Amber* knew where she wanted to go in the military since was was 14. In college, she steered herself toward the intelligence community by studying international relations and political science before enlisting in the Marine Corps.
After boot camp, she was sent to the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center in Monterey, California, to start learning her specialized language on her road to becoming a cryptologic linguist—someone who captures and translates foreign communications from terrorists and foreign countries.
DLI is the premier military school for language training and teaches more than a dozen foreign languages to all four branches of the Armed Forces, where courses can last anywhere from 26 to 64 weeks. DLI can accommodate about 3,500 service members and some civilians, with about 1,800 educators.
Graduates of DLI describe the school as one of the most rigorous in the Department of Defense, with a high attrition rate. Success or failure can mean the difference between working in a top secret community or working the breakfast line at the chow hall: DLI can reassign a service member to a different military job for failing to meet the standards.
“The atmosphere is one that students should be lucky to be there. People tend to keep their heads down and not make any waves because a top secret clearance isn’t just going to further someone’s military career, it’s going to further their career after the military as well,” said one former service member, who asked not to be identified.
Indeed, a 2012 survey of 11,436 security-cleared professionals found that service members maintaining a top secret, secret compartmentalized information clearance made $14,800 more than service members only having a secret clearance. Average compensation surged to more than $115,000 at agencies like the CIA or FBI.
A Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information, or TS/SCI is an elite category of top secret clearances. The clearance is designed for people who need to know especially sensitive information in order to accomplish their jobs like access to intelligence sources or the “how to” handbook of circumventing anti-hacking software in order to gather intelligence.
That’s the clearance Amber (a pseudonym) was working toward when her superior at DLI, a Marine corporal, invited her to watch a movie.
Amber said she believed that others would be present, but when she arrived to the barracks room, she found herself with only the senior Marine, with whom she was not supposed to fraternize alone according to the rules.
As they watched the movie, she said he complained about glare and turned out the lights. The Marine corporal closed the door, which is against Marine Corps regulations, and sat beside her, moving under her blanket Amber recalled.
Then he began to put his hands on her, and Amber said she froze.
“His hand is on my leg, and I don’t even think I’m breathing,” Amber recounted. “I’m just praying to God it’s over soon and that whatever is about to happen doesn’t happen… I’m frozen. I don’t know what to say. I don’t know what to do. I know that I want to say ‘no’ but I don’t know what’s going to happen to me if I do,” Amber said. “My body was rigid.”
When he began to put his hand inside her underwear, she said she finally unfroze and left, retreating to her room upstairs. She locked her deadbolt, fearing that the corporal would follow her, but he did not.
“The thing that haunts me the most... I didn’t say don’t touch me... I didn’t know what to say, he had established a pattern of looking out of me... and once he touched me, I didn’t want to make him mad,” Amber said.
Amber told The Daily Beast that she struggles to self-identify as a victim of sexual assault because she knows that it could’ve been worse.
“I wasn’t violently assaulted like what’s portrayed in movies and in media, where she’s covered in bruises or her clothing is torn and she’s crying with her mascara running from the tears,” Amber said. “I didn’t look like that afterward.”
Amber said she feared retaliation from her command for reporting the assault, especially because the corporal was “well liked.” Instead, she filed a “restricted report” that would only grant her access to mental and medical care, but not trigger an internal or criminal investigation.
There were 70 reports of sexual misconduct at DLI in 2013 and 2014, respectively, and 41 reports in 2015 (PDF). In 2016—the most recent year of data available—there were 19 reports, 12 of them categorized as unrestricted.
Yet, Amber didn’t even seek mental-health care because she feared losing a chance to gain top secret clearance.
“I just don’t want to raise any red flags that would jeopardize my clearance,” Amber said.
Amber was not alone in experiencing anxiety over risking her pending security clearance and a future lucrative career. Five former service members who attended DLI told The Daily Beast they had similar fears.
The former intelligence sources said that keeping a low profile while background investigators comb through an applicant’s life to determine if they are worthy of receiving a top secret clearance is paramount, sometimes to the point of being overly cautious.
“People were pretty paranoid about getting in trouble because of the pending clearances, and the military came down really hard on people for fucking up,” one former service member said. “The native speaker instructors were very strict and happy to report you to military leadership for being late,” one alumni source from the 2008-2009 timeframe told The Daily Beast.
“If your grades dropped, it was terrifying because you could be dropped from the program,” the former service member said.
As for Amber’s concern about mental health issues raising red flags, Brad Moss, a Washington, D.C., attorney who handles cases involving national security and intelligence clearances, said that agencies have made significant efforts to inform clearance applicants that having a mental health condition, in and of itself, is not stigmatizing.
“What the agencies are concerned about are either undiagnosed conditions that have manifested themselves in the form of misconduct, or diagnosed conditions that are not being properly treated,” Moss told The Daily Beast. “The problem is the old wives’ tale that this will ‘raise red flags’ has permeated the institutional culture for generations and it is difficult to push back on it.
“The agencies can do more and should do more to make clear that they want people to come forward about mental health issues and seek proper medical or psychiatric treatment,” Moss told The Daily Beast. “That’s an institutional battle that will continue for quite some time.”
Indeed, a 2009 U.S. Army report showed that 99.98 percent of cases with psychological concerns obtained or retained their security clearance eligibility. Most cases that resulted in a denial or revocation of a clearance had other issues in addition to psychological concerns.
Still, the “fear of reprisal is real,” according to a DLI alumnus, who said he knew of people who did not report sexual assaults because they didn’t want to jeopardize their clearance.
“The fear is someone that already has a top secret clearance is going to fuck you over for whatever reason and if they do then you’re done, you get reclassed into a different job and that’s it,” the source said.
“And let’s say you do report a sexual assault, you’re either going to have to stay at DLI and potentially lose your clearance with the alleged perpetrator or move out of the job, giving up what you wanted to do in the military or they remove the alleged perpetrator and you have to stick around and have all of his friends slut shame you,” the source added.
Even outside of DLI, women across the military said they feared retaliation for reporting assault.
Fifty-eight percent of female service members who report sexual assault face retaliation, often from within their chain of command, according to a 2016 Defense Department report (PDF). And a third of sexual assault victims are discharged from the military usually within seven months of making a report, the Pentagon found.
A spokesman for Gen. Robert Neller, the top Marine officer overseeing the Corps told The Daily Beast via email that the general agrees with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis on having a moral duty to prevent sexual assault.
“They both recognize it as one of the most destructive factors in building a cohesive, mission-focused force,” said Marine Col. Eric Dent.
The Pentagon released this month its annual study on sexual assault and harassment in the military and said there was a 10 percent increase in sexual assault reports over the past year—the highest recorded number since the military began tracking reports in 2006.
More than 4,000 women and 1,000 men reported sexual assault during the 2017 fiscal year that ended in September. That’s on top of a 2016 report that about 14,900 service members “experienced some kind of sexual assault.”
Amber had dreams of going into counterintelligence, human intelligence collecting in the Marine Corps as she “decided where to go” per Dr. Seuss instructions, but that dream has come to an end.
Amber said she no longer feels she belongs in the Marine Corps.
“Right after, I became a Marine, I felt there was nothing that I couldn’t do, I could be whomever I wanted to be, I could accomplish anything... I felt invincible... but now I no longer feel a part of this Marine family.”
*Name has been changed to protect identity.
Rory Laverty contributed to this report.