Responding to Military Sexual Trauma: A Long Way to Go


This article originally appeared on the website Women Make News.

May 30th was Military Sexual Trauma Awareness Day.  The issue is starting to get more traction in terms of visibility, Congressional hearings, and acknowledgement from agencies that span a full range of alphabet soup.

On Thursday, May 20th, a morning hearing was held. Healing the Wounds: Evaluating Military Sexual Trauma Issues, was presided over by John Hall (D-NY), Chairman of the Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs, and Michael Michaud (D-ME), Chairman of the Subcommittee on Health.  A series of speakers drawn from veterans’ organizations, networks devoted to women’s health and sexual abuse, and representatives from the Department of Defense and the Veterans Health Administration were present.  They each had five minutes to offer testimony. 

Just three weeks prior on April 29th, Congresswoman Niki Tsongas (D-MA) and Senator John Kerry (D-MA) announced the introduction of the Defense Sexual Trauma Response, Oversight and Good Governance Act (The Defense STRONG Act), a bipartisan piece of legislation.  Hoping to attack Military Sexual Trauma (MST) from the front end of the problem, The Defense STRONG Act will work to strengthen the pre-existing systems to “prevent sexual assaults, and provide support and guidance for victims that do report an incident.”  This would enable those harmed to access a military lawyer in order to fully understand their legal options.  Equally important, it will standardize training guidelines around MST prevention and response across all branches of the services.  When I spoke with Rep. Tsongas by telephone she explained that the act would be part of the Defense Authorization Bill (H.R. 5136), and would put a “system in place patterned after the Equal Opportunity measures.”  She said, “If a victim speaks with a victim’s advocate, it will remain confidential.  It can’t be subpoenaed.”   Tsongas added, “I’m looking forward to making sure this language stays in the bill.”

Witnesses drilled down and pinpointed problems being faced by MST survivors as circumstances presently stand.  A wide range of symptoms, on the physical and emotional continuum, was referenced.  They included: mood disorders, depression, substance abuse, adjustment disorders, hypertension, eating disorders, sexually transferred infections (STI), unplanned pregnancy, self-destructive behaviors, and suicide.  It was noted that 75 percent of homeless female veterans have been sexually assaulted.

A sexual attack is a trigger for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  Susan McCutcheon, The Director of Family Services, Women’s Mental Health and Military Sexual Trauma, Veterans Health Administration (VHA) stated, “MST is an experience, not a diagnosis.  PTSD is the diagnosis.”

The FBI ranks rape as the second most violent crime after murder.  Repeatedly, those testifying underscored that rape is an act of violence, not sexual desire.  It was acknowledged that males in the military are casualties of MST as well as women.

For those assaulted, career goals are disrupted as they face “isolation, retribution, ostracism, and accusations.”  Their situation becomes untenable, as they must continue to live and work in close proximity with their attackers.  As Helen Benedict, author of The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq, testified, “some 90 percent of victims never report assaults within the military because the culture is so hostile to them.”  She explained how the victim is treated like a perpetrator, and in addition to not being believed, “they are intimidated out of pursing justice.”

Phyllis Greenberger, President and CEO of the Society for Women’s Health Research, told the committee that “women are the fastest growing sector of VA patients,” with “15 percent of women serving in Iraq and Afghanistan experiencing sexual assault or harassment.”  23 percent of the women using the VA services have reported MST, yet half of all cases go underreported. Jennifer Hunt, Project Coordinator, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, observed that the “majority of assailants are older and of a higher rank than their victims.” It is recognized that those who get immediate full care do the best.  Yet when women feel re-traumatized in their efforts to get help and in navigating the system, it makes moving forward problematic.

There was no lack of suggestions on how the situation could be improved. At the top of the list was the need to eliminate mixed-gender care settings. Creating separate facilities was put forth as the optimum goal.   Using a civilian rape crisis model, which is not geared to a predetermined agenda, was another proposal.  Women report a dearth of properly trained personnel, with those in counseling positions resorting to what has been termed “pills and pep talks” (despite the fact that women are not responding well to commonly prescribed medications).

Benedict put forth promoting more women and distributing them across the forces to eliminate isolation, and rejecting recruits with a history of sexual violence. Greenberger dryly offered, “No victim should have to chase after their own care.”

Scott Berkowitz, President and Founder of RAINN (Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network) sited a lack of “institutional support, leadership commitment and resources” to fix the problem and a commitment by base commanders and Pentagon Brass to “zero tolerance and routine prosecutions.”  He did, however, comment on the progress that has been moved forward under the auspices of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO), which was established in 2005 by the Department of Defense “to function as a single point of accountability and oversight for sexual assault policy.”

Kay Whitley, the Director of SAPRO, addressed prevention through training, treatment, support of victims, and system accountability.  She related that during the past three years, reports of sexual assaults had increased by 10 percent annually.  Whitley broke the best-case protocol down into “care, reporting, response, and tracking.”

Getting appropriate and timely medical care is only part of the problem.  Steering PTSD claims through the system is formidable, and often exacerbates the original trauma.  Joy J. Ilem, Deputy National Legislative Director for Disabled American Veterans, was very clear about the obstacles. She informed those in attendance, “to receive disability compensation from an MST-related condition…the standard of evidence is stricter than for combat injuries, or even for military occupational injuries. She characterized veterans’ compensation claims for disabilities resulting from MST as “an uphill battle for VA Disability Compensation,” explaining that “if an assault is not reported by the victim during his or her military service, establishing service connection later on for disabling conditions related to MST can be daunting.”

The different aspects of reporting an attack and trying to receive benefits are complex at best. Bradley G. Mayes, Director, Compensation and Pension Service, Veterans Benefits Administration, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, offered that there was “room for improvement, but we have taken steps.”  However, many concerns have to be taken into account, particularly as confidentiality is a paramount concern.

I contacted Thom Wilborn, a spokesman for Disabled American Veterans, to speak further about the two options for filing an MST report, via a Victim Reporting Preference Statement DD FORM 2910. He clarified the two different types of reports that service members can file after an attack.

  • Unrestricted Reporting – Reporting a Crime which is Investigated
  • Restricted Reporting – Confidentially Reporting a Crime which is not Investigated

A restricted report allows the victim to receive health care services, but the paperwork does not enter the realm of an official charge – thereby protecting the privacy of the victim.  It does not involve the chain of command.  In an unrestricted report, all records become public.  The information goes out to the commanding officer and division commander for a formal investigation.

A problem arises when a service member, who wants to apply for PTSD benefits and has filed a restricted report, can not get their records from one department agency to another.  Wilborn told me, “There needs to be a way to report MST and be able to advance it to whatever point the service member wants.”  He made clear that the report should be able to remain confidential, while simultaneously recorded in a way to be available for disability claims. The DAV’s primary concern is that the Department of Veteran’s Affairs be able to access restricted Department of Defense Documents.

Following the testimony, I contacted two of the invited presenters.  Jennifer Hunt, Project Coordinator, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, believed that “good steps have been made, but more must be done.”  She specifically pointed to “inter-operability” encompassing improved communication between the Department of Defense and the Veterans Administration.  She remarked on how many people were in attendance for the hearing, and lamented that that there was no time for follow up questions due to the President of Mexico’s visit.

When I spoke with Anuradha K. Bhagwati, Executive Director of Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN) and former Marine Captain, she was quite concise in her evaluation of how things stand and what needs to be done.  She said, “The Veteran’s Benefit Administration (VBA) simply does not understand how traumatic it is for an MST survivor to file a claim for compensation. The Veteran’s Administration (VA) is coming from a theoretical place.  Their system is great on paper. The VA has made overtures, but their claims officers are poorly trained.  The system is broken.  Even if victims submit evidence of trauma, it’s not enough. The VA has not been able to get up to speed.  Their services work for some people, but they are in the minority. We need people to come forward in order to prosecute offenders, but right now DOD cannot guarantee the safety of survivors. Most commanders do not handle complaints responsibly. The fact of the matter is that survivors are not sufficiently protected.

There seems like a giant abyss.  It doesn’t seem like VA is talking to MST survivors or MST advocates. MST is best understood by MST orgs (VETWOW, stopmilitaryrape.org, militarysexualtrauma.org). SWAN is advocating for third party oversight. We believe a long-term solution is to apply Title VII of the Civil Rights Act to the military.  Service members need to have the option to sue the military, if the military doesn’t protect them. Without that, commanders have no incentive to protect survivors. The Defense STRONG Act deals with the current system as we have it. It will fix some really broken pieces of the SAPRO reporting system, but it only deals with part of the problem.”

At the conclusion of Bhagwati’s testimony, she paid homage to the women from previous generations who had “suffered at the hands of fellow servicemen decades ago” – with their ordeals still yet to be recognized.  She read into the record the request of a Vietnam-era veteran who had survived MST.

The sentence was a clear but simple appeal.  “Please help me feel validated before I die.”


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  • ahunt

    Finally…lip service.

     

    My “Kid” just got back from Iraq…and she is taking her 20K and getting out, disillusioned, disgusted and contemptuous of the superiors who ignored the harassment. This is a girl who wrestled in high school, volunteered for service, scored expert/ with her sidearm, led missions and connected w/ the locals. She never saw “rape” but her experience taught her that the women who claim assault are to be believed.

    My heart broke for her…but she is moving on…

     

  • vld

    I was the victim of MST 18 years ago.  I was gang raped by 4 military men when I was 18 years old.  I was too ashamed and humiliated to report it, I felt so alone.  I tried to just “forget it.” That really doesn’t work.  I have developed PTSD and battle depression. I am finally getting treatment at the VA.  I am hoping for a normal second half of my life.

    This issue needs alot more attention.  It is a wide-spread problem.  Someone who serves their country soes not deserve this kind of treatment.  There should be education to prevent this and to let people know what to do if they become a victim.

    Maybe if I had known who I could turn to, I would have gotten the help I deserved at that time.

  • 84thengineers

    I was summoned to attend the referenced hearing above and heard the testimony first hand.  The most glaring of inaccuracies was that men are not being represented as survivors of sexual harassment, assault, nor rape.  The military very seriously dropped the ball in not conducting even so much as a superficial investigation and therefore has perpetuated this scandal to now encompass.  Seven Sarasota Florida teens as victims of sodomy as Junior ROTC Cadets.  What makes this even more grievous is that I reported this very same individual 20 years prior, while I got the boot he got a predatory environment to select new victims every 13 weeks as the Basic Training cycles changed.  I am working on the above legislative wording to ensure that inadvertent loop hole do not manifest themselves in the final markup of the Bill’s.  vld, I fully understand all which you describe, it took me 20 years of dealing with the loss of my military and biological families as a result of this.  The catalyst which turned me advocate was when SFC Demetrius Busby was inadvertently stumbled upon during a facebook search and I spoke with the detective who brought the charges and conducted the investigation and he beyond a shadow of a doubt believe’s there are MANY more victims out there as Busby was stationed in 13 geographic locales around the nation!  Had CID done their job and my Command shown an iota of concern for me this predator would not have gone on to hurt anyone else.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MpcNyy0H26A  by the way until I read another individuals blog, I never even heard the term MST nor was I aware that when I was hopeless with despair and suicidal help was at the VA and they were obligated to see me.  This needs to become a major media blitz and ensure that Veteran’s and active and reserves are aware there even is such a thing.  That’s a good first step in gathering accurate numbers of victims.

     

    Sincerely and with a new sense of hope

    Jamey Michael Harding

    United States Army Veteran, E-2

  • faultroy

    Those of you reading these bits of misinformation would be wise to Google the DoD (Department of Defense’s) Annual Report to Congress for 2009.  As the author clearly knows, Congress requires the DoD to report on Sexual Assaults on an Annual basis.  The report contradicts a lot of the comments made by the author in terms of services available to women that have been subject to a sexual assault.  Furthermore, the idea of allowing a soldier to meet with a victim advocate, and allowing the information to remain confidential and that it cannot be supoenaed is a violation of military protocol.  This cannot be allowed as the discussions may involve discrepencies in affidavits or testimony that could prove crucial to an individual soldier’s defending himself of herself.  It is further interesting that according to a Stars and Stripes (main military newspaper for armed services) survey,  military men and women both feel this business of accusing the military of rape has gone too far.  Just as in civilian life, 95% of sexual assaults in the military involve alchohol.  The cold reality is that if women quit binge drinking the number of sexual assaults would decrease by at least 90%.  It is also clear from reading this article that the author believes that women in the military should be treated the same way that the are treated in civilian life.  Perhaps the author is not aware that the military conforms to a different set of legal criterion known as the Uniform Code of Military Justice. While similar to our civilian Constitution, there are enough variables to note that the same rules do not always apply.  The DoD’s Report indicates that in slightly less than 50% of the accusations, there is either insufficient evidence to prosecute  or the charges are without merit.  As an exMarine, I can categorically say that there is no truth to the charge that women are routinely sexually assaulted. As a matter of fact my personal experience was the opposite.  Women Marines were far more sexually aggressive than males.  Now I realize this is just one person’s personal experience, but the author seems to have no problem pulling out  anecdotal stories as representative of the Military Culture.  I find it odd that the author is such an advocate of the rights of military women, but the one thing that she should advocate for– to stop drinking–she apparently cannot bring herself to promote.  Joining the military is not a right–otherwise we would have quadrapelgics enlisting.  This psycho schizophrenia with everyone under the sun (homosexuals included) demanding that they “be allowed to serve their country,” while at the same time screaming about violations of civil rights is literally tearing at the fabric of military culture.  Marines especially are not capable of dealing with the feminist hysteria.  We cannot have women demand to join and then also demand all these bizarre qualifiers in terms of service.  The author at some point should clarify what she means by sexual assault and rape and quit mixing the two.  Sexual assault in the military can be as mild as an inappropriate comment.  And, if you’re a female and you’re whining about the fact that someone made an off color comment, then you know what?  Maybe you’re not the type of person we need to defend our way of life.  Rape in the military today is a buzz word for more civilian Feminist interdiction within the military realm.  This should be a no no.  However we have spineless military supervisors that are only looking out for their own careers as opposed to doing what is in the best interests of the country as a whole. As I have said before, if this ridiculous pandering to the hystrionics of feminists continues, all women will be affected.  There will be a draft because there will not be enough men joining the military because of this psychologically imbalanced culture that is being created by Feminists.  Who wants to be in a military in which you are automatically accused of being a serial rapist because of your gender and you have no say as to who you are allowed to interact with? The author whines about a double standard–that is true–but it is the other way around.  Marines are required to carry about 100lbs of gear, weaponry flak vests etc.  Women on the whole are not physically capable of this standard.  They also fall far short in terms of the minimum requirements of physical conditioning needed for combat.  Initially in order to be more inclusive, women were allowed to train with men.  Today we have found this to be an unmitigated disaster. Women are far more prone to physical injuries than men.  We have further dumbed down the criterion for effective combat personnel, and women have been the main and only reasons for this situation. If we want to continue with our military supremacy in the world, we have to stop coddling these military women and ask them to cowboy up or get out or don’t join.  If we want to stop the number of sexual assaults in the military with need to stop allowing nanny interventions like the author above–who clearly has a vested financial interest in her advocacy–and ask rather for specific actions required of women along with men rather than this constant double standard of blaming military men for the inadequacies of military women.  If we are asking to allow military women to be treated equally–well then let’s treat them that way, by asking them  to conform to the same standards as we expect men to conform to.  And that standard is that if you are assualted, then the very least that we can expect of you is to open your mouth and say something.  Whining about the fact that your  alone and scared is fine for a little girl, but by signing up to become a soldier you signed to act like one.  If you’re too frightened to open your mouth when someone attacks you, what does that say about your training as a soldier?  Who wants to depend on the abilities of another service person if you’re too frightened and stupid to even advocate for yourself?  You can’t have it both ways:  either there is an inordinate amount of rape going on in the military, in which case if nothing else than to show mercy and concern to these unfortunate women, we stop allowing them to join.   Or, the rape incidence is very low, in which case we need to move on and concentrate on effective combat tactics rather than allowing outside agitators to constantly conspire to  require the military to conform to their  own standards and agenda. Please note that the author above may as well be writing an article for Cosmopolitan.  No statistical evidence, no numbers, just anecdotal “…a lot of…”  “some of…” …kind of…”  And this just reinforces my comment about the dumming down of the conversation.  All this author does is play at the heartstrings with no viable and proactive ways of overcoming this problem.  Everything she talks about is how to make the “survivor feel better.”  I on the other hand would like to see someone talk about resolving the problem.  And that is the difference in focus between a man and a woman.  All this author wants to do is throw more whining and caring–and money– to the “victim” rather than make the victim take control and resolve  the problem  and not to happen again.  The only  statistical information the author manages to quote in the entire article is the one alluding to the fact that 75% of homeless women have been sexually assaulted.  Yeah, this may seem very hard for the author  to believe, but the number of civilian homeless women that have been sexually assaulted is even higher–about 99%–and do you know why?  Well, when people talk to themselves, live in a cardboard box  under a bridge and hang out with drunks, druggies and the mentally ill, usually if you have a Vagina, you’re going to be  SEXUALLY ASSAULTED!!!!!  And if you like you can blame it on the Patriarchy–why not? every other feminist does!!!  At no point has there been a study on this subject constructed by the military or even feminist advocates.  At the very least, rather than parade a victim in front of Congress, perhaps these advocates need to  poll military women and find out just how serious this is. Surveys that have been conducted indicate that those individuals crying are the ones that fail to maintain proper decorum and are literally skirting military norms of conduct.  But of course if we did ask these military women just what the hell is going on and how MILITARY WOMEN WOULD LIKE TO SEE THE PROBLEM RESOLVED, then what would these indomitable advocates of the poor wittle military “survivors,” do with themselves  when female soldiers only have rifles,  machine guns, grenades, anti-tank weaponry, flak vests and 9mm handguns to protect themselves with?  

    • justlikeme

      Its the side of solution.  I had the honor of being the last cycle of WAACs trained and commanded by Women for basic trainning and one of the first women to qualify with weapons training (Expert).   I was witnessed to the recruits behind us with men as cadre.  The issue of impleminting RA Regualar Army for women disrupted the delicate balance that had developed in our Military.  The issues of Sexual Trauma were miniscule because it was handled in its own way.  Women were protected back in my grandfathers time, and if there were any violent acts against any women it was handled. Of course “if she came forward within her own cadre, her commander handeled the issue.” When we lost that protection, we became prey.  And literatly it has taken over 35 years to approach this issue head on.  The damage path is great!!! What was everyone thinking back then!!!  What was I thinking!!! That I was going to be some pioneer!!!!

      Only now do I see how I could become that pioneer.  Not to remain silent!

  • prochoiceferret

    The cold reality is that if women quit binge drinking the number of sexual assaults would decrease by at least 90%.

    It’s almost like those women are raping themselves, isn’t it?

    As an exMarine, I can categorically say that there is no truth to the charge that women are routinely sexually assaulted.

    Of course there isn’t. Sure, sometimes women might struggle a bit, and they might get all cute and say “no,” but that’s just the way the game is played, y’know?

    This psycho schizophrenia with everyone under the sun (homosexuals included) demanding that they “be allowed to serve their country,” while at the same time screaming about violations of civil rights is literally tearing at the fabric of military culture.

    Kind of like how the Civil Rights Movement tore at the fabric of Southern culture, I guess.

    Marines especially are not capable of dealing with the feminist hysteria.

    Semper fi… but God save us from a woman who demands to be treated with respect!

    Sexual assault in the military can be as mild as an inappropriate comment.

    No, you’re thinking of “sexual harassment.” But that’s okay; rapists often tend to conflate the two, since they tend to get in trouble with both.

    And, if you’re a female and you’re whining about the fact that someone made an off color comment, then you know what?  Maybe you’re not the type of person we need to defend our way of life.

    That’s funny! I feel the same way about males who don’t treat their female peers with respect (especially the whole “not raping them” part).

    Who wants to be in a military in which you are automatically accused of being a serial rapist because of your gender … ?

    Not many. But then, no one is advocating for this, so it’s kind of neither here nor there.

    We have further dumbed down the criterion for effective combat personnel, and women have been the main and only reasons for this situation.

    Really? I thought that had to do with enrollment numbers going down due to few people wanting to get shipped out again and again to Iraq. (“You’re a convicted felon? No problem, Uncle Sam wants you!”)

    If we are asking to allow military women to be treated equally–well then let’s treat them that way, by asking them  to conform to the same standards as we expect men to conform to.

    I’m sure they’ll be happy not to sexually assault their male peers, if the courtesy is reciprocated.

    And that standard is that if you are assualted, then the very least that we can expect of you is to open your mouth and say something.  Whining about the fact that your  alone and scared is fine for a little girl, but by signing up to become a soldier you signed to act like one.  If you’re too frightened to open your mouth when someone attacks you, what does that say about your training as a soldier?

    Does that training include anything about relying on your CO to effectively address personnel issues that affect you?

    either there is an inordinate amount of rape going on in the military, in which case if nothing else than to show mercy and concern to these unfortunate women, we stop allowing them to join.

    How very merciful and concernediful of us.

    Or, the rape incidence is very low, in which case we need to move on and concentrate on effective combat tactics rather than allowing outside agitators to constantly conspire to  require the military to conform to their  own standards and agenda.

    The fiends!

    And this just reinforces my comment about the dumming down of the conversation.

    Your comment was certainly reinforced, although not in the way you think.

    But of course if we did ask these military women just what the hell is going on and how MILITARY WOMEN WOULD LIKE TO SEE THE PROBLEM RESOLVED, then what would these indomitable advocates of the poor wittle military “survivors,” do with themselves  when female soldiers only have rifles,  machine guns, grenades, anti-tank weaponry, flak vests and 9mm handguns to protect themselves with? 

    Yes, the conversation doesn’t get much dumber than someone non-ironically proposing a Jerry Bruckheimer solution to a real-world problem.

  • crowepps

    either there is an inordinate amount of rape going on in the military, in which case if nothing else than to show mercy and concern to these unfortunate women, we stop allowing them to join. 

    It would solve the problem for women enlistees, but having the male soldiers go back to the earlier tradition of raping the women in the civilian populations they are ‘liberating’ does create other problems.

  • catseye71352

    There are just not words to describe this woman-hating vermin.

  • crowepps

    I believe the Marines would be ashamed to hear he’s on here using his FORMER association with them to blame the victims for joining the military because they should have known that would result in them being raped by their fellow service members.

     

    By the way, did you know that the military in both Iraq and Afghanistan are strictly forbidden from access to alcohol, which makes it a little hard to figure out how ALL those women could be binge-drinking.

  • colleen

    Faultroy’s just a poorly raised 15 year old punk ass troll  who likes to anger women because he finds it helps his hobby of self stimulation.

    For real hatred of women look at the adult Catholic males who claim to speak for ‘The Unborn”

  • amyc

    Your rants are becoming more and more ridiculous. When are people going to stop blaming the victims? For God’s sake, this is the 21st century. I think you completely forgot the part in the article where it says that men are victims of sexual assault/rape too. And the part that lists sexual assault/rape as a violent crime. Should we blame the men who are raped as well? Should we tell those men that they never should have joined in the first place? I used to think that you were just misinformed, now i just see that you’re disgusting. I’m sorry, I almost never use ad-hominem attacks, but in this case I think it fits. Now I feel bad for wasting my time researching and thinking through any of my other responses to your rants.