#MeToo in U.S. military: Combat on gender discrimination, harassment expands

Lawyers in the armed forces play major role

The U.S. military has made considerable recent progress on addressing gender discrimination and sexual harassment, and lawyers in the armed forces play a major role in pushing that progress forward, a group of female military attorneys said at a roundtable discussion at the American Bar Association Virtual Midyear Meeting.

While considerable challenges remain, many of the issues are similar to those faced in the private sector, they said.  

“The issues are generally not unique to the military,” said Army Col. Jeri Hanes, staff judge advocate to the Army Military District of Washington. “I have been struck in talking to friends practicing outside of the military at how familiar the issues they deal with.”

“This is something that, for example, Big Law, deals with,” added Col. Elizabeth Hernandez, chief of the Military Justice Law and Policy Division at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland.

The discussion, which took place February 10, was part of six days of programming at the Midyear Meeting that culminated on February 14 with a meeting of the House of Delegates, the ABA’s policymaking body.

The Judge Advocate General’s Corps within each military branch encompasses the military’s lawyers who provide legal advice in a wide variety of areas, as well as serve as judges, prosecutors and defense counselors in courts-martial. 

With a mix of personal anecdotes and discussions of policy and procedures, speakers related how JAGs deal with the legal — and nonlegal — issues that arise around gender discrimination and sexual harassment within the military.  

“Overall, JAGs really do play an important role in this discussion of gender discrimination, whether it’s at the installation level when working with commanders or whether it’s in the more strategic approach of being involved in these working groups,” said Hernandez. “We’ve really had a lot of success.”

The hard work of equity needs to be done within the JAG Corps as well, they said. Commander Janelle Kuroda, deputy staff judge advocate at Navy Region Northwest Reserve Component Command in Everett, Washington, pointed to the Navy JAG Corps’ creation of a Standing Advisory Council on Diversity and Inclusion. It works to identify and address areas of inequality and to eliminate the effects of bias and discrimination “to ensure that everybody has opportunities to be successful,” she said.

Participants discussed the mechanisms for addressing gender discrimination and sexual harassment within the military, including avenues inside and outside the JAG Corps. Outside the JAG Corps, Capt. Bowen Spievack — executive assistant to the Judge Advocate General and chief of the Office of Legal Policy and Program Development at Coast Guard headquarters — said the Coast Guard has a civil rights directorate that assists commanding officers with preventing discrimination in order to avoid all behaviors that create a hostile work environment.

“We have a system that is really growing and formed to deal with this type of unacceptable behavior,” she said.  

JAGs have also been working to embed diversity, equity and inclusion topics into regular miliary training for enlisted personnel as well as the officers’ corps, the speakers said, as well as beefing up DEI-specific training.

The discussion on gender equity was sponsored by the ABA’s Standing Committee on Armed Forces Law, which last year created a subcommittee on gender in the armed services.

“Gender in the military — diversity in the military — is an issue for us all,” said moderator Navy Cmdr. Tracy Reynolds, a SCAFL member who is an active-duty JAG.