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United States Marine Corps veteran advocates for change surrounding sexism, assault in the military

Sharon Robino-West, a United States Marine Corps veteran who served from 1980-84, poses for a portrait outside Andersen Hall on Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019, in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Photo by Mia Everding

The tight-knit sleeves, perfectly placed covers and unwrinkled uniforms worn by United States Marine Corps recruiters mesmerized Sharon Robino-West in high school in 1980 and led her to join the service with a 4-year enlistment.

Her true passion lied in journalism, which the recruiters said she could do as a Marine in their public affairs field. But the recruiters failed to mention that as a young, bright-eyed girl fresh out of high school, her competition would include those who were older with college degrees.

The recruiters also didn’t mention the disparity of woman in the Marine Corps, which Robino-West quickly found out herself in February of 1980 when she arrived at Parris Island, South Carolina for basic training –– the sole location for women Marines to train at that time.

“They’re talking about integrating in San Diego. I don’t know if they’ve actually done more than maybe a couple platoons right now, but I feel like it’s about damn time,” she said. “All the other branches, you know, have some degree of it and we just were completely separated when I was in.”

The training, she said, greatly differed as well, with women more often focused on testing and gaining knowledge of their skills and USMC history. According to Robino-West, the training also included makeup classes to learn how to apply and choose proper eye shadow and lipstick that corresponded with their physical features and uniforms.

“I think it’s pretty obvious that if you’re going to get sent out to war, it doesn’t really matter if you’ve got lipstick on or what color it is, or eyeshadow or any of that stuff,” she said. “I think that it reflects that, up until that point, there weren’t a lot of women in the Marines and their roles were pretty much in an office somewhere a lot of the time.”

Despite her desire to work in public affairs, Robino-West was asked to work in language. However, her uncertainty about traveling overseas caused her to reject the offer and she ended up in communication electronics instead. She was sent to southern Twentynine Palms, California, in April of 1980 for schooling to learn this new skillset.

“I kind of felt like that’s what you get for saying ‘no’ because you learn that you don’t say ‘no’ in the military. And that was one way that I learned,” she said. “But I feel like everything that you’ve been through makes you who you are today, and if you like yourself, then that was all part of the deal, you know, so I was supposed to be where I was.”

But Robino-Wests’ passion for writing continued throughout her time in the service, despite her change in specialty. Despite her lack of interest in communication electronics, she found it to be quite successful for her and graduated second in her class from the basic school. She was then stationed at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina where she stayed with an artillery unit.

When she arrived at Camp Lejeune to check-in, there was one thing that blatantly stood out to her –– she was solely surrounded by male Marines. Questioning whether she was in the right place, she actively searched each check-in station. 

“I finally said to the officer at the next one I got to, ‘Sir, I think I’m checking into the wrong unit,’ and he said, ‘Why is that?’ and I said, ‘Because there are no females here,’ and he looked at me and goes, “There are now” and that’s how I figured out it was the first one.”

Robino-West said she was used to this imbalance of gender, however, having gone through a similar circumstance in school. The only time one is truly intertwined with other female Marines, she said, is in boot camp. But her singularity didn’t stop her from performing alongside her male counterparts, especially when it came to running.

“When you go into the Marines, you learn to shoot and you learn to run. And by God, I learned to run,” she said. “By the end of boot camp, I was racing some of my guys, they would ask me to … and I wasn’t afraid of beating them, which I didn’t know was not a good thing.”

It wasn’t until three and a half years into her enlistment that Robino-West experienced a sense of sexism. Her unit was assigned a new gunnery sergeant who one day asked if the whole unit could join her on her daily run. Halfway through, she noticed the lack of footsteps behind her. The gunnery sergeant, she said, had turned the rest of the unit around and let her go off on her own.

“I was running down to where the halfway point was to come around and I hear this person running up behind me breathing, and it’s a junior Marine,” she said. “I was like, ‘What are you doing?’ and he goes, “Well, the gunnery told me to come back and check on you to make sure you’re okay.”

It was this incident, she said, that shattered her trust in her command.

“I knew at that point that this guy looks at me as a joke,” she said. “He’s never going to take anything I do seriously, and if something happens to me out here, he doesn’t have my back.”

Nine months later, Robino-West was sexually assaulted by a base lifeguard at Camp Lejune. After opening up to a few fellow Marines about the assault, she decided to remain quiet –– a decision of which she’s been dealing with for over 30 years.

“The saddest part about that is a lot of people go into the military, many people, who have already been through experiences like that or may have had people attempt things,” she said. “You look at the military and you go, ‘What safer place can there be than the military?’ and then you go into the military and something like that happens to you. Where is there a safe place?”

Years after her enlistment contract, Robino-West publically told her story and lobbied senators on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. in April of 2013. Following her return, she gave a TEDxOmaha speech in 2017 about her experience and how it allowed her to help others who need healing.

Her writing also prevailed. Robino-West now participates in the Nebraska Warrior Writers group held sporadically at various Veteran Affairs locations, which she said is therapeutic. She continues to work closely with veterans today and said the atmosphere surrounding assault in the military is changing, but unsteadily.

“I’ve taken more male veterans to Veteran Service officers to get help for this, to get compensation for this than I’ve ever taken females because it’s happening a lot, and males are never going to talk about It,” she said. “It’s hard enough for females and the males are watching us, and if they see us, you know, getting ignored or kicked out for telling or that kind of stuff, why would they come forward?”

Robino-West said she wants a change in the process of how the cases are handled. Her suggestion includes taking away the responsibility for legal action from military commanders and into the hands of someone who solely focuses on helping survivors of sexual assault.

“You know that it is out there and it is being covered up,” she said. “It’s not the main thing that happens in the military or anything by any means, but it does [happen].”