Fifteen years ago, the Department of Defense established a program to combat sexual assault and rape in the ranks. Since then, the military has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on prevention efforts with a stated policy of zero tolerance.
A year-and-a-half long investigation by “CBS Evening News” anchor and managing editor Norah O’Donnell and the CBS News Investigative Unit into sexual assault within the U.S. military uncovered failures by leaders to address the issue. Over the course of the investigation, CBS News spoke with nearly two dozen survivors of sexual assault, whistleblowers who worked for the military’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response program and families of suicide victims who say the military grossly mishandled reports of sexual assault.
Morgan Robinson knew from a young age she wanted to join the military.
“When she turned 21, she said, ‘Mom, I gotta talk to ya.’ And she told me then that she had joined,” Debbie Robinson told “CBS Evening News” anchor and managing editor Norah O’Donnell.
Morgan had been in the Army National Guard for six years when she was sent on her first deployment to Kuwait in 2016.
“When she was in Kuwait, she was sexually assaulted and continually harassed by one of her superiors,” Debbie said.
Morgan reported the assault but the response she received was “nothing,” according to her mother.
“She got nothing,” she said.
While on that same deployment, Morgan was sent to Afghanistan, where she was sexually assaulted again. Multiple fellow soldiers allegedly gang raped her.
Morgan was afraid to report what happened in Afghanistan, Debbie said.
“She was very scared,” she said. “Because they threatened her, number one. And number two, she knew that it wouldn’t go anywhere. Nothing happened in Kuwait with the sexual assault and the harassment, so why would they do something, you know, in Afghanistan?”
In April 2018, then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis said there was zero tolerance for sexual assault.
“While battlefield casualties are a reality of war, we will accept no casualties due to sexual assault in our military family,” Mattis said.
Four months later, Morgan died by suicide.
“You pray that it — that’s not how it’s going to end up,” Debbie said. “It wasn’t a matter of ‘if.’ It was a matter of ‘when.'”
The Army launched an investigation into Morgan’s death.
They gave Debbie a copy of the AR 15-6 investigation into her daughter’s death, but page after page was heavily redacted.
“I just didn’t understand how they could actually stand there and look me in the eyes, and hand that to me,” she said.
At the time, a principal policy advisor to the military’s sexual assault program reaffirmed the Pentagon’s commitment to hold itself accountable.
“The department remains committed to our goals of ending sexual assault in the military, providing the highest quality response to service members and holding offenders appropriately accountable,” Dr. Elizabeth P. Van Winkle said.
But what Debbie found in the unredacted pages of the report into Morgan’s death told a much different story. The investigation into her death says, “Sergeant Robinson suffered sexual, physical, and psychological trauma while deployed. The sequela of this trauma was a factor in her death.”
Asked what led to her daughter’s death, Debbie said, “The military. The way they did not handle what happened.”
“They can’t police their self. How can you investigate yourself? You can’t,” Debbie said, explaining what needs to change.
Eight months after Morgan’s death, her command issued the officer who assaulted her in Kuwait a written reprimand.
“If I was a commanding officer, and if I had kids, what would you think if that happened to your daughter, or your son? What would you want to happen to them?” Debbie said. “Are they just going to sit back and, ‘It’s okay’? They would want justice also.”
“Everything just plays over and over and over in your head, thinking, ‘Did I miss something? Could I have done something?’ You know, you’re a mom,” Debbie said. “That’s what you’re there for, is to protect your kids. And I couldn’t protect her.”
The Army declined CBS News’ request for an on-camera interview, but said in a statement they conducted a full investigation and took appropriate action against the reported perpetrator.
Debbie said she wants people to know that her daughter was doing a job, “a job that she loved. It was for her country.”
“And to think that that’s what took her life. That’s what broke her,” she said. “They wanted her body. And they took her soul.”
For immediate help if you are in a crisis, call the toll-free National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), which is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. All calls are confidential. The Disaster Distress Helpline at 1-800-985-5990 is also confidential, free and available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. You can also text TalkWithUs to 66746 to connect with a trained crisis counselor.
DOD Safe Helpline is a hotline dedicated to members of the DOD community affected by sexual assault. Safe Helpline offers completely anonymous, confidential, 24/7 support available online at www.safehelpline.org or by calling 877-995-5247.
Service members or civilians who were sexually harassed or sexually assaulted by a member of the U.S. military can seek legal services with Protect Our Defenders.