Photo courtesy of GT Communications

The students, faculty, and staff of Tech will gather on Feb. 18 to honor the winner of the 2016 Ivan Allen Jr. Prize of Social Courage: Nancy Parrish, the founder and CEO of Protect Our Defenders (POD), a group that provides legal assistance to military men and women who have been raped or sexually assaulted by fellow service members.

The Ivan Allen Jr. Prize is awarded annually to individuals who bravely work to make positive social change in the world and embody the legacy of former Mayor Ivan Allen Jr.’s efforts for African American civil rights.

In 2011, Parrish founded POD, after a conversation with a disabled Navy veteran named Terri. Terri told Parrish that after being raped, tortured and essentially left to die, she was not given proper medical treatment, was pressured to drop the charges and was discharged from the military against her will.

After months of research, Parrish learned Terri was not alone; there was a glaring problem in the United States military and no one had done much to solve it.

“I was determined not to let Terri’s voice and those of hundreds of thousands of other survivors’ voices remain unheard and disbelieved,” Parrish said. In November of 2011, she launched POD, which is currently the only advocacy group specifically for victims of sexual assault in
the military.

More than 20,000 military personnel experienced sexual assault in 2014, and most of these cases went unreported.

In 2013, over 135,000 veterans screened positive for military sexual trauma and visited the VA over one million times.

According to the Department of Defense, 62 percent of women reported suffered retaliation. The problem is statistically prevalent; yet, for 25 years, these sexual assault scandals quickly broke and just as quickly went away.

Assault victims can easily be marginalized in the military justice system, which does not follow the same legal proceedings as the civilian courts.

Since 2011, Parrish and POD have paved the way to revolutionary reforms, which include removing a commander’s ability to throw out a conviction or reduce a sentence for sexual assault, increased the confidentiality of a soldier’s sexual history or mental health records, prevented hostile pretrial depositions and ended the practice of a perpetrator getting let off for simply being a “good soldier.”

“We have made real, tangible progress,” Parrish said.

The issues POD champions have begun to permeate popular culture; a story POD broke became a running storyline on the show House of Cards, and the issue was also featured recently in an episode of Scandal.

Parrish believes that structural reform in the military justice system will not only help victims, but the entire military.

“The current system of military justice undermines the military … Ensuring access to a fair and effective system will improve safety and promote equality in our military, and lead to a stronger and more stable force.”

As a result of her work for POD, Nancy Parrish has faced harassment for shedding light on this injustice.

“Hearing from survivors and their families is what keeps me going. I began this effort to help service members and veterans, yet they have enriched my life beyond measure,” Parrish said.

“When I get a call from a survivor seeking help, I sometimes feel small and helpless. At that moment, I stand in their shoes and become determined to not only help that person, but fight to prevent future attacks and affirm the lives of those suffering in silence.”

The Ivan Allen Jr. Prize is awarded to individuals who are willing to risk everything for the sake of their cause.

“Like Ivan Allen, Jr., I want to make a significant, lasting impact, focusing on the root
causes of discrimination, injustice and inequality in our society,” Parrish said.

“When we as a society witness injustice and suffering, it is in our nature as Americans to stand on the side of fairness. Ivan Allen Jr. was a beacon of light in a dark time, and we strive to be that beacon of light today for our young service women and men, veterans and civilian survivors.”

Parrish says that her early work and experiences inspired her to devote her life to fighting for social change. She worked with a state senator who took her to visit juvenile halls and foster homes. The senator used those experiences to create real policy reform.

“I saw first hand that one person could make a difference. That reinforced my passion to work behind the scenes with communities of good people doing quiet work.”

Parrish has also worked closely with the Carter Center to support the humanitarian efforts of President and Mrs. Carter.

Experiences from her professional career also help her with her work with POD today. “I learned how to find talented and committed people — and to effectively drive movements for change,” Parrish said, referring to running her own consulting firm and working as a campaign strategist.

The award includes a $100,000 prize funded in perpetuity by the Glenn Family Foundation. Parrish plans to donate the prize to POD.