The Biden administration has made combating sexual assault in the military a major policy goal. In January, as his first directive in office, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin issued a memorandum calling on senior Pentagon leaders and top generals to “battle enemies within the ranks” with the aim of wiping out the “scourge of sexual assault.”
From 2013 to 2019, that was also Amy Braley-Franck’s mission — advocating for victims of sexual crimes within the military. A day after she informed a top general about widespread mishandling of sexual assault cases, however, she was suspended from duty and has been ever since.
“The military is its own society, as stated by Justice William Rehnquist, and those that speak outside the approved narrative are shunned,” Braley-Franck told The Intercept.
Braley-Franck has been a high-profile whistleblower, bringing the issue of sexual assault and command abuses to public attention, from the Senate Armed Services Committee to “CBS This Morning.” She even played a role in the Biden administration’s signature effort at curbing sexual misconduct in the armed forces: a recent report that recommends radical reform of the military justice system.
For close to two years, though, Braley-Franck has been suspended from her role as an Army sexual assault prevention and response victim advocate. She sees the suspension, at the hands of a general she was serving under, as a clear case of retaliation. On Tuesday, she has a hearing about a grievance she filed with the Army to resolve the issue.
“My case embodies all facets of why the program is failing — a dereliction of duties by commanders.”
“Secretary Austin needs to know that commanders’ willful blindness and retaliation is in direct violation of his commitment to reform,” she told The Intercept. “My case embodies all facets of why the program is failing — a dereliction of duties by commanders and willful violation of federal law with no oversight or accountability.”
As a centerpiece of their reform efforts, Austin and President Joe Biden formed the Independent Review Commission on Sexual Assault, which recently recommended taking sexual assault cases outside the chain of command, a change military leaders have long resisted. Braley-Franck said her case proves that more reforms are still needed if the military truly wishes to rein in sexual misconduct.
A spokesperson for the Department of Defense did not provide a comment from Austin about the case.
The problem of sexual assault in the military is chronic and widespread. Last year, the disappearance and murder of 20-year-old Army Specialist Vanessa Guillén at Fort Hood, an Army base in Killeen, Texas, sparked widespread discussion about sexual misconduct in the armed forces. A scathing Army review following her death found that “the command climate relative to the Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention (SHARP) Program at Fort Hood was ineffective, to the extent that there was a permissive environment for sexual assault and sexual harassment.”
In his January memo, Austin, a former four-star general, acknowledged that military leaders have fallen short when it comes to addressing sexual assault. “I know you have worked this problem for many years. I tried to tackle it myself when I, too, commanded,” he told senior military leaders. “We simply must admit the hard truth: We must do more. All of us.”
Earlier this month, Biden voiced support for Austin’s endorsement of the Independent Review Commission on Military Sexual Assault’s recommendations to remove the investigation and prosecution of sexual assault from the chain of command and create highly specialized units to handle such cases. “To everyone who served on the IRC, thank you for your tireless work to deliver thoughtful, effective, actionable recommendations for how we can drive sexual assault and harassment from the ranks of the United States military,” Biden said in a statement.
Braley-Franck lent her expertise to the commission, serving on a panel of military sexual assault response coordinators and victim advocates and meeting, one-on-one, with commission Chair Lynn Rosenthal, who thanked her for “essential” contributions to the commission’s work. Nonetheless, Braley-Franck remained suspended from her regular duties.
Prior to the suspension, Braley-Franck worked as a victim advocate with the U.S. Army Reserve’s Illinois-based 416th Theater Engineer Command. She discovered that the unit had mishandled sexual assault complaints for years and accused the unit’s commanders of improperly opening internal investigations of sexual assault complaints rather than referring them for criminal investigations.
Documents show that in October 2019, after Braley-Franck notified criminal investigators of allegations of a sexual assault in the 416th, the Army launched an inquiry targeting her, according to official Army documents reviewed by The Intercept. The investigation probed a grab bag of allegations ranging from inappropriate work attire for wearing a “short skirt” and a racial bias claim with no outside witnesses to charges that Braley-Franck violated Defense Department regulations concerning contact with a sexual assault victim and in reaching out to the press.
“I used every process available to me. And the last process available was going to the Associated Press.”
The suspension finally came on November 20, 2019, a day after she sent an email to Lt. Gen. Charles Luckey, the top Army Reserve commander, detailing the 416th’s mishandling of sexual assault allegations and acts of retaliation. The justification given accused Braley-Franck of “possibly violating the D-SACCP” — Department of Defense Sexual Assault Advocate Certification Program — “code of professional ethics.” Almost two years later, the Army has never specified what portions of the code of ethics she was suspended for breaching.
The investigation of her contact with the press stemmed from Braley-Franck’s frustrations with inaction on sexual assault claims. She said she attempted to report allegations up the chain of command, but they went nowhere. “I used every process available to me,” she explained. “And the last process available was going to the Associated Press.”
Last January, after the AP published an article about her allegations, Democratic Illinois Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth sent a letter to Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy requesting an investigation. The probe eventually led to Maj. Gen. Miyako Schanely, the chief of the Reserve unit, losing her command; administrative action against two other senior leaders; and 12 other officers, noncommissioned officers, and Army civilians receiving official reprimands or other disciplinary actions.
Schanely was the same general responsible for Braley-Franck’s suspension.
The same day that the Army announced its findings against Schanely, it also concluded its investigation of Braley-Franck. The findings, authored by Col. Rodney Abrams, as well as documents shared by Braley-Franck, suggest that many of the allegations are based on debatable suppositions and scant or contradictory evidence.
“I find,” wrote Abrams, “Ms. Franck’s conduct in contacting the victim of an alleged sexual assault … on or about 28 June 2019 violated” Defense Department regulations and the D-SAACP code of professional ethics. As proof, he cited a statement by Maj. Andrew Johnson: “MAJ Johnson had warned Ms. Franck that the alleged victim did not want to be contacted.” An email sent on the day in question and shared with The Intercept by Braley-Franck indicates that Johnson actually asked that Braley-Franck, the 416th’s victim advocate, contact the victim, a private. In it, Johnson wrote: “I … formally request the VA conduct a follow up session with PVT [name redacted].”
Johnson did not reply to a request for comment. Abrams declined an interview request and referred The Intercept to an Army spokesperson.
Abrams also found that Braley-Franck “failed to respect the alleged victim’s right to privacy and confidentiality” by providing documents to the AP. The article cited by Abrams specifically notes that “the AP usually doesn’t identify sexual assault victims” but did so in the case of one survivor who “gave permission to use her name.”
A 17-year-old Army private, whose case spurred Braley-Franck’s whistleblowing and whose name was not published by the AP, was reportedly raped, resulting in a broken collarbone and a broken arm, according to files reviewed by The Intercept.
“For over a year, no one assisted her until I was notified in June of 2019,” Braley-Franck told The Intercept. “No victim’s rights or privacy were ever violated by me. I reported felony rapes and aggravated assaults of multiple soldiers to include a 17-year-old who also suffered broken bones. These commanders violated federal law by not reporting these crimes to the MCIO” — Military Criminal Investigative Organization.
While not speaking directly about Braley-Franck’s case, Independent Review Commission Chair Rosenthal said that those supporting sexual assault survivors should be removed from the command reporting structure. Sexual assault response coordinators “and victim advocates need to be able to focus on the victim’s needs, so they shouldn’t have to fear what’s going to happen with their own career,” she told The Intercept. “Their job is to advocate for the victims and discover deficiencies in policies, like the ones that were identified that resulted in the commander being removed.”
Braley-Franck, who served as the Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention Program manager for U.S. Army Africa from 2015 to 2018, was also instrumental in facilitating press coverage that led to an investigation of Maj. Gen. Joseph Harrington, the commander of U.S. Army Africa, after he exchanged a large number of Facebook messages — 1,158 of them between February 12, 2017, and June 3, 2017 — with the spouse of an enlisted soldier. Harrington was later sacked and stripped of a star.
A recent investigation by The Intercept found systemic sexual misconduct at U.S. Africa Command. Criminal investigation files obtained through the Freedom of Information Act revealed 158 cases of sexual crimes involving U.S. military personnel in Africa that were reported over the past decade, while the official Pentagon accounting lists just 73 cases of sexual assault over that same period.
The Defense Department estimates that around 20,500 service members experience sexual assault annually, but only 6,290 official allegations of sexual assault were made in 2020. Since 2010, according to the Independent Review Commission, roughly 644,000 active-duty military personnel have been sexually assaulted or sexually harassed.
“They are especially angry with me because they cannot treat me like they do service members who do not have the same civil rights protections,” Braley-Franck said of the Army. “Their annoyance pales in comparison to the justified anger and pain suffered by hundreds of thousands of victims and their families.”
Citing Privacy Act restrictions, Lt. Col. Simon Flake, a spokesperson for Army Reserve Command, provided no information about Braley-Franck’s case and sent The Intercept an almost 2-month-old press release detailing the investigation that corroborated Braley-Franck’s allegations of mishandled sexual assault cases in the 416th Theater Engineer Command.
“Uncovering the insider threat of sexual abuse creates a recruiting and retention issue,” Braley-Franck told The Intercept. “America’s families would not allow their sons and daughters to join if they realized that their fellow service members are a greater risk to them than the enemy.”