The military turned on a Texas National Guard soldier who was sexually harassed

by  Tony Plohetski

Texas National Guard Sgt. 1st Class Nicole Tinker was only days into what was supposed to be a nine-month Kuwait deployment when a high-level officer took an unwelcome and uncomfortable interest in her.

Capt. Josue Muñoz, five ranks her senior, texted “sexy” in response to her work-related message last fall. They had barely met. Her unit had not even left readiness training at Fort Hood.

In other text messages, Muñoz told the decorated 17-year Guard veteran, his deployment subordinate, that he recently recovered from COVID-19 and that “you can finally get in my mouth.”

Muñoz used a vulgar term to describe two soldiers who “blocked” him from being closer to Tinker in a meeting, and he told her that they would be in such tight quarters at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, that they would be joined “at the hip or mouth, whichever comes first,” according to hundreds of pages of investigative records.

Tinker spiraled into self-doubt as she embarked on her first international deployment since 2007, a world away from her husband and 2-year-old daughter as the holidays approached. On the 16-hour overseas military transport flight, she weighed the risks of reporting Muñoz, knowing his popularity among Guard troops, and of remaining silent.

After arriving on base in the middle of the desert, Tinker trembled submitting a handwritten sexual harassment complaint: “I tried to play it off because I didn’t know how to take it and I felt like I already let his actions go too long,” she wrote. She gave investigators copies of Muñoz’s texts.

Unwanted touching, late-night texts: Women at Texas Capitol describe culture of harassment

After weeks of enduring cold stares from fellow soldiers and feeling shunned as her complaint became chow hall gossip, Tinker learned Muñoz was being reprimanded and might lose his full-time Guard job.

Her relief that Texas National Guard leaders, who declined interview requests for this story, had done the right thing was short-lived. Less than a month later, they specifically came after her.

Acknowledging her harassment, officials then investigate victim

After concluding that she had been sexually harassed, officials informed Tinker that she was the target of an investigation into whether she violated what her attorney says is a rarely enforced policy prohibiting soldiers from a relationship that creates the “perception of undue familiarity” with a person of a different rank.

Tinker said during her ordeal, she sought comfort and counsel from another captain with whom she had previously worked at Camp Mabry in Austin and who also was deployed in Kuwait.

National Guard Sgt. Nicole Tinker was sexually harassed by a beloved officer five ranks above her. He was disciplined. Then the Guard turned on her, interviewing 53 people and finding that she had an “inappropriate friendship” with another officer. She is now at risk of losing her career, which had been marked with awards and accolades.

Having already been lectured by a senior officer about “destroying” Muñoz’s career, she viewed the investigation — prompted in part by allegations from Muñoz during the harassment investigation — as blatant retaliation.

“I just thought they had to really pull at something, they had to dig deep to find something, and that was it,” Tinker said. “I was right in trying to stop somebody from doing these things.”

In the months since, officials removed her from Camp Arifjan and sent her home, finding she violated policy, records show. After a career of honors and accolades, she has been referred to the Texas National Guard adjunct general for disciplinary action that she and her lawyer predict will result in termination from her full-time Guard employment.

Tinker’s case is emblematic of the struggle women in America’s armed forces face. It comes amid a national conversation among military leaders, politicians and others about how to end abuses of women in the military as a growing number have gone public in the past year to denounce harassment by fellow soldiers and superiors.

Texas National Guard hasn’t released data on harassment cases

Fort Hood, 75 miles northwest of Austin, has been under particular scrutiny. More than a dozen top leaders were ousted or punished last year after the murder of Spc. Vanessa Guillen, who was the victim of sexual harassment before her death. Separate reviews, including one released last week, found that the Army post had a climate that was “permissive of sexual harassment and sexual assault” and that officials failed to address Guillen’s complaints.

What happened to Tinker also raises questions about the culture of the Texas National Guard, made up of about 22,000 members — 22% of whom are women and led by a female top official, Adjutant Gen. Tracy Norris, who the Guard did not make available for an interview.

Muñoz, a 21-year Texas National Guard veteran, did not return a text, email, phone call or social media message for comment.

In a statement included in the investigative file recently obtained by the American-Statesman and KVUE-TV, he said that he never asked Tinker for sexual favors or touched her inappropriately. In that same statement, he reported a perception that Tinker and another male captain “spend too much time together” — the allegation that triggered the potentially career-ending investigation into Tinker.

Dig deeper: Year after Vanessa Guillen’s death, Fort Hood’s toughest battle is changing toxic culture

Texas National Guard officials said in an email that they could not discuss the cases because of privacy policies. The agency, whose access to records is governed by both state and federal laws, also has not released information to the Statesman about the number of sexual harassment complaints it has received in the past three years and the outcome of those complaints.

“We take all allegations of misconduct seriously and approach each investigation with integrity and respect towards all involved,” the Guard said in a statement.

Across all branches of the military, including the National Guard, reports of sexual harassment have been on the rise over the past five years. The U.S. Defense Department reported 1,021 formal sexual harassment complaints in fiscal 2019, the most recent report available, a 10% increase over 2018.

The Defense Department for more than a decade has tracked and issued annual reports on sexual harassment and sexual assaults in the military and military academies. One trend has remained clear and true, authors of the 2019 Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military wrote: “When unit climates are tolerant of other forms of misconduct, risk of sexual assault increases.”

“Active duty women who experienced sexual harassment were at three times greater risk for sexual assault than those who did not,” according to the report.

A male-dominated profession

Tinker sometimes sits quietly in her Leander home, northwest of Austin, scrolling through photographs from her military career that both transport her back to proud moments and compound her grief.

There’s one of her beaming as she grips a commendation medal in 2018 praising her for meritorious service — her “professional skill, leadership and ceaseless efforts.” In a second, she is at full attention as another honor is pinned on her uniform. And in a third, she’s smiling while cradling her then 1-year-old daughter, outfitted in a pink dress and camo hat, at a spring family day at Camp Mabry.

National Guard Sgt. Nicole Tinker holds her then 1-year-old daughter at a spring family day at Camp Mabry in West Austin.
National Guard Sgt. Nicole Tinker holds her then 1-year-old daughter at a spring family day at Camp Mabry in West Austin.

“It has just been a good sense of purpose in my life and has made me feel like I accomplished something,” she said.

She becomes tearful as she talks about the torment of the past few months.

Tinker, now 38, joined the Texas National Guard in 2004 after moving to Austin from her native El Paso. She had left college and felt she wanted a fresh start in a new city.

Her older brother had just joined the U.S. Air Force, and her father frequently talked to his children about the honor of serving their country. Tinker said she also was lured by the Guard’s generous benefits, especially its college reimbursement program.

“That was probably the biggest factor on why I wanted to join, because I did want to go back to school,” she said. “So I thought, ‘What the heck? Might as well see what this is all about.’”

Tinker endured six months of grueling basic training — longer than usual because she had to recover from a femur fracture — and was hired almost immediately as a full-time Texas National Guard employee. Over the next 17 years, she finished her accounting degree from an Austin branch of the Missouri-based Park University and primarily worked in human resources roles at Camp Mabry. She also was a National Guard recruiter.

Her last international deployment was to Iraq in 2007, where she processed payments to contractors and military personnel.

Tinker said she knew her assignment as part of Task Force Spartan, which supports troops in the Middle East and Asia, would keep her away from some of her daughter’s most precious moments. But she realized such deployments were always possible.

“It was my job,” she said. “We know what comes with that, that it was something that could happen.”

A record in which Tinker ‘far exceeded the standard’

When home in Texas and not deployed, Tinker was assigned to manage a company of 200 soldiers who travel to Austin once a month for Guard training, a position she had for two years. She made sure they got paid and handled matters such as processing promotional documents or discharge records. Because of the need for regular contact, she also built what she described as a seamless, collaborative relationship with the captain over that company, Jason Stover.

“I knew he respected me, and I knew he had my back,” she said.

In her most recent evaluation, Tinker consistently received high marks — either “exceeded standard” or “far exceeded standard” — in an array of performance areas. Her immediate supervisor, Master Sgt. David J. Parnell, concluded, “Her candor, professionalism and expertise make her a value-added leader in whatever assignment she is placed in.” He recommended Tinker for a promotion.

National Guard Sgt. 1st Class Nicole Tinker, left, consistently received high marks in an array of performance areas until she complained about sexual harassment by a popular superior. Now, the Guard is moving to discharge her, and her 17-year, full-time career, which had been marked with awards and accolades, is possibly ending.
National Guard Sgt. 1st Class Nicole Tinker, left, consistently received high marks in an array of performance areas until she complained about sexual harassment by a popular superior. Now, the Guard is moving to discharge her, and her 17-year, full-time career, which had been marked with awards and accolades, is possibly ending.

Aside from administrative duties, she also has been on the front lines of the Texas responses to an array of natural disasters, including hurricanes, floods and tornadoes.

In 2010, she met her husband, David, who is also a soldier in the Guard, making military service even more entrenched in her family.

“I have met some of my best friends in the military,” she said. “It’s a nice group of people that you can be around, and that’s probably the biggest thing and why I love it.”

But through the years, Tinker also has contended with being a woman in the male-dominated profession.

She said she often felt as though she had to work harder to prove herself to male counterparts. The slightest misstep was more harshly condemned. And if Tinker wanted her point to be considered, she had to carefully craft it, she said.

“It’s a very fine line you have to walk being a woman in the military,” she said. “You get used to it. Like if I say this thing, it is going to be interpreted this way.”

Tinker said she was seldom a victim of overt sexual harassment. When something made her uncomfortable, she shrugged it off quietly.

“You just learn to ignore things and you learn to drive on, to push feelings aside and complete the mission,” she said.

But when Muñoz began harassing her, she said she was even more distressed because of his rank, and his standing among the troops and top Texas National Guard commanders. Most distressingly, he was going to be her deployment boss.

“It took me a while to realize that this is not OK, and that if we are going to change this culture we have in the military, you can’t change it by being quiet,” she said. “That isn’t going to change anything.”

A formal reprimand for her captain, followed by ‘backlash’

Tinker submitted a sworn affidavit in early November, relaying harassing behavior that she said happened both in person and in texts.

In one instance, Muñoz referred to the size of his penis, she wrote. She noted that he often dismissed his statements by saying that he was “just kidding,” including after a comment in which he told Tinker her “resting (expletive) face was sexy.”

“I continued hoping this wasn’t going to be a thing, but I would still receive random messages,” she added.

Nicole Tinker
Nicole Tinker

She also provided a text in which she admonished Muñoz: “I’ve let things go and have been lax, and as a senior female (noncommissioned officer), I need to be better. Our conversations need to be professional.”

He wrote back: “You and me are cool. I can be whatever person you want me to be.”

More: Fact-check: Did the U.S. military record the highest number of sexual assaults in 2020?

As the investigation unfolded in the next three weeks, Tinker said she felt some soldiers were more concerned for Muñoz than her. She recalled an incident in which a senior official, whom she did not name, asked her if she knew how Muñoz “is going to feel and how this is going to affect his career. I just looked at him and said, ‘Yes, I absolutely do.’”

Then, on Nov. 21, investigator Maj. Arlene Boler issued a blistering rebuke of Muñoz and of the culture of Tinker’s military unit: “Muñoz exhibited poor judgement and bad character when he interacted with subordinate Tinker. … His actions should render him unfit to continue his career.”

Boler said she learned that Tinker had sought an “informal resolution,” while still in readiness training at Fort Hood. “This was not done,” Boler wrote, leaving Tinker to feel as though her only recourse was a formal sexual harassment complaint. Boler also said the Guard did not appropriately end the “superior and subordinate working relationship” sooner and recommended that the entire company receive training on sexual harassment.

On Dec. 3, Texas National Guard Maj. Gen. Patrick M. Hamilton issued Muñoz a formal reprimand. Following normal procedure, his case likely has been referred to top National Guard officials for his possible dismissal from a full-time Guard position. Guard officials would only say he currently is on “active guard reserve” status.

“It was like, ‘I am glad someone is seeing what is going on,’” Tinker said. “But I knew there would be some kind of backlash.”

Five days later, the military appointed a major to investigate Tinker’s relationship with Stover, the Texas National Guard captain with whom Tinker had worked at Camp Mabry and whose advice she sought in Kuwait.

An ‘unduly familiar’ relationship, investigation finds

During the inquiry, the investigating officer, Maj. Eric W. Cosper, interviewed 53 people — 13 times the number of soldiers interviewed for Tinker’s harassment complaint — who described seeing behavior between the two, such as “walking closely, sitting near each other, eating together, and talking playfully between each other.”

Examples of prohibited behavior include repeated visits to bars, nightclubs, eating establishments or homes between an officer and enlisted soldier or a noncommissioned officer and a junior enlisted soldier, according to the Guard. Cosper wrote in his final report that both Stover and Tinker were previously counseled about their relationship and told to “mitigate.” He added that for a relationship to be deemed “unduly familiar,” they had to meet at least one of several thresholds. They had reached them all, he said.

Cosper concluded the two “seem to value their friendship more than the climate of their unit or the welfare of their subordinates. They flagrantly dismissed all who sought to mentor them and appeared to flaunt their relationship at every opportunity.”

According to Guard records, another woman informed Cosper that Tinker had confided in her that she spent time with Stover because they “are friends and I feel safe with him.” The female soldier said Tinker did so because of Muñoz.

Stover received a reprimand, said Tinker’s attorney, Doug O’Connell. But because he is a reservist, the discipline did not carry a threat to his full-time Guard employment.

The Guard also has not released information requested by the Statesman showing how often members are investigated or disciplined for violating the same policy and how many of those investigated or found to be in violation are women.

“If Nicole Tinker were a male soldier, this would have never happened,” O’Connell said.

In its statement, the Texas National Guard said it has several programs to combat sexual harassment, including yearly training. It said it is in the final stages of putting a diversity training program in place.

“The Texas National Guard can and should do better,” O’Connell said.

From sadness to determination

During this year’s Texas legislative session, state Sen. César J. Blanco, D-El Paso, also filed a bill requiring the Texas Military Department — the state Guard is part of the department — to appoint an independent coordinator to assist sexual assault victims. It also calls for the Texas Rangers to investigate assault allegations, removing them from the Guard’s purview.

Blanco’s spokesman said the lawmaker has proposed the measure in previous legislative sessions but that it was not prompted by a specific incident.

Since returning to Texas in January, Tinker said she has been spending time at home, working on projects and is fighting for her full-time position.

“It’s hard being at home, doing nothing and knowing why,” she said through tears. “I should be working.”

Then her sadness turned to determination. She said she hopes that by sharing her story publicly, it will foster much-needed change in the Guard, making it kinder to women who want to serve their state and nation.

“Until we start to fight this ugly culture we have created, then it is just going to continue to be the same,” she said. “And it is hurting people in the military.”

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