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Non-Clinical Topics

Legislators Express Outrage Over Military Sexual Trauma Issues Subhead: Senator Describes Her Experience as Air Force Rape Victim

by Stephen Spotswood

April 8, 2019

WASHINGTON—A recent survey of the military service academies found that sexual assault has spiked over the last two years, up 50% since 2016. This news sparked fresh outrage from legislators, resulting in a hearing focusing on how military sexual trauma is dealt with across the military services.

It also resulted in one legislator—Sen. Martha McSally (R-AZ)—testifying about her own experience as a victim of rape by a superior officer while serving in the Air Force. McSally, who served in the USAF from 1988 to 2010, was a fighter squadron commander and one of the first women to fly in combat missions.

“During my 26 years in uniform, I witnessed so many weaknesses in the processes involving sexual assault prevention, investigation and adjudication,” McSally told the witnesses and her fellow committee members last month. “The perpetrators abuse their position of power in profound ways, and in one case I was preyed upon and then raped by a superior officer. I stayed silent for many years. But, later in my career, as the military grappled with scandals and their wholly inadequate responses, I felt the need to let some people know that I, too, was a survivor.

Sen. Martha McSally spoke with supporters at the announcement of her U.S. Senate campaign at the Swift Aviation Hangar in Phoenix, AZ. She recently discussed at a congressional hearing how she was raped by a fellow officer in the Air Force. Photo by Gage Skidmore

“I was horrified how the attempt to share generally my experiences were handled. I almost separated from the Air Force at 18 years over my despair. Like many victims, I felt the system was raping me all over again. But I didn’t quit. I decided to stay and continue to serve and fight and lead.”

This retraumatization—where the initial trauma of the sexual assault is exacerbated by the system through which victims must work to get medical and legal help—is a long-acknowledged reason many sexual assaults are never reported. It was echoed by other MST survivors testifying at the hearing.

Navy Lt. Commander Erin Elliott said she was raped by another officer in 2014. The retaliation she suffered, both active and passive, from her fellow officers following the incident would have driven her from the Navy, had she not been under contract, she said.

“When I moved to my new duty station overseas to be the commanding officer of a warship myself, it was made immediately apparent to me that the fact that I was a sexual assault survivor was a burden and inconvenience to my bosses,” Elliott testified. “The upcoming court martial to the person who raped me was just a hindrance.”

This kind of experience is hardly uncommon, explained Col. Don Christenson, a retired Air Force chief prosecutor and president of Protect Our Defenders, a national organization providing free assistance to military sexual trauma survivors.

“Over 60% of survivors who report [their assault] openly suffer retaliation that is often career-ending,” Christenson explained. “In 2016, the DoD Inspector General found that one-third of women who report are out of the military within a year of reporting, typically within seven months. They are also much more likely to receive a lower discharge characterization depriving them of benefits such as the GI Bill.”

Who Decides to Prosecute?

While everyone at the hearing—survivors, legislators and DoD officials—agreed that the military has a long way to go in dealing with MST in its academies and in its ranks, there were disagreements as to whether prosecutorial decisions should continue to rest with commanders or should instead be handed to military prosecutors. Currently, the criminal justice system provides commanders, rather than military prosecutors, the power to decide whether to pursue criminal charges in a case involving sexual assault.

The survivor-advocate organizations, MST survivors on the witness panel, and some legislators argued that such decisions should be handed to legal professionals.

“We’re not making you less responsible. We’re taking one thing off your to-do list that you’re not very good at,” Sen. Kristen Gillibrand (D-NY) told DoD representatives. “Your job is to make sure the crimes don’t get committed, that they get investigated properly and that there’s no retaliation.”

Officials representing the services, as well as McSally, argued that servicemembers deserve commanders who can not only lead them into battle but also protect and advocate for them at home.

“We must educate, select and then further educate commanders who want to do the right thing but are naive to the realities of sexual assault,” McSally said. “And if the commander is the problem or fails in his or her duty, they must be removed and held harshly accountable.”

While that might be the optimal solution, it was one that has faced considerable cultural barriers that have commanding officers frequently placing MST at a lower priority level than it deserves, Gillibrand noted.

Describing a recent investigation at a major military base, she tallied off a laundry list of ignored regulations and poor treatment of MST survivors. Those included:

  • Commanding generals not attending the required management group meetings where sexual assault cases were discussed in detail;
  • Professional training on sexual assault conducted on an ad hoc basis and not documented in training records;
  • The use of obsolete and incomplete forms explaining sexual assault survivors of their rights; and
  • A brigade sexual assault coordinator position that was left vacant for nine months.

“This command had undergone an earlier inspection [that identified these problems], yet as far as we know no one was held accountable for these failures,” Gillibrand declared.

Survivor advocates noted that a lot of good work has been done in recent years when MST survivors transition to the VA system, but that much more remains to be done. Speaking at a separate hearing last month, Patricia Hayes, PhD, VA’s chief consultant on women’s health services, testified that VA has greatly expanded its capacity to treat MST survivors in recent years.

“Every VA healthcare system has a designated MST coordinator who can help veterans access MST-related services and programs,” Hayes explained. “Since FY 2007, these efforts have resulted in a 297% increase in the number of women veterans receiving MST-related outpatient care.”

VA now includes a universal screening program for sexual harassment and assault. If a veteran indicates that they have been the victim of either, they are immediately told they can receive free mental and physical healthcare, Hayes explained.

“Services for any mental and physical health conditions related to MST are available for free at every VA medical center, and eligibility is expansive,” she said. “Veterans do not need to have reported their experiences at the time or have any documentation that they occurred and may be able to receive free MST-related care, even if they are not eligible for other VA care.”

Since VA began the screening this past fiscal year, 29.1% of women screened have reported that they were the victims of sexual harassment or assault.

VA also is seeing an increase in the number of those who screen positive opting for treatment, Hayes noted. “Last year, it was 80.8% of our women, and it’s steadily increasing.”

VA also has struggled with its handling of MST cases, most notably on the benefits side. Last fall, a report by VA’s inspector general found that the department had mishandled as many as 1,300 cases of MST-related PTSD. MST coordinators did not make required phone calls to veterans; medical examinations were not requested despite sufficient evidence that one was called for; veterans’ private records were not requested; and veterans’ claims were based on contradictory or insufficient medical evidence.



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