Advocate works to protect military sexual assault victims

Nancy Parrish speaking at the first annual Protect our Defenders Justice Awards on Jan. 20, 2016 in Burlingame, CA.


By NANCY MONTGOMERY | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 18, 2016

Nancy Parrish got her political start working for a larger-than-life former Yankee so beloved in the Sunshine State that bridges, buildings and awards were named for him.

Democrat Sherman Winn, from Brooklyn, N.Y., had a three-decade political career in Florida, more than a decade spent in the 1970s in the state legislature. Based in Miami, he was known as a consensus builder, a compassionate champion of liberal causes who could get along with northern Florida’s good old boys. “Uncle Sherm,” as they called him, was a joy to be around.

Parrish learned from Winn, traveling with him to youth detention centers and foster homes, and to the statehouse in Tallahassee.

“I saw kids with disabilities being punished,” she said. “I really saw the direct link between policy and silenced voices.”

She said she also realized the power of laws to address injustice.

“It was just a profound moment,” she said.

Parrish found her place in politics. She didn’t run for office; she thrived behind the scenes.

Today, Parrish is known as a philanthropist, investor, human rights activist and founder of Protect Our Defenders, an advocacy group for military sexual assault victims.

She also spent more than two decades as a political consultant, strategist, adviser and operative for Southern Democrats, including the Carters and both Clintons.

Parrish was the first Georgia chairwoman for Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign in 1992, helping him become the first Democrat to win the state since Carter won 12 years earlier. Parrish raised $1 million for Hillary Clinton in 2008 — only to see Barack Obama win the nomination.

This year, she’s among Hillary Clinton’s top supporters, a “Hillblazer” who’s rustled up $100,000 or more. In March, she was the co-chairwoman of a California reception with Clinton in attendance, and the next month she hosted another in Sarasota, Fla., featuring Bill Clinton.

She refused to discuss her relationship with the Clintons. But she is close enough to have had Hillary Clinton’s personal email address, along with those of Cherie Blair, Colin Powell and Carter.

Parrish describes Hillary Clinton as “kind, tough and pragmatic.” Protect Our Defenders could benefit from having Clinton in the White House, someone who might advance a chief goal: removing jurisdiction in sexual assault cases from the chain of command and putting military prosecutors in charge.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., introduced a bill in 2014 that would have made that change, and it had broad bipartisan support. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., sponsored legislation at the same time that looked to reform the military from within, and her version passed.

Clinton said in an interview with Christiane Amanpour that she might revisit the chain-of-command issue.

“Another approach was taken. But I think everybody on both sides of the aisle knows, if there is not evidence that this other approach is working, then we should go back to Kirsten’s proposal,” Clinton said in a town hall meeting televised in June 2014 by CNN.

“Take it out of the chain of command?” Amanpour asked.

“Take it out,” Clinton replied.

Parrish, 65, guards her privacy and declines to reveal much about her personal life, even for a story that’s supposed to be about her. Asked about her happiest moments, she said they were when “we’ve been successful in changing a punitive discharge or when the military’s highest court sides with us. ... When we’re successful in working with Congress in increasing protection or changing egregious practices.”

Transition from politics

Parrish retired from her Georgia political consulting firm in the mid-1990s, moved to the San Francisco Bay area and turned more of her attention to philanthropy. She worked for several groups dedicated to helping needy children, and with the Carter Center, giving it $100,000 in 2010. The same year, she co-founded a Human Rights Watch chapter in Northern California, where she and her family lived.

She met and befriended California politician Jackie Speier about 15 years ago, when Parrish’s son, Rob, then in high school, sent letters to all the members of the California state house about the needs of foster children. Speier reached out to meet him. Later, Parrish chaired Speier’s campaign for lieutenant governor, which she lost, and her first race for Congress, which she won.

Speier began discussing emails that she had been getting with Parrish. There were scores of them from servicewomen and some men describing their rapes and sexual assaults, followed by a response that further humiliated and discounted them. They were disbelieved, they wrote. They were advised to drop it and not ruin their attacker’s life. They were punished for infractions such as underage drinking.

They were, they said, collateral damage.

Parrish talked with one of the women, who told Parrish she’d been raped by a superior in the Navy, that the Navy had promoted him and kicked her out, and that she’d undergone decades of anguish that drove her to attempt suicide. “I was really just so shaken,” Parrish said.

Parrish was sensitive to the woman’s suffering and was offended that the military was still such a hostile place for women decades after the first of several military sexual assault scandals — the Tailhook convention outrage — hit the news in 1992.

“We just watched over and over and over again these valuable young people being washed out because of sexual assault and reprisal,” Parrish said. “We thought, what can we do?”

The earnest, striving daughter of immigrants who settled in Florida, Parrish believed the military should be a vehicle for social mobility. And she was well aware of the hurdles women have faced in reaching full equality with men.

Her mother had been forbidden by her grandfather to attend college, and she had to work harder and longer than the men to get ahead, Parrish said.

“As a young professional, I felt the sting and humiliation of being asked by a client why I should expect to be paid commensurate with a man,” she said in an email. “I faced my boss suddenly putting his hand on my leg and my being in that frightful position of removing it, worried I risked losing the job.”

Parrish founded Protect Our Defenders in 2011 to help mobilize hundreds of troops and veterans to inform lawmakers about their assaults and secondary victimization by the military. Speier began delivering floor speeches about military sexual assault and introducing legislation to change the system.

Two years later, Protect Our Defenders’ profile was boosted after Air Force Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin overturned a fighter pilot’s sexual assault conviction and released him from jail. When the news hit, many people, including U.S. senators, were surprised that such a thing could happen. In fact, the practice had long been enshrined in military law as part of commanders’ huge discretionary powers.

Parrish reacted quickly. “It’s a classic example of the broken military justice system,” she told Stars and Stripes at the time. “It’s absolute command discretion over the rule of law.”

She arranged to bring the victim, a 49-year-old physician assistant, to Washington to appear on national television and meet with 15 lawmakers.

“It was a powerful moment,” Parrish said. “Senators were clearing their schedules to meet with us.”

That fallout propelled a host of changes to military law over the next couple of years. Franklin and the fighter pilot were eventually forced out of the Air Force.

“Nancy’s good at rattling cages,” said Ryan Guilds, a lawyer who works pro bono for the group representing victims through the military criminal justice system. “Her instincts and her network and how she can speak to the military is profound,” he said.

The Franklin case also introduced Parrish to Col. Don Christensen, the Air Force’s top prosecutor who’d successfully taken on some of the service’s toughest cases and won the case against the fighter pilot.

He was disgusted with Franklin’s decision and became increasingly alienated as Air Force officials backed the general and suggested Christensen quietly go along. He declined.

Christensen, a registered Republican, retired the next year and became Protect Our Defenders’ new president. Parrish became CEO.

“Nancy has a sincere belief and drive to make the justice system fair for the survivors of sexual assault — and for those accused of sexual assault,” Christensen said. “She’s tireless. It’s like she doesn’t sleep.”

She works constantly, she said, taking off only a few days a month. “I used to have other interests. I used to play tennis. I don’t much anymore.”

Parrish remains convinced that allowing commanders to decide disposition of sexual assault cases is an inherent conflict of interest.

“It’s like the CEO of a company having the authority to determine whether a trusted key employee will be charged with a rape alleged by a low-level worker,” Parrish said.

She believes Gillibrand’s bill would have taken that out of the equation.

“Nancy Parrish means well,” McCaskill replied in an email to Stars and Stripes. “But we fundamentally disagree on how best to protect victims.”

Life outside of advocacy

Earlier this year, Parrish was awarded the Ivan Allen Jr. Prize for Social Courage by the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. The prize, which comes with $100,000 that she donated to Protect Our Defenders, aims to shine a light on those “who bravely act to improve the human condition, often in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges.”

The social justice advocate sits on boards for cultural, artistic and social service organizations in Sarasota and Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., where she lives in the winter and summer, respectively.

Parrish and lawyer Susan Burke, who has represented numerous sexual assault victims and sued the Defense Department on their behalf, are especially close. The two met in 2011 in connection with a film about military sexual assault.

But Parrish’s closest adviser is her husband, Chuck. She met him while working for Jimmy Carter’s failed re-election campaign for president in 1980, when Chuck was Carter’s man in south Florida, dealing with the sometimes ugly politics of the Cuban refugee crisis.

Chuck, a “serial entrepreneur” and investor, co-founded the company that created the first-generation mobile internet in the 1990s.

It made the couple’s fortune.

The two have been married for 35 years.

“It’s a partnership,” he said. “Everything we do is that way -- we talk.”

Protect Our Defenders has been very much a family affair: Everyone had to buy in to the time and effort it would take, and it was seeded with $50,000 of family money. Parrish’s documentarian daughter, Rebecca, sent film crews across the country to capture survivors telling their stories, videos that are posted to the group’s website.

Many of those women have seen Parrish’s softer side, in person and during long phone calls to her late at night.

“When I met her I was broken; I was done,” said Terri Odom. “I lived with so much shame.”

Odom was the woman whose story had so affected Parrish in 2010. Now a volunteer counselor for the Department of Veterans Affairs in St. Louis and a Protect Our Defenders board member, Odom said Parrish had saved her. She said she had created a nurturing community for survivors, even as she battled the military on their behalf.

“She stepped up to the plate and gave us a voice. I’ve never met anybody like her — a person who doesn’t have to help anybody, who is as humble as a person can be,” Odom said. “I would lay down my life for her.”


Nancy Parrish speaking about The Invisible War at the United Nation's Through Women's Eyes International Film Festival in Sarasota, FL on April 30, 2012.

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