When Major General Linda Singh took command of the Maryland National Guard three months ago, the Bronze Star recipient made history as the first African American and the first woman to become the state’s Adjutant General.
A 30-year veteran, she served in Kosovo and Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom.
But she sat down with the News4 I-Team to discuss one of the toughest battles facing the National Guard — something she says many commanders with her rank don’t want to talk about.
"I would say it is something that everyone is uncomfortable talking about,” she explained. “And I now see it as I don't have a problem talking about my situation."
As a young enlisted soldier, Singh says a military supervisor started making inappropriate advances toward her, even ordering her to go to a nonwork related event with him. She refused.
“I really pushed back. I went to my leader, my first sergeant, and got moved out of that section, because I didn’t want to work for this individual.”
Questioning authority is not something that happens often in the military. But Singh didn't hesitate.
"I don't think that I, when I look at it, I had been through enough in my life,” she said. “I think I was a little different from someone else because I had already been a victim."
What few knew at the time was that Singh had been sexually assaulted repeatedly when she was a small child growing up in Frederick County, Maryland. She said her earliest memories of the abuse begin when she was about 5 years old.
"I had a family member that actually told me, you know, ‘You need to listen to me. You trust me don't you? You know I love you?’ And the incident I remember is we went for a walk and they asked me to pull down my pants and sit in their lap."
Later, as an underage teenager, she says a different family member assaulted her after she drank too much at a party.
"I had gone to bed, I woke up and he's on top of me,” she explained. “When you're at that point, it is completely wrong. I couldn't get my thoughts about me and the fact this was already happening. It is just appalling. It's one of these things I can't even express what I felt and how things were going."
Singh said her past experiences have helped her be a better leader in the National Guard.
"I think it allows me to come from a very different place, in terms of understanding what it means from the perspective of the victim," she said. "But I also think it helps me to understand what the perpetrator and what their motive is. And because it's really about power.
“I think it has made me very non-tolerant," she said. "I am not tolerant whatsoever to having that kind of behavior occur."
But as the News 4 I-Team discovered, Maryland is like most National Guard units across the country that must rely on civilian law enforcement to investigate and charge service members for rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment.
"There is a gap, at least here in Maryland there is a gap,” Singh said. “When I say there's a gap, if I was to call the police and say someone sexually harassing me, they may take the complaint but they're really not going to do anything to that individual."
Her staff told us they are looking at possible changes to state law and pointed to the 2013 reforms inside the Kentucky National Guard.
A spokesman for that unit explained that Kentucky's updated state Uniform Code of Military Justice now allows the Kentucky National Guard to conduct a criminal investigation similar to an Article 32 hearing in the federal system.
Singh told the I-Team she’s currently using the punishments available to her, from writing letters of reprimand for inappropriate language to dishonorable discharges for sexual assault.
"I'm going to tell you we've had some very senior people who no longer wear the uniform and no longer have a full-time job here in Maryland.” She paused for a moment and then said, “I've taken it very seriously, and these are individuals I have known for years."
Now a two-star general, Singh is the highest ranking officer in the military to openly talk about her own experiences with sexual assault and harassment — something she says she's going to continue to do until there's a cultural shift within the Guard.
"The only way to deal with this is to talk about it. We have to get more comfortable talking about those things that are uncomfortable."