Opinion | What Happened the Day After I Was Sexually Harassed at the Pentagon

I was an intern at the Department of Defense attending an office happy hour in July when a drunken senior employee — a man much older than me — began trailing me. He followed me, along with other interns, as we moved from group to group.

Eventually, he cornered me, asking about my favorite alcoholic drinks (despite knowing that I was underage), my partying habits and my ethnicity, among other things. No matter my answer, he kept pushing, responding with what sounded to me like sexual innuendo, while standing too close. It was, to say the least, uncomfortable.

At the end of the night, the situation escalated: The man broke through a group I was standing with and careened toward me in a way that alarmed me. That’s when someone intervened. A male officer pushed him away from me, and a female colleague immediately scooped up us interns and drove us home.

In the car, we debated whether to report the incident to our higher-ups. My colleague cautioned us to not be surprised if reporting yielded no results. “At the end of the day,” she said, bitterly yet sympathetically, “the D.O.D. is still a boys club.”

I’d never experienced workplace sexual harassment, but I knew the odds were against me. I was an intern in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, which is tasked with, among other things, addressing sexual misconduct in the military. I’d seen the statistics: Of the more than 6,200 reports of sexual assault made by U.S. service members in fiscal year 2020, only 50 cases, 0.8 percent, resulted in sex-offense convictions under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. While that legal framework generally applies only to members of the military and likely would not apply to my case, military culture pervades the Pentagon. I assumed that reporting my harassment would result in no consequence other than the destruction of my reputation.

So that night when I returned home, I began to downplay the incident in my own mind. I watched with almost clinical detachment as I began gaslighting myself. “I’m overreacting,” I told myself. “It wasn’t that big of a deal.”

I’m typically outspoken, but my instinct of self-preservation urged me to stay quiet, not to report what happened. I was terrified of jeopardizing the internship I had been so excited to score, and the career I was just starting. I worried about hurting the relationships I’d built in the office. I wondered, who would believe the intern?

When I arrived at the office the next day, however, the reality that awaited me was the one I’d never imagined: the best-case scenario.

The man who had intervened on my behalf, a senior military official, reported the incident, and others who had been present corroborated his statement. I was told my harasser quit soon after the investigation into his actions began. (I have chosen not to name him and others mentioned here because my focus is not the identities of those mentioned, but rather on how their actions affected my experience.)

Most astonishing, I felt supported, safe and validated throughout the entire experience. My fellow interns and I were interviewed and given the opportunity to speak individually to a female supervisor about the incident.

Nearly every woman I know has her own story of workplace sexual harassment, the vast majority of them ending without justice or accountability. Research has found that nearly one in four U.S. servicewomen say they were sexually assaulted in the military, and a recent Times article recounted the harrowing stories of several women who reported their assailants but did not see justice served.

So what happened that set this experience apart? The military has rightfully been criticized for its approach to sexual misconduct, which is why I felt my experience as a civilian at the Department of Defense was so remarkable. It’s tempting to chalk up my more positive experience to a progressive administration’s attempts to address sexual assault and harassment in the armed forces, or simply to the actions of one good man. But the answer is more complex.

First, a male officer reported what happened. His seniority, gender and military status may have helped convince the rest of our office of the seriousness of the incident.

My aggressor’s actions dehumanized me because they reduced me to a sexualized body in front of my colleagues. But the public nature of the incident made it difficult for anyone to deny my experience — as so many men in power, from Andrew Cuomo to Bill Clinton to Brett Kavanaugh, have done when what happened was behind closed doors.

Those crucial differences, and my co-workers’ empathy, helped me to be re-humanized. The officer who reported the incident believed that a wrong had been done, and that validated me. I finally allowed myself to feel the horror, disgust and compassion for myself that I’d been suppressing. And in the following days, nearly every woman in the office checked in on me. Most poignant: an email in my inbox the next morning from a military officer’s wife asking to share her own experiences as a woman in national security.

Some women told me their own stories of harassment or sexual misconduct throughout their careers, with a fierce intimacy and empathy. One service member told me how, after giving her business card to a foreign counterpart on a trip abroad, he relentlessly called and harassed her over the phone.

One of our office’s leaders took personal responsibility in a conversation with me, in which he pledged to institute bystander training. He also ensured that the consequences for this harassment were visible to others, calling a meeting with senior staff members to discuss the issue. And he showed compassion for the harasser, too: My boss offered him counseling — a humane response that, to me, felt appropriate and even cathartic.

As awful as what happened was, I realize that in some ways the circumstances of my harassment made me relatively fortunate. A group of 223 women in national security signed an open letter in 2017 testifying to systemic problems with sexual misconduct and gender discrimination at the Departments of Defense, State and Homeland Security and at other agencies and groups. (Some of the women who signed this letter later founded the Leadership Council for Women in National Security, where I am interning.)

I admire my older female colleagues who stuck with their careers even after the experiences they shared with me. I love this work, but I don’t know if I would have continued on this career path had my experience gone any other way.

It’s scary to realize the fragility of my story’s positive outcome; it’s scarier still to imagine the untold numbers of women whose ambitions were crushed because their stories of harassment, assault or misconduct ended differently. It’s essential that women feel safe and empowered to work in traditionally male-dominated agencies such as the Department of Defense — bodies that wield tremendous influence over U.S. national security, as well as the country’s international reputation.

Today, I’m moving forward with my confidence, dignity, idealism and respect for my co-workers and the agency I worked for intact, if not strengthened. That will affect my career and my ability to serve the United States for years to come.

Last month, I finally worked up the courage to tell the officer who intervened and reported on my behalf that I appreciated what he did. I was surprised to find myself choking up as I spoke. He deflected anything close to a thank you.

“It’s about protecting each other,” he said. Then he added: “It’s an honor and privilege to serve with you.”

Maya Guzdar, a senior at Stanford University, was an intern this summer at the Department of Defense and is also interning at the Leadership Council for Women in National Security.

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