Defense Date


Graduation Date

Fall 1-1-2017


Immediate Access

Submission Type


Degree Name



Clinical Psychology


McAnulty College and Graduate School of Liberal Arts

Committee Chair

Eva Simms

Committee Member

Roger Brooke

Committee Member

Jessie Goicoechea


military sexual assault, military sexual trauma, toxic leadership, reporting, retaliation, social ecological, mobbing


Military leaders play central roles in responding to sexual assault in the military social ecology, yet their impacts on victims’ post-assault and reporting experiences remain understudied. Using standpoint epistemology and a military-specific social ecological approach, this two-stage project investigated how military leaders impacted survivors’ post-assault and reporting experiences, as well as their experiences with military peers, community resources, and justice and separation processes. Data were gathered through an initial focus group with eight subject matter experts in advocacy, legal work, and policy reform, followed by subsequent in-depth individual interviews with eight female survivors of military sexual assault, seven of whom filed unrestricted reports between 2006 and 2014 and all of whom were separated from service between 2007 and 2015. Analysis was performed with grounded theory.

Findings provide in-depth understanding of the extensive impact of military leaders on survivors’ experiences across the military social ecology. Data indicate that when leaders themselves perpetrated, were affiliated with perpetrators, or became otherwise compromised, they damaged victims’ reporting experiences, recoveries, and support systems. These negative-destructive leaders capitalized on the close-knit, transitory, and male-dominated military environment to recruit other leaders and supports into an escalating process of defamation of and retaliation against survivors—a process described as forming ranks. As this destructive process escalated, it potentiated the harms caused by the initial assault(s) and compromised the support and protection available to victims from peers, positive-constructive leadership, and military community resources. In three cases, it contributed to survivors’ attempting to take their own lives. This destructive process also interacted with structural power dynamics to compound barriers to leader-perpetrator accountability in the command-directed justice system. By forming ranks against survivors, negative-destructive leaders ultimately deprived them of the ability to recover while they remained in service and contributed to their separations from the military—the very purpose of this retaliatory process. All participants provided actionable recommendations to increase leadership accountability and improve the military system, in order to better protect future survivors from the victimization and retraumatization that they or those they knew had endured.