Two civilian officials with the Marine Corps say their boss, a Marine officer, repeatedly made sexually explicit overtures to them at work, and their complaints to leadership were minimized, according to interviews and documents obtained by USA TODAY.
Maj. David Cheek works at the Marines’ office of manpower and reserve affairs at Quantico, Va., the headquarters of the U.S. Marine Corps. At the time of the alleged harassment, he supervised the women as their section head in the Behavioral Health Branch.
Cheek, in an email, said, “I assure you the (sexual harassment) allegations are false,” have been investigated and found unsubstantiated by the Marine Corps.
In their complaints to Marine officials and in interviews with USA TODAY, the women say Cheek arranged to meet with them privately, and on five different occasions, showed them he had an erection through his clothing. The incidents occurred in 2013, but the women didn’t file complaints until a year later, saying they feared retaliation.
An investigative report filed by the Marines in 2017 and obtained by USA TODAY found Sherry Yetter’s complaint unsubstantiated, amounting to his word against hers.
Yetter is now the senior coordinator for sexual assault response for Marine Corps Recruiting Command. She complained in 2014 but was discouraged from pursuing the case because her assignment was temporary, she said. She complained again in July 2017 when Cheek was reassigned to the building where she works with her husband, a Marine lieutenant colonel, and the other woman who filed a complaint.
“If the Marine Corps had done what it was supposed to do in 2014, he wouldn’t have been brought back to the same building,” Yetter, 49, said in an interview. “The commanding officer was notified in 2014. They had every chance to handle this in-house. The leadership chose not to act on it. It’s still happening. I still go to work in a hostile, unsafe work environment. My perception is that the Marine Corps simply doesn’t care.”
A second woman, Traci Sharpe, 50, said the officer, twice wearing in gym clothes and once in fatigues, made certain that she saw that he was sexually aroused in the office while they were alone. She complained to another supervisor but was told nobody would believe her, she said.
The internal Marine investigative reports in 2017 that dealt with Yetter’s complaint show that Cheek said he had “no recollection of any incident,” and he stated that the allegations against him were false. At one point, he “vehemently” denied the charges.
“The challenge is ‘burden of proof’ and getting accurate documented information on incidents that occurred over 4 years ago,” according to a command investigation report into Yetter’s allegations.
Yetter’s husband, Lt. Col. Gregg Yetter, who works in the manpower command as well, said his wife’s stature as a civilian official is equivalent to a major or lieutenant colonel. Her role and training lend credibility to her allegations, he said, an authority that lower-ranking Marines don’t enjoy.
“It appears the Marine Corps again is not taking my wife’s sexual harassment allegations seriously, and it also seems as though the Marine Corps is not committed, or unwilling, to hold Maj. Cheek accountable for his actions,” Gregg Yetter said. “If a sexual assault response coordinator can’t be taken seriously, then what chance does a female lance corporal have?”
The Marine Corps issued a statement acknowledging Yetter’s complaint had been investigated but would not provide details of its findings.
“Sexual harassment devalues the individual and threatens unit cohesion,” Yvonne Carlock, a spokeswoman for Marine Manpower and Reserve Affairs, said in the statement. “It has no place in the Marine Corps.”
The military’s struggles with sexual harassment mirror those affecting powerful men in Hollywood, media and private industry. One key distinction for those in uniform is that military law allows for punishment, judicial and administrative, for behavior that affects order and discipline. Critics of the military justice system say such sanctions rarely are meted out, and more often victims become targets for retaliation.
In 2017, a sexual assault scandal involving Marines sharing nude photos of womenservice members on social media prompted Pentagon and congressional investigations. Marine Corps Commandant Robert Neller vowed changes and told senators, “I’m responsible. I’m the commandant. I own this.”
“This is yet another disturbing story that follows the same pattern we’ve seen for years in the military: very little accountability at the top and a culture that discourages survivors from coming forward and allows sexual assault and harassment to thrive virtually unchecked,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and a member of the Armed Services Committee. “When even a person designated as the point of contact for reporting sexual assault in the military is herself the target of harassment, it’s clear that DoD cannot police itself.”
In 2013, Yetter worked as a training specialist in the behavioral health branch at Quantico, outside Washington. Cheek was one of her supervisors.
She recalled, in written complaints to the Marines’ equal opportunity office and in an interview, that Cheek called her to his deserted office at the end of a day in February.
“It was creepy,” she said. “He spun around in his chair, wearing green silky short shorts. It didn’t hide a whole bunch. He very quickly developed an erection. I made an excuse and got out of there.”
She hoped that it was “unfortunate” or “involuntary” but was disabused of that on May, 10, 2013, when late in the day, Cheek called her to his office and repeated what he had done in February.
“I told him, ‘By chance have you met my husband, Lt. Col. Gregg Yetter?” she said. “He didn’t say anything.”
She did not tell her husband or her superiors about the incidents until a year later, she said. She worried about losing her job, affecting her husband’s career and felt the complaint would not be well received by her superiors, she said.
Sharpe experienced similar harassment from Cheek in incidents that occurred from April through July of 2013, she said. In the fall of 2013, Sharpe and Yetter, realized Cheek had harassed them both and began discussing it, Sharpe said.
“We can’t make up the same story about the same person,” Sharpe said.
Yetter lodged her complaint with the Marines’ equal opportunities office.She was told too much time had elapsed since the incident for her case to be considered, and was discouraged from pressing her case, she said.
“There was no real assistance or support,” Yetter said. “I felt very much alone in the process, very much unsupported.”
Yetter took a new job in 2014: Sexual Assault Response Coordinator for Marine Corps Recruiting Command, overseeing programs about sexual assault response and prevention, including victims’ advocates, across the country.
Scott Jensen, who retired from the Marine Corps as a colonel in 2016 after overseeing its sexual assault prevention programs, said Marine Corps Manpower and Reserve Affairs had leadership and personnel problems at the time of the women’s original complaints.
Investigators acknowledged that Yetter’s lack of confidence in leadership led her to delay filing her first complaint, according to the 2017 command investigation.
“It was a very shallow hidden secret about how terrible it was there,” said Jensen, who is now CEO for Protect Our Defenders, an advocacy group for victims of sexual assault and harassment in the military. “There was a lack of responsiveness and poor civilian leadership that led to the IG inspection.”
Cheek’s return to Quantico
On July 17, 2017, Gregg Yetter told his wife about Cheek’s reassignment to the building where they and Sharpe still work. Within days, Sherry Yetter filed complaints restating the allegations against the officer. That complaint was found to be unsubstantiated, and Yetter is awaiting word about a request for mediation in the case, she said.
Jensen said the Marine Corps, and the Pentagon at large, handle complaints made by civilians against troops poorly. Yetter and Sharpe have strong cases that bear striking similarities, he said.
“There’s too much smoke for there not to be fire,” Jensen said.