CRANSTON, R.I. (WPRI) — A Rhode Island National Guard member who says she was sexually assaulted by a superior is speaking out about the experience, saying she hopes her story will encourage others in similar situations to come forward.

The service member, a first-generation American and single mother, joined the state’s National Guard in 2012, saying her goal was to serve her country and provide a good life for her son.

During her first few years of service, however, she said her working relationship with then-staff sergeant Joseph Felix started to crumble.

“I found myself working for someone who used his grade and position to take advantage of me,” said the woman, who 12 News is not identifying because she’s an alleged sexual assault survivor.

Felix, who today is facing a first-degree sexual assault charge, has pleaded not guilty to the allegations that the woman said started to unfold in the early- to mid-2010s. After joining the National Guard, the woman claims she quickly started noticing red flags, including Felix sending her inappropriate text messages and making lewd comments in person.

“If I’m working, he’d tell me he wanted to do me on the conference room,” she told 12 News.

By 2015, she said Felix’s inappropriate behavior escalated when he used a military database to look up her home address and then showed up unannounced. A few months later, she said he invited her out to discuss her military career and salary, making her feel like she had to “play along” to support her son and career.

“He ended up driving into this abandoned parking lot behind a CVS in Cranston and that’s where the assault happened,” she recalled.

The woman said she told a National Guard sexual assault representative about the experience at the time, but was told there was nothing they could do unless she came forward with official allegations. She then decided against taking action out of fear of losing her job, she explained.

“At the time, I’m like, I’m so new in my career, I can’t,” she told 12 News. “I can’t afford the retaliation. I can’t afford to lose my career this early in the game.”

Fast forward to 2020, the woman said she felt compelled to approach investigators after she became a recruiter and would talk with parents and children who were considering whether to join the National Guard. She said they would ask her if sexual assault in the military happened locally.

“I would just lie and be like, ‘No, that’s active duty, it never happens in Rhode Island. It never happens here,'” she said, adding that internally she’d be saying, “Oh my God, this happened to me.”

After she decided to come forward, the R.I. State Police charged Felix with first-degree sexual assault in early 2020. Later that fall, a grand jury indicted him. After pleading not guilty, Felix was released on $50,000 personal recognizance.

In a statement to 12 News, Felix’s attorney John Calcagni denied the sexual abuse allegations. He said the relationship was indeed inappropriate, because Felix was the woman’s superior at the time, but he “denied any non-consensual sexual contact.”

“Joseph Felix has absolutely no criminal record, enjoys a stellar reputation within the community, and served both the State of Rhode Island and United States honorably for nearly 24 years,” Calcagni said. “SFC Felix, like others so accused, is presumed innocent, should be treated as such by all, and looks forward to his day in court.”

Sexual assault in the military

The woman who spoke with 12 News is hardly the first person to grapple with issues of sexual assault at the National Guard.

According to data provided to 12 News, the National Guard has handled 13 allegations of sexual assault since 2015. The Felix case is only the second in state history to go before a grand jury and result in charges. Neither of those cases has reached trial yet.

The criminal proceedings surrounding Felix started around the same time the National Guard launched its own probe into the allegations. The woman came forward to a board of military officers, who she said questioned her about what happened — but didn’t seem interested in talking about sexual assault.

“The whole time, I wasn’t even allowed to bring up the sexual assault,” she said.

National Guard spokesperson Jarred Rickey told 12 News the National Guard doesn’t investigate claims of sexual assault, but does have jurisdiction to examine sexual harassment allegations, which it did in the case of Felix. Almost a year after he was initially charged by the state police, the National Guard honorably discharged Felix as a sergeant first class, making him eligible for a pension in 17 years.

“The alternative to this process would have been to wait for the conclusion of the civilian criminal case and potentially base an administrative separation action on that result,” Rickey explained. “In the event of an exoneration, the National Guard would be left with only the original basis of sexual harassment.”

The National Guard also highlighted that this was the first allegation against Felix in his nearly 20-year career, and that they decided to discharge him because in many ways it’s faster than the criminal court system.

The woman pushed back on the decision, arguing the military didn’t go far enough in its punishment. She has since moved out of the state and feels like the organization she devoted her life to let her down.

Take the investigation, take my name out of it and put your wife’s name, put your daughter’s name instead of my name,” she said about the decision to honorably discharge him. “Would you still come to the same determination?”

The issue of sexual assault in the military has become an increasingly hot-button issue in recent years, which has helped spur new legislation designed to improve the way allegations are investigated.

“We are not going to be satisfied until this scourge has been eliminated from the military,” said U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Reed said he and his Republican colleague, Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, traveled to Fort Hood in Texas after the murder of Vanessa Guillén, a U.S. Army soldier who investigators said was bludgeoned to death with a hammer by another soldier in 2020. Guillén had accused the soldier — who later killed himself — of sexually harassing her.

Guillén’s death also inspired the Rhode Island woman to speak out about her experience, she said.

“We got the feeling that we had to take additional steps,” Reed told 12 News, pointing to the The National Defense Authorization Act that was signed into law in December.

Among other things, the new law “requires that a formal complaint alleging sexual harassment committed by a service member against another service member be investigated by an independent investigator.”

“It’s essentially transferred out of the chain of command all of the crimes related to sexual offenses, together with critical crimes like murder, kidnapping, and manslaughter,” Reed said, adding that it was the most significant change to the Uniform Code of Military in the last 50 years.

The military has two years to implement the changes.

“It’s the duty of anyone, but particularly a superior officer to protect their subordinates, not to exploit them,” he said. “And in so many cases, this is the worst form of exploitation you could ever think about.”