines, but only because I was diagnosed with a blood clotting disease and became dependent on a daily medication regimen that makes me non-deployable. This medical dependency disqualified me from serving further. 

For years, I kept quiet about the abuse I’d endured in the Marine Corps, confiding only in those closest to me. But then, in 2020, news broke about the brutal murder of Vanessa Guillen, a Fort Hood soldier. It was sickening, heartbreaking and traumatic. 

Though I didn’t feel at fault for Guillen’s tragic death, I did feel a sense of responsibility and shame around my own deafening silence. If ever there were a the time to speak out about the abuse I’d endured at the hands of men in the military, it was then. I’ve been a bold and unapologetic advocate for progress and equality in the military ever since. And I will never again be quiet. 

The system in the military is completely broken. We know this based on the mere fact that reporting sexual assault and sexual harassment can often spur vengeance and revenge by other service members and officials. There’s talk about how society needs to do better before the military can. But actually it’s the other way around. The military must take ownership of its abusive culture and work intensively to change it. It must become a true space of honor and respect. It must lead the way.

Ultimately, I am proud of what I accomplished in the Marines. I know I did a great job. I don’t speak out now from a place of weakness or defeat, but rather from a place of strength and empowerment. 

Don’t feel sorry for me. Feel angry with me — and let’s join forces to make positive and lasting change.

Have a Real Women, Real Stories of your own you want to share? Let us know.

Our Real Women, Real Stories are the authentic experiences of real-life women. The views, opinions and experiences shared in these stories are not endorsed by HealthyWomen and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of HealthyWomen.


This resource was created with support from the Ready, Healthy & Able program funders.

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