That the U.S. military has had an issue with sexual assault in its ranks is no secret. In fiscal year 2015, the Department of Defense estimated that there were 20,300 assaults involving military personnel, of which only 23 percent (or 6,083) were reported. Those 6,083 victims included 5,240 service members; 804 U.S. civilians, foreign nationals, or others not on active duty with U.S. armed forces; and 39 victims with data not available on service status.
Fear of retaliation is a persistent reason for such a low level of reporting. In May 2016, Human Rights Watch stated that “nearly half (47 percent) of female service members who did not report sexual assault indicated one reason they did not do so is because they were afraid the perpetrator or his supporters would retaliate against them.” Retaliation in this context can encompass actions including threats and violence, social retaliation such as shunning, and professional retaliation, i.e. poor performance reviews, loss of promotions or opportunities to train, loss of awards, lost privileges, demotions, changes in job duties, disciplinary actions, punitive mental health referrals, and administrative discharge.
The Department of Defense’s own annual report on sexual assault in the military reveals the youngest most junior and most disempowered service members were the most likely to be victims of sexual assault. According to the report, 94 percent of complainants were enlisted. The largest single group was enlisted female service members in pay grades E1 to E4 (the lowest-paid). By contrast, 40 percent of the substantiated offenders occupied the paygrades E5 and E6 (higher paid), and were 94 percent male. These statistics paint a picture of non-commissioned officers, staff non-commissioned officers, and officers preying on those they’re tasked with leading, all while hiding behind the safety of their rank.
So this begs the question: To whom can one report a sexual assault? The answer should be family, friends, NCOs, SNCOs or officers. This seems like common sense, but even military prosecutors whose job it is to represent the government in these cases are not always safe from retaliation.
Take into consideration the case of Colonel Don Christiansen, chief prosecutor for the U.S. Air Force. Christiansen successfully prosecuted Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, the inspector general of Aviano Airbase in Italy, who was found guilty of sexually assaulting a female civilian house guest; at his annual performance review, Christiansen “found that he would soon be assigned to be a judge on the appellate court…which was widely understood to be a dumping ground for JAG (Judge Advocate General) misfits.” If even senior officers such as the Air Force’s own chief prosecutor can have their careers ended for attempting to address sexual assault in the ranks, imagine the fear of consequences for even reporting such crimes lower down the ranks.
This bleak reality brings us to T.D. Mitchell’s play Queens for a Year, directed by Lucie Tiberghien, which had its world premiere at Connecticut’s Hartford Stage last September. The title refers to a pejorative phrase used to disparage female soldiers or Marines who have deployed overseas; the term refers to the denigrating suggestion that even unattractive women will have their status elevated to that of a queen while deployed, due to their relative scarcity.
Mitchell’s play tells the story of two Marines, 2nd Lt. Molly Salinas and Pfc. Amanda Lewis, who fear for their physical safety after Lewis reports a sexual assault to Salinas. They both decide to go UA (unauthorized absence) from Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, heading instead to the Virginia home of Salinas’s grandmother, former Gunnery Sgt. Molly Walker. I had to think long and hard if I’d ever heard of such a thing happening while I was in the Marine Corps. I could not.
Beyond illuminating the injustice related to military sexual assault and retaliation against those who report and or seek to help survivors, it’s my opinion that in moving Amanda and herself away from a very real threat of violence, Mitchell’s Molly is in a way enacting the Marine Corps’ stated values of honor, courage, and commitment. That an officer would defy an unfair system, and in doing so lose her career and potentially her life in defense of another, almost powerless Marine, is in keeping with the highest traditions of the Marine Corps—traditions which demand sacrifice and faithfulness to one another.
I had the opportunity to share an afternoon with Mitchell, who in addition to writing for theatre did a stint on the TV show “Army Wives.” Our conversation ranged broadly. Here is part of it.
T.D., when did you know you were a writer?
I was a closet writer for a long time. I mostly did it to challenge myself and for my own pleasure. I spent more years of my life below the poverty line than above it, but my mom filled them with books, and I was a big reader before I was a writer. I wrote poetry and did a lot of correspondence; I like writing letters. It took me quite a while to figure out that this was going to be my profession.
Do you still write poetry?
It’s very rare that I’ll allow myself to play in that form because I feel I know so little about it. I don’t fully have an education in it, as a poet, so now and again…I find it daunting and wonderful and magical.
Do you come from a military family?
A lot are, but I did not know how many were until I was in my third year working on my play Beyond the 17th Parallel, when I decided to interview my mother, and I was like, “How is it that you came to marry a guy who was in the Air Force? How did that happen? You were like a liberal kid in college.” I knew he was in the Air Force and I remember that he was posted in Thailand.
So he was a pilot?
He was a fuel jockey—refueling and stuff like that. He couldn’t get through to the pilot program. He came back from Vietnam angry, religious, and violent, and then born again. I really did not know any of this until I talked with my mom, because I was really little.
So thinking about Queens for a Year, it tells about five generations of Marine women, going all the way back to WWII—it’s a fascinating story. How did you come to write it?
I interviewed a lot of women from different eras. I knew fairly early on that I would be focusing on the Marine Corps; my previous play, Beyond the 17th Parallel, focused on the Army, and I knew it was going to be a different culture, a different language. I met some amazing amazing broads from WWII and everywhere in between. Then I got to know more and more friends who are Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Iraqi Freedom veterans—female veterans. I feel it’s a privilege to be trusted with their stories. Usually we’re accustomed to it being a tradition passed down among males in a family rather than females; I don’t know actually know of a family of five generations of female Marines, but I thought it was worth exploring to see what that means, the way the household runs, the way the household interacts. There are such huge cultural shifts between those eras, and to be able to play that out as well.
You had a Marine advisor on the show, too, didn’t you?
It was really important to me that if we were going to have a person come into rehearsal that the person be a female who could speak to the specific issue. Brianna Maldonado, who was super freshly out, had all the stuff still in her body as it related to formation, protocol, parade turns—all of that. I wanted someone to be able to work with the [actors] as much as possible. I had done my homework. I think my goal is—yes, we take dramatic liberties, but hopefully we take them deliberately. The point was not that it was going to be absolutely and exactly perfect, but where it pushes certain boundaries and ideas, it was all about pushing with full knowledge that we were pushing it.
I felt that out fairly early on. This is probably colored by the fact that I was in the Marine Corps, but the relationship between 2nd Lt. Salinas and Pfc. Lewis is not a normal officer-and-enlisted relationship.
That’s why Lucy, Molly’s aunt, ends up calling her out on it.
Right, Lucy asks Molly whether she and Amanda are having an intimate relationship. I wasn’t thinking that specifically, but I did clock that something exceptional would have had to have happened for this lieutenant to have taken this private, both of them brand new to the Marine Corps, off base and to Virginia. That’s just not how the Marine Corps works. At that point in the play I was not sure what had happened. Later on we find out that Amanda has accused another Marine of sexually assaulting her, and is then threatened with retaliation by a male superior. Unable to find help within her chain of command, Amanda steps outside of it and asks Molly’s help. So I’m wondering, what was happening in the military at the time you sat down to write this play?
I needed to dance around the Maria Lauterbach murder…
That was at Camp Lejeune, right?
Yes. It was at the end of 2007 and she was murdered by her rapist, another Marine. She was raped at Lejeune; their housing was off post. He killed her and buried her in the backyard
Burned the body.
She was pregnant with his child. I was in the process of writing my first draft—I had already done the vast majority of my interviews—when that happened.
Then there is an article 32 hearing. The aggressive cross-examination of Amanda by the JAG gave me goosebumps; it was frightening to imagine being in that situation, especially in a low rank.
The article 32 hearing was based on an actual one. It was over three days of testimony. The parameters for an article 32 hearing have changed. The nature of that questioning into Amanda’s sexual history is something that her attorney could object to as irrelevant today. But at the time this happened, they law had not been changed.
What is the role of American theatre in regards to sharing these kinds of stories?
The American professional theatre is as culpable as the rest of the civilian population for giving veterans’ issues more lip service than service. By that I mean there is a dearth of substantive outreach through community dialogues or education, nor is there a discernible commitment to produce plays about the moral complexities of military culture and sacrifice, even though we’re still at war. Many theatres maintain the same status quo of passive “support” as does the public. Slap on a veteran ticket discount like a yellow ribbon bumper sticker, and tada! Pat yourself on the back. Hey, maybe we just qualified for a new grant!
Meanwhile, we’re losing opportunities to grow sorely needed future audiences and expand societal discourse through genuine inclusion. In considering portraying contemporary conflicts or service members, the American programming approach today seems either from a place of national apathy or a crippling fear of even appearing “political.” Rule No. 1: Don’t risk upsetting a donor.
In fact, in the first few years of OIF, the only vaguely “political” plays being fully produced in larger-than-99-seat waiver houses were by British or Irish playwrights. In stark contrast to the UK, with few exceptions, there’s little appetite here to do more than entertain. “You’re either with us or against us” seeped into our culture. And in that artistic climate, veterans can find themselves used as props, if acknowledged at all.
Some would argue that authentic narratives of war might only be able to told by those who lived through war. What are your thoughts?
Should veterans be writing about veterans? Yes. But limiting military storytelling to veteran writers exclusively would miss a chance to bridge gaps of understanding and empathy between civilian and military communities. We must listen to each other’s stories, and try to mirror them back for each other. Sometimes being separate allows a subjectivity unachievable by the subject. If I can serve as a listener, then a conduit and translator between worlds, I feel it’s my duty to do so, the best I can.
What are your thoughts on theatre as a safe space?
I disagree with claims the theatre must be a “safe” space; theatre is inherently unsafe, impermanent and unreplicable. Its power cannot fully translate in two-dimensional form, as that way there is no exchange of energy between audience and actors and story as individuals and as a collective.
As freedoms of speech and of the press are ever more overtly threatened by the state, it is incumbent upon theatre artists to not only resist, but push back. We must challenge each other to speak more through our art, take risks, and be willing to be uncomfortable in these shared dark spaces.
Has there been any further interest in Queens for a Year?
One theatre shied away from producing Queens because they didn’t like how the women turned to violence in the second act. Well, duh—you’re supposed to find that disquieting and disturbing. The whole Greek tragedy aspect had to be borne out; the simultaneously ugly and inevitable consequences of choices made in the face of terrible events. There was no other way for it to go and still be true to the characters. But I hope it gets a second production allowing it to reach more veterans, and I’d like to try a few rewrites.
Playwright, poet, and former Marine Maurice Decaul is currently Theatre Communications Group’s artist-in-residence.