How the military is preparing for the possibility of a very different kind of Commander in Chief.
Story By Andy Kroll

On an early Friday morning in late June 2006, Cheyenne Szydlo, a 33-year-old Arizona wildlife biologist with fiery red hair, drove to the Grand Canyon’s South Rim to meet the river guide who would be taking her along the 280 miles of the Colorado River that coursed a mile below. She was excited. Everyone in her field wanted to work at the Grand Canyon, and after several years of unsuccessful applications, Szydlo had recently been offered a seasonal position in one of the National Park Service’s science divisions. She’d quit another job in order to accept, certain her chance wouldn’t come again.

The Grand Canyon is a mecca of biological diversity, home to species that grow nowhere else on earth. But after a dam was built upstream 60 years ago, changes in the Colorado’s flow have enabled the rise of invasive species and displaced numerous forms of wildlife. Szydlo’s task was to hunt for the Southwestern willow flycatcher, a tiny endangered songbird that historically had nested on the river but hadn’t been seen in three years. Her supervisor believed the bird was locally extinct, but Szydlo was determined to find it. The June expedition—a nine-day journey through the canyon on a 20-foot motorboat operated by a boatman named Dave Loeffler—would be her last chance that summer. When Szydlo asked a coworker what Loeffler was like, the reply was cryptic: “You’ll see.”

Szydlo, who’d studied marine biology in Australia and coral reefs in French Polynesia, was drawn to the adventurous nature of the work. “From my earliest memories,” she told me, “there was never any place that felt safer or happier to me than the outdoors.” On the morning of the trip, she arrived at the boat shop early. She assumed they’d leave at once, to make the most of the day. Instead, she said, Loeffler took her to a coworker’s house, and for an hour and a half, she sat uncomfortably as Loeffler told his friend about the battery-powered blender he’d packed to make “the best margaritas on the river.”

They set out from Lees Ferry in Marble Canyon, the otherworldly antechamber to “the Grand.” From there, the river winds through towering, striated red cliffs and balancing rock formations, under the Navajo Bridge, and, at around mile 60, into the Grand Canyon itself. The views are stupefying, the waters turquoise, and the disconnection almost total—a moonscape beyond cell phone reception. For many people, it’s a spiritual experience.

It’s also an intimate one. Travelers eat and sleep together, and, due to the lack of cover, must often bathe and go to the bathroom in full view, using portable metal ammo cans outfitted with toilet seats. Commercial river guides often say that no one can claim their privacy on the river, so fellow passengers should offer it instead.

In Szydlo’s recounting of the trip, Loeffler didn’t adhere to this code. When she bent to move provisions or tie up the boat, he commented on a logo on the back of her utility skirt. He asked frank questions about her sex life and referred to Szydlo as “hot sexy biologist.” That June, the temperatures at the bottom of the canyon reached 109 degrees, and when Szydlo scorched her skin on a metal storage box, Loeffler said she had a hot ass. He adjusted her bra strap when it slipped and, one chilly night, invited her to sleep in the boat with him if she was cold. When they stopped to take a picture at a particularly scenic spot, he suggested that she pose naked. He told her that another female Park Services staffer would be hiking in to meet them at the halfway point, and that he hoped they would have “a three-way.” Szydlo told me she laughed uncomfortably and spoke often of her boyfriend and their plans to get married.

By the third day of the trip, it seemed to Szydlo that Loeffler was getting increasingly frustrated. They stopped at a confluence where the Colorado meets a tributary and forms a short tumble of rapids gentle enough for boaters to swim through with a life jacket. Szydlo pulled on her preserver, but Loeffler insisted she didn’t need one. When she entered the river without it, the water sucked her under. She somersaulted through the rapids “like I was in a washing machine,” she recalled. She thought she was going to drown. Then the rapids spat her out into a calm, shallow pool. She came up gasping and choking to the sound of Loeffler’s laughter, and thought to herself, “I’m in deep shit.”

"I'm really good at war," Trump recently claimed. Here he is as a student at the New York Military Academy. (Getty Images, © Seth Poppel/Yearbook Library.)

We’re used to hearing stories of sexual harassment in the Army, the Navy, or within the police force; 25 years after the Tailhook scandal, when scores of Marine and Naval officers allegedly sexually assaulted some 83 women and seven men at a military convention, there’s a general cultural understanding of what women face in traditionally male-dominated public institutions. The agencies that protect America’s natural heritage enjoy a reputation for a certain benign progressivism—but some of them have their own troubling history of hostility toward women.

In 2012 in Texas, members of the Parks and Wildlife Department complained about a “legacy” of racial and gender intolerance; only 8 percent of the state's 500 game wardens were women. In 2014, in California, female employees of the U.S. Forest Service filed a class-action lawsuit—the fourth in 35 years—over what they described as an egregious, long-standing culture of sexual harassment, disparity in hiring and promotion, and retaliation against those who complained. (That lawsuit is still pending.) And this January, the Department of the Interior’s Office of Inspector General announced that it had “found evidence of a long-term pattern of sexual harassment and hostile work environment” in the Grand Canyon’s River District, a part of the Park Service.

Ever since the U.S. created institutions to protect its wilderness, those agencies have been bound up with a particular image of masculinity. The first park rangers in the U.S. were former cavalrymen, assigned to protect preserves like Yellowstone and Yosemite from poachers and fire. The public quickly became enamored by these rugged, solitary figures. In the early 1900s, as the Park Service was created, a new breed emerged: naturalists who endeavored to teach the public the principles of conservation. As the historian Polly Welts Kaufman has written, the earlier generation of rangers resented the intrusion of “pansy-pickers” and “butterfly chasers.” Also controversial was the presence of a small number of women at the agency. Male naturalists worried that their job would be seen as effeminate, instead of, as one put it, “the embodiment of Kit Carson, Daniel Boone, the Texas Rangers, and General Pershing.” In the 1930s and ‘40s the ranks were mostly filled by returning veterans attracted by the ranger corps’ quasi-military culture. Until 1978, female rangers weren’t permitted to wear the same uniform or even the same badge as the men, but instead wore skirts modeled on stewardesses’ uniforms.

One former Marine infantry officer described Trump as a “fake-bake-ing chicken hawk.”

The other major institution tasked with preserving and managing the American wilderness, the Forest Service, developed on a similar trajectory. Although the Forest Service comes under the direction of the Department of Agriculture (while the Park Service falls under the DOI), its employees perform similar work and its culture is also modeled along military lines. By the 1970s, women held only 2 percent of full-time professional roles in the service nationwide. In California—whose lands are the crown jewel of the national forest system— female employees filed a class-action lawsuit known as Bernardi v. Madigan. The case was settled in 1981 with a court-enforced “consent decree” that required the Forest Service’s California region to employ as many women as the civilian workforce—at least 43 percent in every pay grade. The decision ultimately saw hundreds of “Bernardi women” enter the service, to the disgruntlement of many male employees.

Lesa Donnelly is a former Forest Service administrator who worked for the agency from 1978 to 2002. In 1994, she filed a complaint charging that three of her male colleagues were harassing her. After word spread (incorrectly) that she planned to file a class-action lawsuit, she received dozens of calls. She heard from women who claimed they were being threatened with physical and sexual assault, and women who said they’d been punished for making complaints. One said the men on her crew joked about raping her in her sleep and had tied her blood-stained underwear to the antenna of their fire truck. Two women told her that a notice in their office about the Bernardi consent decree had been defaced with a scrawled reference to the “cuntsent decree.” She realized her own complaint was “nothing compared to what I found out was happening.”

Eventually, Donnelly compiled claims from 50 women, and in 1995 she filed a class-action suit against the Forest Service, including declarations from many of the woman who had reached out to her. The agency negotiated a settlement that allowed for continued court oversight of California’s Forest Service. But when the monitoring period ended in 2006, the old problems soon resurfaced, as Donnelly would describe in testimony to Congress two years later. One dispatcher reported that she’d been sexually assaulted and stalked by a manager. He was made to resign, but after six months the Forest Service tried to work with him again. In 2008, a male supervisor at the same forest said that he hated a black female employee and wanted to shoot subordinates he hated. When the employee reported the comment, the district ranger told her to ignore him.

This year, I met Donnelly, who is 58, in El Dorado Hills, outside Sacramento. Now the vice president of the USDA Coalition of Minority Employees, a civil rights group, she has the demeanor of a friendly bulldog. She told me that nearly every year for the last 15 years, she has traveled to Washington, D.C., to lobby the USDA, Congress, and the White House to protect women in the service. She managed to enlist the help of representatives Jackie Speier of California, Peter DeFazio of Oregon and Raúl Grijalva of Arizona, who in 2014 petitioned the USDA to investigate, without success. Each time Donnelly comes to D.C., she added, she brings details of 20 to 25 new allegations. But while her fight against the Forest Service has persisted for more than two decades, in the Grand Canyon, similar questions about the treatment of women have only started to surface.

When presidents and generals clash: Barack Obama and David Petraeus; Bill Clinton and Colin Powell; Harry Truman and Douglas MacArthur. (Getty Images.)

“On the river, the boatman is god,” Cheyenne Szydlo told me. In the Grand Canyon, river guides enjoy an almost exalted status, revered for their ability to “read water.” Boatmen have almost total responsibility for their passengers—they keep the food and determine when and where to sleep, explore, or go to the bathroom. They also control the satellite phone, the only means of contact with the outside world. But within the Park Service, boatmen were more important still. Men like Dave Loeffler guided visiting officials or VIPs on adventures within the canyon, undertook rescue missions, and were featured in travel stories in newspapers and magazines. They “made it seem [to park management] like the river was the surface of Mars,” one boatman for a private company recalled. The administration saw them as irreplaceable.

In the early 2000s, three men turned the boat shop into a small fiefdom. There were the “two Daves”—Loeffler and his supervisor, Dave Desrosiers—and Bryan Edwards, the boat shop manager. In addition to this small core of permanent staffers, the park periodically hired intermittent boatmen. One, Dan Hall, worked in the canyon during this period and was friendly with the trio. Hall is garrulous and not remotely prudish. “I have offended people I’ve worked with,” he told me. “I do my best to apologize and not let it happen again …. But with the Daves, it had this very dark side to it.” He remembered the three talking about who could sleep with the most women on the river. “They were always on the make,” he said. In a written response sent via Facebook, Edwards said that “no competition ever existed.”

Rafting on the Colorado has always had a bit of a party vibe, and that attitude held for Park Service trips, too. Boats sometimes carried a large quantity of alcohol. Participants sometimes hooked up. But during the early 2000s, Hall told me, it seemed short-lived river affairs were almost expected of female employees. According to one former employee, veteran female staffers warned new hires to make sure they set up tents with a friend rather than sleeping on the boats, as the boatmen usually did. Sometimes, Hall said, boatmen would lobby supervisors to send women from completely unrelated park divisions—an attractive new hire at the entry booth, for instance—on trips. Often, though, the targets were from science divisions that required river access, such as vegetation and wildlife.

The field leader of the vegetation program from 2002 to 2005, Kate Watters, said that she complained to her supervisor about the boatmen’s behavior. In October 2005, an expedition was planned to see if the two groups could overcome their difficulties. The trip was led by Bryan Edwards. Participants included Watters, who was married to Dan Hall at the time, and her new intern, a biologist I’ll call Anne.

Former CIA general counsel John Rizzo predicted an employee “exodus” if Trump became president and followed through on his proposals.

The expedition coincided with Halloween week, and one night most of the participants put on costumes. Many were drinking. Anne—dressed as a butterfly, in wings and a dress—was in the camp’s kitchen area, when Edwards—dressed as a pirate—came up behind her. He grabbed the camera she’d left on the table. “The next thing I knew, his hand was between my legs,” she said. Then Edwards shot a picture up her skirt.

Watters observed aloud that Edwards’ behavior was unacceptable. Loeffler, who was attired as “a hillbilly axe murderer” and carrying a real axe, demanded that Watters talk it out with Edwards instead of filing a report. She recalled that he bellowed at her, axe in hand, “Fuck you, Kate Watters. You can’t have control over people’s jobs.” Loeffler told me that he was unable to answer questions since he is still a park employee. Edwards wrote in his response, “I did flash a camera below her skirt as she stood next to me. It was intended for shock value only” as Anne had been drinking, he explained.

Watters said that in a meeting after her return with Edwards and Desrosiers’ boss, Edwards glared at her and cleaned his nails with a 6-inch buck knife. (Edwards called this description “entirely false.”) In 2006, he received a 30-day suspension over the incident, after which he resigned. Edwards confirmed this to me, but wrote in another message, “I suspect nearly everything you have been told is at least either ‘misrepresentation’ or outright lie.” He felt that he had done “a lot of good in my 12 yrs in Grand Canyon,” he went on. “Because of my abilities, I did things people dreamed about doing but simply could not on that River and dealt with their envy and accusations constantly.” Edwards added, “But as the joke goes: ‘ ... ach, you fuck one sheep!’”

Following Edwards’ resignation, relations between the boat shop and vegetation devolved into a cold war. On trips, according to multiple sources, some of the boatmen withheld food or avoided taking volunteers to work sites. Watters complained to the director of the science division and to regional Park Service authorities. After getting nowhere, she quit in frustration and Anne eventually assumed her place. According to Anne and Hall, Loeffler later showed up at a campsite where Anne was working to harangue her about Edwards. He and Desrosiers made it so difficult for her to schedule trips that sometimes she had to use a helicopter, at great expense. These acts of sabotage “became an art form for the two Daves,” recalled Hall. The pair even erected a memorial to Edwards in the boat shop, said two former employees: a crude bust of Jesus wearing a crown of thorns with Edwards’ name written on the base in Sharpie. The implication was clear: Edwards had been martyred.

It was around the time of Edwards’ departure that Szydlo took her boat trip with Loeffler. After the scare in the rapids, she said, the uneasy balance between them shifted. Szydlo stopped laughing at his come-ons. Loeffler would sleep in late and then tell her they didn’t have time to visit her next work site. “This person was in complete control of everything I needed to survive,” she said. “I was terrified.” She began to formulate a plan to get out of the canyon if she needed to. “Even if there were trails to take, which in most places there were not, they'd land me in the middle of nowhere, in the desert, up on the rim,” she said. “I didn't have enough food or water to attempt that.” She could try to hike out on the Bright Angel Trail when they reached the halfway point at Phantom Ranch. But doing so would mean missing the nesting sites on the lower half of the river—and, she feared, abandoning any hope of being hired back next season.

The day before they reached Phantom Ranch, Szydlo said she felt as if some kind of assault was inevitable. Loeffler slowed the motorboat to a crawl, stopping at nearly every beach. Finally, in the middle of a channel, she heard the motor go quiet. Loeffler came up behind her, grabbed her shoulders and asked her to describe her sexual fantasies so he could act them out.

“I broke down crying,” Szydlo said. “Saying, ‘Get off me, stop harassing me.’ As soon as I used the word ‘harassment,’ he was like, ‘Whoa, stop. I don’t know what you’re talking about.’” He revved the engine and sped to Phantom Ranch. For the last five days, she said, they barely spoke, and at meals, Loeffler gave her minuscule portions. After she returned, she emailed her then-boyfriend and told him what had happened. Szydlo worried for months about whether she should file a report. When she finally contacted an HR representative almost six months later, she said, she received a brief response informing her she’d need dates, times and witnesses in order to pursue a complaint. She let it drop, not wanting to start a “huge, ugly fight.” Much as she suspected, other women in similar situations have discovered that taking formal action can bring on its own host of problems.

American heroes (plus Trump and Piers Morgan.) (Getty Images.)

The Eldorado National Forest is a mountainous expanse of nearly 1,000 square miles that stretches from east of Sacramento to the crest of the Sierra Nevada. Denice Rice has worked here for 15 years as a firefighter—on engines and fire crews and as a prevention officer. These days, she likes to operate by herself, driving a truck with a small reserve of water through the hundreds of miles of back roads that cut into the Eldorado. She is often the first on the scene at a fire, helping direct in crews of “hot shots,” the firefighting elite who clear the tree line. On slower days, she might serve as “Smokey’s wrangler,” accompanying the unlucky staffer who has to don the sweaty mascot costume and make safety presentations to kids.

Many women in the Forest Service told me that “fire is a small world,” and that they repeatedly had to fight the perception that they were only there to meet men. Rice, who exudes a no-bullshit air of competence, prided herself on her toughness. When I visited her at her home in January, she drove to meet me on a four-wheeler, flanked by two bulldogs. “When you work in fire, you have to have a really thick skin,” she said.

Around 2008, Rice was a captain being groomed for promotion when she was befriended by her boss’ boss, a division chief named Mike Beckett. After about a year, their interactions took on a different tone. By Rice’s account, Beckett would describe sexual dreams he’d had about her and comment on her body. When they texted about work, he responded with crass double entendres. He cornered her in the office, followed her into the bathroom, and tried to touch her or lift her shirt. She said he groped or touched her inappropriately at least 20 times.

Even when she was out in the field, Rice felt as if there was no escape. Sometimes Beckett would wait late for her to return to the office. He took to radioing in to ask her location and seemed to monitor the line for word of her whereabouts: He’d appear, unannounced, when she was in some remote location—say, a tower lookout high in the Sierras. “He was paying a lot of attention to an employee three to four pay grades below him, which is uncommon,” recalled Rice’s former direct supervisor, who still works at the Forest Service. “He was constantly going around me.”

It became so uncomfortable that Rice stopped calling in her location—a significant safety risk. Eventually, Beckett arranged for her to be moved out of the office she shared with a colleague and into a room on her own. It was more of a storage area, recalled the former supervisor, tucked in the back of the building. During this time, her oversight duties were stripped from her one by one, Rice later said in a signed affidavit, and the former supervisor confirmed in an interview. (Beckett declined to answer any questions, and the Forest Service said it couldn’t comment on specific allegations.)

Still, Rice was reluctant to take formal action. She didn’t want to be “one of those women,” she explained. “You don’t cry in front of the guys, you don’t show weakness in front of them. And you don’t file. You just don’t file. You suck up and deal.” But one day in 2011, she said, after three years of harassment, Beckett came into her office and, with a letter opener, poked her repeatedly on her chest, drawing a circle around her nipple. She filed. Randy Meyer, the Eldorado union steward, said he got a phone call from Rice “that scared me to death. She was highly emotional and beside herself.” He told a senior forest manager that he was prepared to alert the police—and “then everybody and his brother got involved in this mess.”

Trump avoided the draft, but called his sex life in the 1980s “my personal Vietnam.” Citing his fear of sexually transmitted diseases, he said, "I feel like a great and very brave soldier.”

(Getty Images, Gregory Pace/Sygma/Corbis, AP Photo/Jack Kanthal.)

Our cover image is based on the famous photograph of President Obama and his national security team watching the Osama bin Laden raid on May 1, 2011. Seated, from left: Chris Christie, Donald Trump, Marshall B. Webb (Assistant Commanding General of the Joint Special Operations Command during the actual raid), Rudy Giuliani, Sarah Palin, Hulk Hogan. Standing, from left: Pvt. Brittany von Gunz, Eric Trump, Sheriff Joe Arpaio, Rick Scott, Bruce Willis, Scott Brown. (Pete Souza/The White House/Getty Images.)

Credits

Story - Andy Kroll
Andy Kroll is a journalist based in Washington, D.C. His work has appeared at National Journal, Rolling Stone, Mother Jones, and The New Republic.
Photo Illustration - Frank Uyttenhove
Frank Uyttenhove is a photographer and film director based in Belgium.
Development & Design - Gladeye
Gladeye is a New Zealand-based digital design agency.
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