Military soldiers piled in a room waiting for orders.

What’s it like to navigate the rigid hierarchy of the military? How does military culture resist progress?

South Korean Air Force Sergeant Lee Ye-ram’s tragic suicide after a sexual assault ignited public outrage and exposed deep-seated problems in military culture that aren’t unique to South Korea. On an episode of the Rotten Mango podcast, Stephanie Soo discussed the systemic failures highlighted by the case.

Continue reading to learn how Sergeant Lee’s story is a clarion call for reform in military culture.

Military Culture

Sergeant Lee Ye-ram’s tragic death by suicide followed 81 agonizing days after she was sexually assaulted in the South Korean Air Force. Her case exposes severe systemic issues in military culture that enable misconduct.

Sergeant Lee married her fiancé while actively serving—a union stemming from love yet also expedited by military relocation policies for spouses. This practical move briefly uplifted her before the oppressive environment and distress began again.

Navigating Rigid Hierarchy

Known for dedication and discipline, Sergeant Lee attended an aviation specialty high school to achieve her dream of serving, later earning a prestigious rank. But, her aspirations met barriers within the strict military hierarchy, influenced not just by rank but also by subtle factors such as time spent at a base.

Remarkably, despite this system, Sergeant Lee garnered deep respect from subordinates for her leadership qualities—a rare bond across ranks. Yet, nuances around sub-ranks and service time are often lost in English reporting, creating a challenge to fully communicating military complexities internationally.

The immense respect that Sergeant Lee inspired, despite her immense hardship, further fuels the need for meaningful reform in the military, not just in South Korea.

Institutional Failures and the Need for Reform

The military’s response to Sergeant Lee’s assault report was met with criticism for skepticism, delays, and concealment efforts aiming to protect their image—illuminating broader systemic issues. 

Military officials failed to immediately confine the perpetrator, and they engaged in deceitful actions such as falsely claiming that Sergeant Lee’s parents had retracted their statements. This denied Sergeant Lee access to support and illustrated an underlying culture of cover-ups within the institution.

The military police improperly categorized the sexual assault case as petty theft initially. This severe mishandling and downplaying of such a serious crime reflects negligence and lack of urgency toward assault cases in their procedures and mindsets. Also, there are suggestions based on referenced conversations that delays during the investigation might have been deliberate tactical moves to weaken the case over time.

Meanwhile, Sergeant Lee faced intense manipulative pressure from multiple superiors in the chain of command, including high-ranking officers, to try and coerce her to retract her statement. Such inappropriate exertion of influence violated institutional hierarchy and seriously damaged trust.

Despite deeper investigations and indictments following Sergeant Lee’s death, perceived inadequate sentencing fuelled public outrage given the offense’s severity. While the perpetrator confessed during the trial, his lenient punishment offered little consolation to the grieving family.

An Avoidable Tragedy

Podcaster Stephanie Soo contemplated how alternate actions by the military could have protected Sergeant Lee from this tragedy instead of prioritizing image over justice. Her case spotlights the urgent need for a change in military culture to better safeguard servicemembers.


The tragic case involving South Korean Air Force Sergeant Lee Ye-ram has sparked national discussions about protectionism and urgent reform needs within the hierarchical male-dominated military culture. This heartbreaking loss of life illuminates the prioritization of image over justice.

Public outrage towards recent developments in this case continues to mount, driving demands for meaningful change to prevent future tragedies.

Broader questions emerge about accountability and service members’ experiences facing similar cultural challenges and power imbalances. Thorough analysis of bias in shaping investigative and judicial outcomes is warranted.

Exploring perspectives of officials involved might provide insights into flawed decision-making processes. As the public pressures the military through advocacy and policy reform, there’s hope for positive shifts towards safety.

Sergeant Lee’s grieving family continues battling for justice and reform amid deep personal tragedy. The ripple effects of this injustice should remain at the forefront of public consciousness.

Fundamentally, Sergeant Lee Ye-ram’s case underscores the need for cultural and systemic reform of military culture to protect service members from assault and abusive manipulation by those in power. By shedding light on this injustice, we honor her life and prevent future tragedy.

More Perspectives

Sergeant Lee Ye-ram’s tragedy sheds light on troubling issues, but jumping to conclusions about the military’s motives or widespread cultural problems based on one incident would be a mistake. Oversimplifying complex situations can lead to inaccurate accusations and unhelpful solutions.

While concerns about the military’s handling of assault are valid, remember that investigations often begin with limited information. It’s important to be empathetic toward investigators navigating such challenges. Judging an entire institution based on the actions of a few isn’t fair or productive, as organizations are complex and shouldn’t be defined by isolated incidents.

Victim support systems aren’t always perfect, but acknowledging ongoing efforts to improve promotes more constructive dialogue. We need in-depth analysis and comparison before drawing sweeping conclusions about systemic abuse.

Sergeant Lee Ye-ram’s pain is undeniable, but generalizing based on her singular experience can lead to misguided reforms. Honoring her memory requires careful examination of evidence and thoughtful consideration of potential solutions.

Instead of making hardened assumptions, let’s embrace complexity with empathy. Confronting injustice effectively requires constructive dialogue, not knee-jerk reactions. The truth needs compassion to fully emerge.

South Korean Military Struggles to Root Out Sexual Assaults

By Choe Sang-Hun. Oct. 15, 2021. SEOUL—The soldiers were driving back to the South Korean air force base after dinner and drinks on March 2. Master Sgt. Lee Ye-ram was in the back seat.

Women, Regardless: Understanding Gender Bias in U.S. Military

Male soldiers are afraid of lowered physical standards, increased sexual assault and harassment, reduced readiness, and destruction of the masculine military culture of brotherhood. But, much of what’s discussed here goes beyond the thoughts and attitudes about women integrating into jobs in previously closed MOSs.

The military is failing to comply with federal law in sexual assault

Over the course of the investigation, CBS News spoke with nearly two dozen survivors of sexual assault, whistleblowers who worked for the military’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response.

The military’s sexual assault problem is only getting worse

In 2021, 63% of male troops were confident that their chain of command would “treat them with dignity and respect” after reporting an assault, down from 82% in 2018.

Prosecuting Sexual Assault: A Comparison of Charging Decisions

The researchers examined the effect of victim, suspect, and case characteristics on prosecutors’ charging decisions in three types of sexual assault cases: those involving strangers, acquaintances, and intimate partners.

Military Culture: Lee Ye-ram’s Story Is a Clarion Call for Reform

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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