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Air Force couple, both sexual assault victims, say disparity in treatment shows gender discrimination

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When Air Force officers Alex Gibson and Josh Dobhailen first met at the service’s Intelligence Officer Course in 2017, each was recovering from a sexual assault. They married later that year, believing that their similar trauma allowed them to quickly bond.

After a stint in Florida, the Dobhailens moved across the country to Travis Air Force Base, Calif., in February 2020, in part to get distance from Alex’s accused perpetrator.

After just four months at Travis, police called to inform the couple that her perpetrator might be living at an address near them. Meanwhile, Alex suffered a miscarriage, and the stress of it all left them both reeling.

Both are captains who work in military intelligence for different units on base, and they each decided to self-identify with leadership about their past assaults, which had been formally reported, and seek behavioral health treatment. While Josh, 26, received support from his leadership, Alex, 29, said her job and her security clearance were taken from her and she now faces a medical board evaluation that could end her military career.

“It means a lot to me to wear this uniform,” Alex said. “I’ve seen, I hate to say it, a lot of gender discrimination or a lot of retaliation or reprisal over this last five-year journey since my assault.”

Alex’s perpetrator was in the process of separating from the military at the time of the assault in 2016, she said. Her commander at Grand Forks Air Force Base, N.D., where the assault occurred, deferred to the civilian authorities to prosecute.

“The easiest way to sum it up is the base commander there ended up saying to certain staff members, ‘She can’t tell me she didn’t know what she was expecting when she let him into her house.’ And that was a just in the second month of my investigation and that pretty much dictated how the rest of my case went,” Alex said.

The local authorities declined to prosecute the case. Only about 5% of all sexual assault cases in the U.S. lead to an arrest, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.

The Air Force Office of Investigation handed Josh’s case over to German state authorities to investigate, he said.

To try to save her military career, Alex hired an attorney to help file formal complaints and other documents to escalate her concerns to the levels above her immediate command that could intervene. Together, Alex and Josh decided to speak out about the disparity in their treatment for seeking help at the same time for the same issues. Since she began speaking up, she said other women in her unit have come to her and told her they, too, have faced discrimination.

“I love my Air Force. I love my military, but in order for us to advance and move forward and to put an end to the gender discrimination or even racial discrimination or … the retaliation or reprisal that victims face in the military, somebody’s got to be willing to do something. It seems like the harder I … try to do something to bring attention to it, the worse it’s getting to me here.”

Clearance suspended

Losing a security clearance for seeking mental health services is rare, according to the Defense Department. The military has released information for service members to counter concerns after a Rand study in 2018 found it to be a leading reason for people to not seek treatment.

“This is not the case,” according to a 2020 fact sheet from the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency. “A detailed analysis of denial and revocation statistics involving psychological conditions clearly demonstrates that a cleared individual is not likely to lose or fail to gain clearance eligibility after seeking mental health care or experiencing mental health symptoms.”

Between 2012 and 2018, only 12 out of 2.3 million clearance adjudications were denied because of psychological issues, according to the fact sheet. None of those 12 was related to an individual seeking care.

“There are absolutely no words. My whole intent and purpose was to go and get help to handle the situation responsibly, so I can be everything that I needed to be to my airmen and to my people, and to do the best at my job,” Alex said. “Because I’m a sexual assault victim and because of my gender, and because of my willingness to say something, I ended up being that one in 2.3 million-person statistic. It shows the disparity between my husband and I.”

The Travis Air Force Base Public Affairs Office said it could not speak directly to Alex’s situation because of privacy concerns but said “commanders have discretion to remove members’ local access to classified information.”

Any suspension or revocation of security clearances rests with the Defense Department’s Consolidated Adjudication Facility.

“Our leadership takes these allegations seriously and ensures all service members are treated with dignity and respect,” base officials said. “Seeking mental health services does not affect one’s ability to gain or hold clearance eligibility. Adjudicators regard seeking mental health treatment as a positive step in the security clearance process. It is important for the cleared workforce and prospective employees to understand there are no automatically disqualifying conditions or treatments.”

By contrast, avoiding care when needed can raise security concerns, officials said.

Alex said she received her highest authorized clearance after her assault, after she initially received therapy and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. She then set up a new intelligence shop at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida and received high marks on her evaluations.

In her role at Travis, she continued to receive positive reviews for her work until the moment she told her leadership about her past assault and need to return to therapy.

“The next business day after I went to mental health and identified as a sexual assault victim, informally, I was removed from my job,” Alex said. “I stopped being included in all the meetings and everything like that.”

Her chain of command suspended her clearance at the local level and moved her to a position that doesn’t require one. After eight months, her commander served Alex paperwork to revoke her clearance. The news came about a week after she met with personnel from the Inspector General, the Office of Special Investigations and Security Forces to report the misconduct of her command, said Allison Weber, Alex’s attorney.

While the Inspector General is looking into the case on some level, the two criminal investigative agencies have declined to move forward, Weber said.

“I’ve undergone proper evaluations by accredited individuals, and I’ve been cleared, and I still have not been returned my security clearance,” Alex said. “I love my husband and I would never want anything bad to happen to him, but it can be hard sometimes to come home every day and ride in the same car on the way home and see that we are experiencing the same thing. We’re both recovering from our sexual assaults and his career has been completely untouched and his career will recover, if it really had any ramifications at all. But I’m most likely staring down the end (of) my career in the next couple of months.”

Weber, a former Army JAG officer working with Tully Rinckey PLLC, said she responded to the paperwork. If the command went forward and sent the request to revoke her security clearance to the Defense Department, it will take months until they hear any updates.

Adjudicators could disagree with the command’s decision or ask for additional information, Weber said. An appeal process exists that could also grant Alex an opportunity to fight a decision to revoke her clearance.

Instead of stonewalling the officer, Weber said “the United States military, and specifically the Air Force, needs to improve the way they work with military sexual assault victims who continue to serve.”

“Capt. Dobhailen did exactly what she’s been trained to do — seek help when needed, keep her leadership informed of her status, and work to overcome any hurdles to return to duty. The military should not use her self-referral for treatment against her to justify removing her from her position, suspending her clearance and/or threatening to separate her,” Weber said.

But it wasn’t only the way Alex’s unit reacted to her need for treatment that has felt unfair or strange to the couple. As the two officers attended therapy, Josh’s therapist, who was the flight commander of the clinic, told him his wife was “too far gone,” even though he was not her care provider, Josh said.

“I was told by my therapist that of the two of us, only one of us can be saved to have a career in the military. I was told that at this point my therapist believed that was me. So he said he was going to do everything he could to focus in on me,” Josh said. “And I’m just sitting here like, ‘Where’s this coming from? There’s no reason for it.’ ”

‘Lives the core values’

Meanwhile, his wife’s unit tried to force her into a command-directed mental health evaluation without reason. Soon after, she learned they intend to send her before a medical evaluation board for lower back pain, something she has never been treated for, she said.

Her physical evaluation board liaison officer has made that point clear to try to stop the process, but it has not worked. Medical boards tend to move faster than security clearance evaluations, which means Alex could be medically retired before the clearance issue is resolved, Weber said.

Travis Air Force Base officials declined to comment on the medical board evaluation because of privacy concerns. A statement regarding the process in general said it’s “designed to determine whether a service member’s long-term medical condition enables him/her to continue to meet medical retention standards, in accordance with military service regulations.”

Joining the Air Force was a childhood dream for Alex. Her husband described her as the “poster child” for the Air Force, because of her enthusiasm to serve.

“She’s quite literally lives the core values day in and day out, and also with her performance. She’s exactly what you imagine when you see all the recruiting videos,” Josh said.

“If you look at the word uniform, it’s so everybody’s the same. So when people look at us, they should not be looking at who’s wearing the uniform, whether you’re male or female, whether you’re African American, whether you’re Asian, whether you’re white. What matters is what you stand for and what you do. And there are certain individuals in our service that do not see it that way.”

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