Thursday, November 19, 2015

An excerpt from my memoir, "Broken Silence, A Military Whistleblower's Fight for Justice"


Disparate Treatment
and the Fight for Equality


In my 18 plus years of military service, I not only learned a lot about myself, and also I learned quite a bit about military policies and politics.  The Navy was many things to me.  Initially it was my free ticket out of the Old South.  It soon became my teacher, my family and my protector (or so it seemed). Eventually it became my second marriage, and like all bad marriages, it ended before a judge and jury, and lack of alimony (or pension).  Though I may have learned about treachery and fraud, I also learned a lot about loyalty, integrity and trust.  One of the most important lessons I learned while being bullied by my older siblings as a child, but later on in the military, was to never go down without a good fight.  It has been, and still is, my greatest pleasure to advocate for vital causes – primarily issues pertaining to upholding civil and human rights.
            Before joining the military, I was never warned about the unfair gender disparity,  racial  isolation  and  subsequent  unlawful  treatment I could and would  be  subjected to.   In my role as an advocate, I feel that it’s crucial to bring these issues to the forefront, to inform both new and prospective Sailors of the fact that inequality still permeates military culture, and to help them fight to change it.
            One of the first issues I would point out is the phenomenon I call the “pyramid effect.” The military publicly defends its initiatives towards improving diversity within the junior officer ranks while weeding out senior minority officers.  The Pentagon will go as far as to launch huge media campaigns, spending millions in tax dollars to entice potential minority officers into enrolling in its military training institutions, to maintain its minority quota – case in point, the minority-targeted ads during sporting seasons.  Meanwhile, behind the scenes, the good ol’ boys are secretly conducting a kind of racial cleansing of blacks and minorities within the senior officers ranks.
            Although there are a significant number of minority officers enrolled at military training institutions, historical black colleges or traditional university – ROTC programs, there’s an obvious shortage of senior black officers in higher ranking positions available to mentor the junior officers after they earn their commissions.  Meanwhile, prior enlisted service members have even less opportunity to earn a commission to become a Naval officer.  Unfortunately, officers who have earned their commissions through traditional means often frown upon “Mustangs,” (prior enlisted service members who have become officers) like I was – the majority of whom are minorities.

Each year the DoD, Military Leadership Diversity Commission (MLDC) performs an analysis of the military’s ongoing diversity initiatives, across all branches of the Armed Forces.  The Commission compiles all its findings and conclusions in an annual report and submits the report to Congress and the President for signature, offering recommendations for improving diversity initiatives within the military.  The latest report, posted on the Internet, provided statistics of all military officers who are serving on active duty, with the following breakdown: (racial statistics for women were not provided). 

                        77%    Non-Hispanic white males
                        8%      Non-Hispanic black males
                        5%      Hispanic males
                        4%      Asian/Pacific Islander males
                        1%      Other
                        16%    Women
The 162-page report can be read here:

The online report also suggested an immense absence of minorities in senior leadership roles.  The report offered recommendations to increase the proportion of minority officers in the military in order to create a fighting force that better represents the makeup of the population it defends.  However, as America continues to move forward towards freeing herself from centuries of deeply imbedded racism, bigotry and hatred, senior military officials have continued to find ways to disguise their ongoing prejudice and racism towards blacks, women, gays and other minorities serving in uniform.
            Understanding the workings of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) is paramount to understanding disparate treatment of women and minorities serving in the military.  Unlike the civilian world, which is governed under state and federal jurisdiction, the military is a self-sustaining entity with its own justice system; consisting of military lawyers (mostly prosecutors), judges, jurors and prisons. Those in charge, with few exceptions, are white males.  Unfortunately, senior military top brass are granted executive authority by the President, which ultimately allows them the flexibility to establish and manage their personal hidden agendas. 
            Senior white officers are in charge of managing all the military’s quotas, recruitment and diversity programs, the military’s policies and directives, the war budgets and so much more.  They are also given executive authority to investigate “themselves” each time a subordinate accuses a senior member of his chain of command of violating his or her constitutional rights.  Judging by what I’ve personally witnessed and experienced, I wouldn’t trust these devils with managing the security of a concession stand, much less our country. 

In his book, The Audacity of Hope, Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream, President Obama muses about our Constitution, Senate procedures, Separation of powers, judicial nominations and rules of constitutional interpretation.  He also discusses race issues in America. He states, “Not only   because  the  procedural  rules  of  our  government  help  define  the results – on everything from whether the government can regulate polluters, to whether government can tap your phone – but because they define our democracy just as much as elections.  Our system of self-governance is an intricate affair; it is through that system, and by respecting that system, that we give shape to our values and shared commitments.” 
            Unfortunately this isn’t a sentiment shared by those who are appointed by  the  military’s  Judge  Advocate  General Corps,   to  uphold  a   service-member’s constitutional rights under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ).  Under their jurisdiction, the “Code” has become a sort of secret society cipher.

            I spent my entire adult life growing up in the Navy and was forced to learn life’s lessons on my own. Of course the unscrupulous actions of my military superiors taught me what NOT to do.  For nearly two decades I committed myself to helping others.  I gained many pearls of wisdoms by learning how to combat the ill-treatment doled out to a double minority officer.  While experiencing my own trials and tribulations, I was determined to mentor other minority Naval officers on how to survive the plank, so to speak, while properly exercising their rights under the Constitution. This has turned out to be much harder than I thought!
            Throughout American history, many lives have been sacrificed while fighting for equality – to allow equal protection under the law for Native Americans, Latinos, blacks, women and other minorities; including equality for the homosexual community, which is steadily making its way to the steps of America’s most supreme justice system. 
            Due to the Military’s internal, ironclad, self-governing justice system; active duty service members are often barred, bullied, harassed and subsequently punished for attempting to exercise their hard-won constitutional rights.
            Recent studies have shown that thousands of victims have come forward, claiming to have been raped, sexually assaulted, or have experienced other forms of workplace abuse while serving in the military.  When service members report violations of their constitutional rights, each level of their chain of command, leading up to the highest office of the Defense Secretary, bands together to initiate damage control, rather than afford the victim equal justice under the law.  It’s sadly ironic that enlisted service members are the first to sacrifice their lives to protect the very same constitutional rights they are often denied.
            While still in uniform, traumatized victims seldom have access to anyone they can trust, who will offer neutral advocacy support without fear of becoming a victim themselves.  The likelihood that a command will conduct an inquiry into a victim’s complaints, at the very least an impartial investigation, is slim to none, especially when the complaint involves a senior member within the victim’s direct chain of command.
            The current Military Justice Improvement Act, put forth by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, is a bi-partisan bill that attempts to address this inequity across the entire U.S. Armed Forces; yet the bill focuses on sexual assault and rape victims’ traumatic experiences, not the deep-seated problems of racial discrimination that continues to plague our Armed Forces.

President Obama, in his 2005 Knox College commencement address, said that America, throughout history, has been “a place where destiny was not a destination, but a journey to be shared and shaped and remade by people who had the gall, the temerity to believe that, against all odds, they could form ‘a perfect union’ on this new frontier.”   It is this very message that should serve as a motto for our military, but it has been roundly ignored by the military’s top brass, who have been allowed to form their own “perfect union,” a secret military cabal.
            While I was selectively chosen to be prosecuted for an alleged military sex crime and conduct unbecoming of an officer, senior white officers have been found guilty of committing more egregious offenses, yet none of them faced a trial by court-martial, and most were allowed to retire in grade with full pension benefits.  Lieutenant Commander Supply Corps officer, Rebecca Dickson, a white female colleague, is one example of disparate treatment. According to a Navy Times news article, Rebecca worked at the Naval Academy teaching an ethics class by day; at night the married ethics officer was busy working as a call girl for the late D.C. Madam, Deborah Jeane Palfrey.  After cutting a deal with the Justice Department, Rebecca was granted immunity and agreed to testify against the late Madam, who was alleged to have committed suicide a few weeks before my trial.  After testifying, Dickson was allowed to remain on active duty until she reached her retirement eligibility.  She retired in late 2008.
            That same year, the Navy Times covered the story of former Navy pilot, Vice Admiral John “Boomer” Stufflebeem.  He was found guilty of lying to a DoD IG investigator about an affair he’d had with a former mistress.  The affair was alleged to have taken place some 18 years prior, when Boomer was a Navy commander serving as a military liaison at the White House during the Bush administration.  Apparently the handsome looking commander (now Admiral) had bragged to a few of his flyboy buddies that he was having sex with his mistress in the duty bunkroom of the White House. The IG investigation report indicated that Boomer had also lied about his marital status by telling his mistress that his wife was deceased.  He went as far as telling her his wife was his nanny, whenever his lover inquired about “the woman answering his phone.” It was later rumored that one of his rivals had held off on reporting his infidelity until 18 years later, when Boomer was being considered for a high-ranking profile position.  I guess the fetching flyboy had bragged one time too many.  Although Stufflebeem was fired from his job as Director of Navy Staff, he most definitely did not do any time in the brig.
            In 2008, Retired Admiral Charles H. Goddard, former Program Executive Officer (PEO) for Navy Ships, was found guilty of sexual harassment; inappropriately touching a female federal employee and continuous alcohol abuse.  Based on the testimony of a number of key eyewitnesses, the admiral had a serious alcohol problem.  The conclusion of a June 2008, Navy IG investigation report indicated, “Admiral Goddard’s public intoxication in the presence of active duty subordinates, and the instance of the inappropriate touching of a female; while intoxicated, constituted being drunk and disorderly and was considered conduct unbecoming an officer and gentleman.”
            One eyewitness stated that while on official government travel, the Admiral would consume so much alcohol that he would publicly display his inebriation at official reception parties held after a ship’s commissioning ceremony.  For several years, the drunken admiral continued down this path of self-destruction while his loyal military subordinates chose to turn a blind eye and never reported his behavior to more senior officials.  They simply “stood watch,” keeping an eye on him until he had had enough and escorted him back to his hotel room.
            While serving as the senior program executive officer (PEO) for Navy ships, one of the largest Defense Department’s acquisition organizations, Admiral Goddard was overall responsible for the development, execution and procurement of all major surface combatants and amphibious ships, including special mission and support ships and special warfare crafts.  As a senior ranking flag officer, Admiral Goddard should have been held to a much higher standard, well above mine.  His reckless and drunken behavior was a disgrace to his military uniform and sexually harassing a female colleague further compromised his standing as an officer and a gentleman.
            While I was serving my prison sentence, Admiral Goddard was calling in a few favors from his fellow Naval Academy graduates.  Despite being found guilty of committing a number of criminal offenses, Admiral Goddard was never ordered to appear before a military court-martial.  He was allowed to retire in grade with his full retirement pension intact.
            Another example that proves that rank and race has its privilege is the case of former commanding officer of the guided missile cruiser USS Cowpens, Captain Holly Graf, nicked named “Horrible Holly” by military bloggers and news journalists.  In early 2010, the former CO was relieved of her command.  Members of her crew made complaints to the Navy IG that she had used the ship to drag race against another ship, and even hit a whale and failed to report it. The results of a Navy IG investigation found her guilty of cruelty and maltreatment of her subordinates.  Her heinous actions  drew  international  attention and  Time Magazine featured an  article about her entitled, “The Rise and fall of a female Captain Bligh,” comparing her to one of the most notorious tyrants in Navy history. 
            After interviewing nearly 30 eyewitnesses, a 2010 Navy IG investigation report substantiated five out of eight allegations of unlawful treatment.  There were extensive witness statements to support evidence of ongoing unlawful treatment of her subordinates; including harassment and exposure to a hostile work environment, blatant use of vulgar language by her constant use of the word “fuck…” and putting a senior enlisted Sailor in “time out.”  Holly was later found guilty at a Board of Inquiry (BOI) hearing and a panel of three senior Navy admirals recommended that she be removed from active service with a general discharge.  The Secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus, ignored the Board’s recommendation and approved Holly’s retirement request.  She retired in grade with full retirement pension and received an honorable discharge.
            Some say Holly got off easy because she was a “poster child,” the first female to command a Navy guided missile cruiser warship.  I’m sure her sister, Vice Admiral Robin Graf, may also have had some influence in Captain Graf’s retirement opportunities.
            In April 2011, the Navy relieved former commanding officer of the amphibious ship USS Ponce, Commander Etta Jones.  Etta was the second female officer to be fired that year for cruelty and maltreatment of her crew.  Unlike her counterpart Holly, Etta gave preferential treatment to her junior female officers.  Meanwhile, she was found guilty of threatening to tie one of her junior male officer’s “nuts into a knot.”  Navy IG investigators substantiated 10 out of 11 allegations.  Here are a few of the substantiated charges from the official investigation report: “Commander Jones – verbally abused subordinate officers and enlisted personnel; she ordered sub-ordinates to neglect their official duties in reporting required incidents that took place onboard the ship; she failed to conduct small arms weapons handling; she created a hostile work environment; she endangered personnel when she mishandled her personal 9mm weapon and she failed to report incidents of hazing on board the ship.
            As commanding officers, Captain Graf and Commander Jones were accountable and responsible for the morale, well-being and overall safety of each of their crewmembers and their ships.  After being found guilty of committing a number of serious military offenses, neither of them faced a military court-martial for their unlawful harassment, abuse of authority, command negligence and potential endangerment of crewmembers’ lives as well as creating potential hazards to multi-billion dollar Navy warships.

In 2011, the Navy relieved over 20 commanding officers. So far only one was reported to have been brought before a trial, former commanding officer of the destroyer USS Momsen, Commander Jay Wylie.  This case certainly drives home the notion that the Navy doesn’t normally prosecute officers or Sailors for adultery.  During Commander Wylie’s trial, the married white officer plead guilty to rape and sexual assault of two of his female subordinates.   He was found guilty of two separate counts of rape but not for committing adultery.  He was sentenced to serve just 42 months at the Miramar brig.
            Meanwhile the military’s only female convicted sex offender, a black woman, is currently serving a maximum 16-year prison sentence.  After I met her and she shared intimate details of her crime and her trial, it was my opinion that she didn’t deserve such harsh punishment – but she’s not alone.  A disproportionate number of other black female prisoners are victims of the military’s “Jim Crow” justice system.
            In January 2014, Robert C. Martinage, the acting Undersecretary of the Navy (the Navy’s 2nd in command) was asked to step down by Navy Secretary, Ray Mabus.  While under investigation for his alleged involvement in a defense contracting scheme, he was having an affair with a subordinate officer.  Court records revealed that he authorized $1.6 million of defense spending for homemade silencers that cost only $8,000 to manufacture.  Like other high-ranking white officials, he never faced criminal prosecution.
            I’ve already mentioned the two recent cases of General David Petraeus and General Jeffery Sinclair, in which white male senior officers received mere slaps on the wrists for adultery offenses far more serious than mine.
            In the face of so much evidence of disparate treatment, I can only conclude that my whistleblower status, combined with the fact that I’m a black woman, made me a necessary and easy target.  I was a junior officer who refused to go along to get along and I had no upper echelon connections – no strings to pull.
            Looking back, I might imagine my story as a military war game or game of chess – both sides attacking, and both protecting their own interest at all costs – in which one side has not played by the rules.  Although the military-industrial bureaucracy (the military’s justice system) silenced me, temporarily, they have by no means won.  The record will show that my opponents appeared to have the upper hand – but it will also show that they indeed abused their authority and cheated on a grand scale, while I played hard and well against great odds.  Although it’s hard for me to say what “winning” means anymore, “Broken Silence” is a personal victory for me, for God, and a victory for others who, like me, choose to stand up for fairness, equality and transparency, especially  in the military.


Anonymous said...

Ms. Sy I'm going to order your book today. My mom told me about the conversation she had with you and I'm still undecided about joining the military. I'm on delayed entry until I graduate next year and I might take my chances at going to a Historical Black College instead. I want to major in criminal justice and be a criminal defense lawyer and hope to be able to provide pro bono legal service to military veterans. We loss my brother in the 91' military war and my mom is afraid for me. I don't if I can get out of my contract. I will have to talk to the school's recruiter. My mom said that you are an inspirational person and I'm looking forward to meeting you.

Syneeda said...

Thanks Anon. Since you didn't provide your name, I'm not sure who your mom is. I talk to mothers and fathers all the time. Yet I'm certain I gave her the same advice I normally give parents, “Which is to make sure you do your own research and don't rely solely on the experience or "sales pitch" of a recruiter.” Recruiters are salesmen for the military and their job is to meet the military's quotas." My memoir serves as a testimony of my personal experience and every Veteran has their unique experience. Some have shared their stories on various social media sites. That’s where I would begin my research, read about our stories and go from there. I will offer some additional advice; shop around for scholarship opportunities or tuition assistance reimbursement. The path I took afforded me the opportunity to gain work experience while going to school full-time at night. The military offered a great tuition assistance reimbursement program. I don't regret my military experience because it taught me a lot and afforded me an opportunity to travel the world and experience different ethnic cultures. That is what I will treasure most about my career. Yet I was truly disappointed by the systemic racist culture of the Navy. I openly discuss that dark side of my career throughout my memoir. When I joined the Navy in the late 80s, they were still integrating women to serve on board ships. As recent as 2005, I served as the only woman onboard a war ship of over 300 men for an entire year. I elaborate about that experience in an earlier chapter. Yes, I was called a “Bitch and a Nigger” and much worse. Working with such a misogynistic crew wasn’t easy, especially when they openly expressed that “Women don’t belong onboard a warship, instead, at home in the kitchen.” Translation… “Leave the fighting to the men!!” You would imagine that I would’ve been immune to such racism, growing up in the South. Sadly enough, I was never exposed to racism or sexism until after I joined the Navy. As far as choosing to go to a “Historical Black College” is a personal decision you have to make on your own. I served with a number of black officers who graduated from a HBC and they were also discriminated against, even more so than those of us who were prior enlisted and rose through the ranks. Making life altering decisions is not easy, but with each decision you make, make sure it resonates with your soul because your success will be driven by your passion.