Florida VA program tackles military sex cases
Tampa (Fla.) Tribune
SEMINOLE "Get in the jeep."
Joseph Sebastiano knew it would be bad.
A few days earlier, his sergeant had forced him to have sex in the barracks shower. Now, with the other men in the platoon done for the day, the sergeant told Sebastiano he had "extra duty." His voice drops to a near whisper as he describes what happened next.
More than three decades later, Sebastiano, 54, is finally coming to grips with the attacks in February 1976 at Fort Polk, La. Sitting in the safety of the Center for Sexual Trauma Studies at Bay Pines VA Hospital, Sebastiano talks about his experience as a victim of military sexual trauma and the residential treatment program helping exorcise his ghosts.
There are many like him. An estimated 19,000 troops were victims of rape and sexual assault in the military last year alone, according to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. The Air Force recently released the findings of a series of rapes by drill instructors at its training facility at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas.
And on Friday, military leaders spoke about the problem at a conference in Washington, D.C.
As the military struggles to cope with the problem among active-duty members, the Veterans Health Administration is facing challenges treating the estimated half-million veterans, like Sebastiano, who have experienced military sexual trauma.
A Veterans Affairs inspector general's report released last month found that the VA is not doing a good enough job connecting victims to programs like the one at Bay Pines, which was lauded in the report for providing training to other centers.
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"He took me to the woods and asked me to perform some calisthenics," Sebastiano says in his thick Brooklyn accent. "When I got down to do pushups, he held a knife to my throat."
Sebastiano is visiting Sue Ann Garrison, who runs the Bay Pines program, housed in a 99-bed building where sexual assault victims live with veterans experiencing substance abuse issues, those suffering combat-related post traumatic stress disorder, and homeless veterans.
"He raped me," Sebastiano says, closing his eyes, "and told me that if I told anyone, they would find my body in the swamps."
Sebastiano says he kept quiet about being forced to perform oral sex in the shower.
"I was afraid," says Sebastiano, who was 17 at the time. "I was afraid of what was going to happen. I was afraid of not being believed."
After the attack in the woods, Sebastiano says, he reported his sergeant, but his commanders didn't believe him and ultimately gave him an honorable discharge. He returned to Brooklyn a different person.
He was angry, detached. He had a quick temper and a short, failed marriage. He drank in binges, was frequently institutionalized in some of New York's most infamous mental hospitals and experienced bouts of homelessness.
About 16 months ago, Sebastiano came to St. Petersburg, seeking treatment after hearing about the Bay Pines program. After a few weeks, however, he took off. He returned to the area in April, entered a homeless housing program for veterans, and entered the Bay Pines residential treatment program in October.
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The Bay Pines program has changed since it became the nation's first residential treatment center for victims of military sexual trauma in 2000, says Garrison, who was an intern when the program began.
Initially, it was only for women, who lived off-campus and were treated in set blocks of time. Now about half of those being treated are men, making Bay Pines one of the few mixed-gender residential programs.
All the patients live on campus and they have a rolling admissions policy, allowing people to stay as long as they need.
"It's very important to make sure we continue to treat both men and women," says Garrison, who left in 2003 and returned six years later to run the program again. "It really is a corrective experience for these folks."
Garrison says that for women, an important step forward that the program provides is learning that not all men are assailants. For men, who struggle with the idea this is not supposed to happen to them, the program gives them a chance to discuss their issues with women.
"They have females in their lives," Garrison says. "A mother, sisters, friends. This gives them an opportunity to really learn to speak about these issues in general."
Investigators found that the Bay Pines program, which has treated about 1,000 victims since its inception, has such a strong reputation that other facilities reach out for training.
Sebastiano says the mental health treatment he has received at Bay Pines for his post-traumatic stress disorder has been important. But recovery, he says, might not be possible without living with other victims.
"It was more important than I gave it credit for," he says. "I am an isolator. I run and avoid. If I were getting this treatment on an outpatient basis, I would have gone home and looked at the walls. I don't think it would have worked out so well."
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Last year, Sen. Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat and chairwoman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, asked the VA's Office of Inspector General to investigate the VA's military sexual trauma treatment program after complaints that women veterans were having a problem getting help.
"The prevalence of MST is deeply disturbing," says Meghan Roh, a spokeswoman for Murray. "Despite the great need, the inspector general found that VA is not fully using its MST-treatment capabilities.
"Much more needs to be done to prevent MST from occurring, and at the same time VA must act quickly to remove the barriers to care the inspector general identified so our veterans can get the care they need."
Murray's concerns are echoed by organizations supporting victims of military sexual trauma.
The inspector general's report "points to a need for the VA to be more active in partnering with community-based groups," says Katy Otto, a spokeswoman for the Service Women's Action Network.
"It also looks like travel and transportation pose a big barrier to accessing services, especially since there are only 14 program sites throughout the country."
"Military sexual trauma has a debilitating effect on hundreds of thousands of our nation's veterans, who face severe obstacles as they re-enter civilian life," says Nancy Parrish, president of Protect our Defenders.
"VA clinics have few resources specifically designed for these veterans, particularly for the men, who therefore often must go to women's health clinics for help. The VA reports 40 percent of those female homeless veterans and 3.2 percent of male homeless veterans who are VHA users, suffer from MST."
VA officials agreed with the recommendation to review existing policy on travel for veterans seeking treatment for military sexual trauma at special programs outside the centers where they are enrolled.
They also agreed to establish a work group to review issues and provide recommendations to the Department of Health by the end of April.
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Concerns about what happened to Sebastiano and thousands of other veterans is reaching a peak.
The Air Force recently concluded an investigation at Lackland Air Force Base that found dozens of women were victimized by drill instructors, many of whom are either now in jail or awaiting trial. Last week, the House Armed Services Committee announced it would hold a hearing on the problems there.
On Friday, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights held a daylong public briefing on the Defense Department's policies and practices concerning sexual assault. Among those scheduled to speak are Maj. Gen. Gary Patton, director of the Pentagon's Sexual Assault Prevention program, as well as the judge advocate generals from each of the services.
Sebastiano knows nothing of the hearings and conferences.
It is less than 24 hours before he will leave Bay Pines, having successfully completed the program. He is more focused on his own future.
"I haven't kept my ear to the ground," he says. "I have been selfish, so consumed with my own trauma and my peers."
Bay Pines, he says, has been a life-changer.
"I have come to grips with most of my issues," Sebastiano says. "I know this is not a magic pill, but me being able to leave this place knowing I am OK with what happened to me and that it was not my fault, was a big hurdle."
Thursday morning, he walked out of Bay Pines.
"I actually stuck it out and didn't have to run," he says. "That's major for me."
Distributed by MCT Information Services