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Rape, harassment and retaliation in the U.S. Forest Service: Women firefighters tell their stories

Women in the U.S. Forest Service aren't just fighting fires; some are fighting sexual misconduct in the most remote parts of the country. In an exclusive PBS NewsHour investigation, 34 women in 13 states told their stories of rape, harassment, gender discrimination and the retaliation that followed after they reported abuse. William Brangham reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As the MeToo movement has grown to include problems in government, we have an exclusive investigation tonight about the U.S. Forest Service and allegations of longtime sexual misconduct and gender discrimination within the agency.

    From its inception in 1905, the Forest Service has been a male-dominated field. Even today, women make up only a third of the service and even less, just 13 percent, within the ranks of Forest Service firefighters, who perform extremely dangerous and important work across the country.

    But as William Brangham and our production team report, women say that not only have they faced harassment and discrimination, but when they speak out about it, they are punished even more.

  • Michaela Myers:

    He was like, “I’m glad you’re on the crew because you’re sexy, and you have a nice ass.”

    Like, excuse me? Like, those aren’t reasons.

  • William Brangham:

    This is your boss?

  • Michaela Myers:

    Yes, yes.

  • William Brangham:

    Last summer, Michaela Myers was working as a firefighter in Oregon with the U.S. Forest Service. As she detailed in a formal complaint, she was repeatedly sexually harassed by her older male supervisor.

  • Michaela Myers:

    And then he would touch me. He’d grope my butt, like, my waist. Yes, it was just uncomfortable.

  • William Brangham:

    At first, she debated whether to report him. She said a male colleague warned her not to.

  • Michaela Myers:

    He was like, “Well, if you want to stay in fire, this is going to happen, and you can report it and face retaliation, or you can do nothing and stay in fire.”

  • William Brangham:

    Those were the choices you were given?

  • Michaela Myers:

    Yes.

  • William Brangham:

    Speak up and get beaten down for it, or deal with it?

  • Michaela Myers:

    Yes.

  • William Brangham:

    And Michaela Myers is not alone. The PBS NewsHour has spoken to 34 women across 13 states who claim they have experienced gender discrimination, sexual harassment and, in some cases, sexual assault and rape in the U.S. Forest Service.

    And many said, when they spoke up, they faced retaliation.

    NewsHour producer Elizabeth Flock has been reporting this story for months.

  • Elizabeth Flock:

    What really came through to us was this culture of retaliation that they talked about and, when they reported misconduct, the reprisal they faced, which took so many different forms, from withholding of training, to denying or stripping their duties, demotions, and sort of a slow chipping away at them, until these women felt like they weren’t a part of the work force.

  • William Brangham:

    This issue first got national attention in late 2016, when Forest Service employees from California told Congress about rampant sexual harassment and retaliation.

  • Denice Rice:

    He had taken a letter opener, and poked my breast, both breasts, with a smile on his face in this arrogant way, like he could get away with it. And I stood there in shock. He has cornered me in the bathroom. He has lifted my shirt up. He has stalked me.

  • William Brangham:

    Representative Trey Gowdy pressed Lenise Lago, who’s a senior official in the Forest Service.

  • Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C.:

    Well, if memory serves, her perpetrator was allowed to retire. Is that correct? Had you heard that before today?

  • Lenise Lago:

    Yes.

  • Rep. Trey Gowdy:

    You mean to tell me that someone can engage in the conduct that Ms. Rice just described and avoid all consequence whatsoever?

  • Lenise Lago:

    Per the federal regulations, yes. Someone can retire or resign, in lieu of being removed.

  • William Brangham:

    We asked the U.S. Forest Service to talk with us on camera about this. I’m standing in front of their headquarters here. They declined all of our requests.

    Off-camera, one senior official told us that they have taken steps to address the problem. They have set up a crisis hot line where any employee can call in to make complaints. And they said that, later this year, they are going to institute mandatory anti-harassment training for all employees.

  • Abby Bolt:

    I would come home just covered in either soot or dirt from working, and I really liked that part of it.

  • William Brangham:

    Abby Bolt is a battalion chief in California’s Sequoia National Forest. When she first got into firefighting 20 years ago, she knew it was a tough and macho environment. She didn’t complain about the pornography that were left on her truck seat or the physical hazing.

    And later, as she rose through the ranks of the Forest Service, she saw other women speak up, and suffer for it.

  • Abby Bolt:

    Watching somebody that would file a complaint, or make a complaint, immediately became the problem. And we have the term that girl or those girls.

  • William Brangham:

    That girl.

  • Abby Bolt:

    I don’t want to be one of those girls. I have introduced myself that way to people before. I’m like, hey, I’m Abby. Don’t worry, I’m not one of those girls or…

  • William Brangham:

    One of those girls being someone who simply says, that behavior is wrong, let’s do something about it.

  • Abby Bolt:

    Exactly. I was trained that way my whole — don’t be one of those girls.

  • William Brangham:

    Bolt says, six years ago, she had a harrowing experience, where this culture of not complaining came back to haunt her.

    In 2012, while she was fighting a fire in Colorado along with multiple other agencies, another firefighter, not from the Forest Service, raped her.

  • Abby Bolt:

    It was toward the end of the assignment. And I just don’t think I can say the word, but — I mean, I can just say, I mean, we know what sexually assaulted means, right?

    So, I was — I woke up the next day covered in bruises. And I was just like, this is not happening. I’m not this person. I’m not this girl.

  • William Brangham:

    She got a rape kit and filed a police report, but she didn’t end up pressing charges, and she didn’t report it to the Forest Service.

  • Abby Bolt:

    I could just see this whole process going down, and the only person that was going to lose everything in their world was going to be me and my family. They were going to — I just — I have seen how it goes down. The person that complains becomes the trash.

  • William Brangham:

    This firefighter did report her attack, and soon felt like she was the problem. She asked to remain anonymous, and for her voice to be changed, out of fear of retribution.

    Her story began two years ago, when she was working a fire in Montana and was raped by another Forest Service firefighter.

  • Anonymous Firefighter:

    What turned into just a normal drinking night with a few buddies turns into basically me — resulted in me being raped. I woke up, and my barracks had been rummaged through, I had no clothes on, I had no sheets, I had no phone. My door was open.

    I felt ashamed that I had been partying or been letting loose, like I had somehow brought this upon myself. That was how I initially felt. And I really didn’t want to go forward. I didn’t want to tell anybody. I didn’t. I really didn’t. I felt like it was going to be more problems.

  • William Brangham:

    But she did report it. Her rapist was arrested and she believes fired by the Forest Service.

    She was satisfied at first, but then she was transferred immediately to a new forest.

  • Anonymous Firefighter:

    When I showed up to the new forest, they denied me any classes, any courses, any trainings.

  • William Brangham:

    When she complained and asked to go back, she says they tried to force her out. This was all within a month of her rape.

  • Anonymous Firefighter:

    They said, this isn’t the meeting I know that you were expecting, but we have had some complaints that you have had vulgar language, showed innuendoes, and been inappropriate.

  • William Brangham:

    What do you think is going on there?

  • Anonymous Firefighter:

    I think that I was a problem. I think that my privacy wasn’t protected, that my story was known, and that I was a problem because I was speaking out, because I was telling about a sexual assault. That’s exactly how I felt. That’s how I feel still.

  • William Brangham:

    Rather than be fired, she says she was advised to resign. That way, she could take another position within the service, which she did.

    The Forest Service wouldn’t comment on specific case, citing privacy concerns.

    Last year, Michaela Myers decided to report her supervisor’s alleged groping.

  • Michaela Myers:

    I wanted justice, but I wasn’t like in it for some personal vendetta. I don’t want this to happen to other women. And I don’t want him to do it, like, in the future.

  • William Brangham:

    Her complaint detailed several instances of inappropriate physical contact. Once, he rubbed her butt. Another time, it was her inner thigh. Another time, he grabbed her breasts, put his hand between her legs and groped her.

    Two months later, the Forest Service sent her a letter.

  • Michaela Myers:

    It said, an investigation against allegations of misconduct was conducted, and we found that there was no misconduct.

    And so, then, it just feels like you’re like screaming into a void, like, this happened, and nobody hears that or believes it, or they hear it, and don’t believe it at all.

  • William Brangham:

    Her case was closed, and that supervisor continues to work for the Forest Service.

    Despite that, she’s going to work another season, this time in Washington. She says she had inquiries from several states, but not Oregon, where she worked before.

  • Michaela Myers:

    I’m on some black — Oregon blacklist, the Oregon MeToo blacklist. But it’s very much a good old boys’ culture. It’s a man’s world in fire. Or they think it is.

  • William Brangham:

    Abby Bolt says, completely separate from being raped, which, remember, she didn’t report, she’s also endured years of consistent bullying and harassment from her supervisors.

    She says it intensified after she filed a gender discrimination complaint in 2014. Recently, she’s been getting anonymous intimidating notes at work. One singled out that she was single mother, another an article insinuating she was a manipulator.

    When she officially complained, she was told, “The investigation could not proceed, as there was no accused person to interview.”

    Last October, someone scrawled “Quit” on to the window of her vehicle.

    Bolt says the cumulative effect of all this bullying is wearing her down.

  • Michaela Myers:

    After the notes that were left, I couldn’t get out of my truck. I would pull up to the office, and I just couldn’t get out. I don’t know. Like, I felt so weak. You think you’re crazy.

    I mean, I have really gone through a lot of this thinking, like, I am crazy. You have official people from all the way at the Washington office level telling you in documents that none of it’s — we’re — they’re not — they’re either not going to look into it, or they have denied your grievance, or you spoke up and they said there was nothing to see here.

    And you start to feel nuts.

  • William Brangham:

    Bolt worries that speaking out now means her retaliation is only going to get worse, but she wants other women to know they’re not alone.

  • Abby Bolt:

     There are so many women out there that are so afraid. You know, I have talked to them. And I have said, you need to speak up. And I’ll hear, like, “I’m so close to retirement Abby, I can’t,” or, “I have come this far,” or, “I have to support my family, and I can’t do that.”

    And if I lose my job now, but it helps me get it a little bit better, I’m at the point where I stand up for what’s right. And if that — at this point, if that’s what it means, then that’s what it means.

  • William Brangham:

    Tomorrow night, we will look more at the retaliation women in the Forest Service face when they speak out.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I’m William Brangham in Sequoia National Forest.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So disturbing.

    That report was produced by Lorna Baldwin and Emily Carpeaux, and it included extensive reporting by Elizabeth Flock and Joshua Barajas.

    Online, you can read our expanded coverage of the U.S. Forest Service. You can hear more women’s stories, see photos and video.

    All that is at PBS.org/NewsHour.

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