School for Children

Bank Streeter Turned Marine Fights for Justice

Posted by Nick Gray on April 19, 2013

By Sean Piccoli

When Anu Bhagwati, SFC '89, was invited to testify before Congress this year about sexual violence in the U.S. military, it was a breakthrough in work she had begun a decade earlier, and under very different circumstances.

Anu BhagwatiWhile serving as a Marine Corps captain at Camp Lejeune, N.C., in the early 2000s, Bhagwati filed a formal complaint of sexual misconduct against another officer. As she said last month — in televised testimony to a panel of U.S. senators — that initial decision to speak out cost her dearly:

“I was given a gag order ... lived in fear of retaliation and violence from both the offender and my own chain of command, and then watched in horror as the offender was not only promoted but also given command of my company.”

Bhagwati left the Marine Corps in 2004 — “devastated,” she told Congress, “because I loved and still love the Marines.”

Today this alumnus of the School for Children is executive director of the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN). The organization aids members of the armed forces who have endured sexual discrimination, harassment, and violence including rape at the hands of their peers.

The best educations I received were given to me by Bank Street and the Marine Corps.

From Bank Street to Boot Camp

“Victims’ rights advocate” was not a role that Bhagwati had planned for; she was focused on her military career. But a strong concept of social justice that she had absorbed at Bank Street stayed with her as she rose through the Marine Corps ranks.

“I really stuck my neck out a number of times in the Marines, risking my career,” she said in a recent interview. “That’s what I learned from Bank Street: when you see people being hurt, you’re not supposed to stay silent.”

Bank Street to boot camp, she acknowledged, is one of the more non-traditional paths in learning.

“The best educations I received were given to me by Bank Street and the Marine Corps,” Bhagwati says, “and they’re sort of opposite ends of the spectrum.”

But if combat training and drill sergeants were an adjustment for someone nurtured by the School for Children, Bank Street also instilled a sense of self that served Bhagwati well in the Marines.

Anu Bhagwati in uniformAt Bank Street, “I learned to speak up and not feel small,” she said. “And were it not for Bank Street, I don’t know how I would have come out of that shell.”

In the Marine Corps, “I had to remember who I was,” she said. “And that was very hard — after being put down and discriminated against and harassed — to remember, that there was something inside of me that mattered and would last. And that’s what Bank Street taught me.”

Serious work remains for Bhagwati and her colleagues. But their efforts got a boost in April when Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel endorsed a major plank of SWAN’s reform blueprint, calling for commanders to be stripped of their extra-legal power to overturn military court verdicts such as rape convictions.

Compared to a decade ago, Bhagwati said, “The climate has completely shifted both within the military and on Capitol Hill.”


Learn more about Bank Street School for Children alumni.