By Sheyla Scholl
I was at the peak of my split option enlistment when I was sexually assaulted by another soldier in the Minnesota National Guard on the night I graduated and returned from Advanced Individual Training at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.
For the year-and-a-half up until that point, the military repeatedly instructed me that sexual assault victims would be taken care of, but what I would find out is that National Guardsmen are not held to the same legal standard as soldiers in the active Army who I trained with.
National Guard soldiers in a traditional drilling status are only subject to the personal and civilian legal jurisdiction of the state to which they originate from unless on Title 10 or 32 orders according to Article 2 of the Uniformed Code of Military Justice. I call it the “Beyond Scared Straight” method of forcing soldiers to think that they are always subject to UCMJ by giving them the same annual and initial entry SHARP training that soldiers in the active duty component get, but it comes with unfortunate side effects.
I was ultimately saddened by the reality that if I were sexually assaulted in the National Guard in a traditional status by another soldier in the same status, the SHARP training we received literally did not apply to me or to other potential survivors of sexual violence who came forward in the future. Having to process a sexual assault while also dealing with the moral injury of the UCMJ not applying in our cases was insult to injury. I seriously could not believe it was real.
Although I’m brave enough to talk about it today, I didn’t report my sexual assault to my chain of command until a year after it happened.
I did, though, try to report it to local civilian police in my area a week after the assault happened in 2016. When I did, I was faced with opposition from a Crow Wing County Sheriff’s deputy, approximately 30 minutes away from Camp Ripley, the training installation for the Minnesota National Guard. Standing before the sheriff’s deputy covered in bruises, he asked me if I wanted to “ruin a young military man’s career over some hardcore sex gone bad.”
According to a series created by the Star Tribune called Denied Justice, police investigations show that repeat offenders of domestic and sexual violence are hardly even investigated in many places in Minnesota. In fact, investigations are regularly closed because of occurrences like my interaction with police.
Soldiers who are assaulted in civilian jurisdictions are not required to report the incidents to their chain of command, unless they want to. I was assaulted before I had a chance to in-process at my Camp Ripley-based unit. I had not even been to my first drill yet. Knowing the stigma towards sexual assault among junior enlisted members, I didn’t want to come to my unit being a female soldier with a SHARP case while in-processing.
But that all changed after I was diagnosed with Stage 4 Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a blood cancer, after I turned 19, and became involved in civic engagement with the help of local cancer organizations. I was empowered to defend disabled Minnesotans like myself against Medicaid work requirements, and even helped a bill in Congress get passed that allows cancer patients defer their federal student loans while in treatment: an incredible lift for a junior enlisted soldier, then-college freshman, and inexperienced lobbyist from Central Minnesota’s Iron Range.
After being contacted by a civilian woman who was a survivor of the same perpetrator in the summer of 2017, I had had enough. I reported my assault to the chain of command after I completed chemotherapy in August 2017.
I also started dating my now-husband in September 2017, and moved to the 42nd State Representative District, in Mounds View, Minnesota. There, I became politically involved through the help of my mother-in-law, a Navy veteran, Minnesota Democratic–Farmer–Labor Party organizer, and union pipefitter in the Twin Cities. I attended district caucus meetings and met then-prospective candidate for the next year’s state house district race for 42A, Kelly Moller, an assistant attorney for Hennepin County, and a staunch advocate for the rights of people who have been victimized by sexual assault and domestic violence.
Now-Rep. Moller assumed office in 2019. And early this year, she introduced “Sheyla’s Law,” legislation that would require the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension to investigate criminal sexual conduct allegations between Minnesota National Guard members.
The bill was attached to the state’s annual omnibus budget and signed into law by Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz on June 30. After following up, the timeline that survivors can expect investigations to last is down from two years, like I experienced, to months, because of my legislation, according to my old SAPR director.
“[A]fter talking to Sheyla and other survivors, it’s clear the inconsistencies of investigations at the local level creates challenges for survivors themselves and for the investigation by the military that follows,” Moller said in a press release announcing the legislation in February 2021. “[T]his bill helps improve justice by both streamlining the investigation process while addressing the unique issues involving rank and position of authority within the military. I’m incredibly grateful for the bravery from Sheyla and the other survivors to push for the necessary changes this bipartisan legislation makes.”
I was nervous that my aspirations to fix the system would run into more bureaucratic obstacles, but I’m elated to be wrong on that. I hope that other states can learn from these mistakes and follow suit, ensuring better access to their own soldiers and airmen, too.
In a way, it’s closure for me.
Given the deputy’s biases that impacted the early probe into my case, it will likely never see a day in a criminal court. But it makes me feel better knowing that I helped other people — specifically, the soldiers and airmen in Minnesota who will come after me. And that’s what matters the most. I’m proud to have come this far, and I’m so grateful that Rep. Moller treated me with the kindness and respect I deserved as a young private first class. One day, I can tell people that by not giving up on telling my story, I was able to change the system directly.
Perhaps, they can do the same.
Sheyla Scholl is an Army Reservist out of Fort Sam Houston, Texas. While enrolled full-time at University of Texas at San Antonio, she volunteers her time and experience as both a cancer survivor and survivor of sexual assault. She works with other military affiliated cancer survivors to manage a nonprofit organization she founded called Combat Boots & Cancer. Scholl can be contacted by visiting her website.