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Senate panel explores links between sex assault, PTSD and suicide

Former Marine Lance Cpl. Jeremiah J. Arbogast and his wife, Tiffany, await the start of a Senate hearing on sexual assault at the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2014.

WASHINGTON — A fellow Marine drugged and raped him but served no prison time after conviction because the court admired the assailant’s 23 years of service, a military sexual assault victim told a Senate committee on Wednesday.

Then it got worse, former Lance Cpl. Jeremiah Arbogast told legislators. He was ostracized at his command and medically retired in 2006 as a result of mental health problems stemming from the attack. Then he was pushed by the Department of Veterans Affairs toward counseling groups full of men damaged by combat trauma.

Among that group, he was afraid to open up about being raped by another man. Suffering from crushing depression and post-traumatic stress, Arbogast felt he had nowhere to turn except suicide.

“I was thrown away like a piece of garbage,” Arbogast testified. “I felt my death would spare my wife, daughter and myself the dishonor the rape brought upon us.”

A self-inflicted gunshot wound left him paralyzed below the waist. But today, Arbogast has a will to live and is determined to get the word out about how military sexual assault — reports of which have been rising sharply in recent years — affects the health and welfare of veterans.

His testimony came in a Senate hearing Wednesday chaired by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., to explore links between military sexual assault, PTSD and suicide.

Reams of studies document increased rates of mental health problems, substance abuse and suicide among sexual assault victims, a panel of Defense Department and VA officials told legislators.

Gillibrand is the driving force behind an effort to fundamentally change the way the military prosecutes serious crimes, in order to shield sexual assault victims from what she and supporters describe as widespread command bias and intimidation.

Currently, Pentagon statistics indicate fewer than 20 percent of victims report sexual crimes.

Gillibrand’s bill, the Military Justice Improvement Act, would take authority over prosecution of cases that could result in more than a year in prison away from commanders, and deposit it with independent military prosecutors.

Another victim, former Pfc. Jessica Kenyon said the current system leaves means victims aren’t just subject to bias from the top commander, but from many levels.

Superiors ranging from sergeants to a lieutenant colonel lied to her and made life miserable after she reported sexual assault, she said.

“It was instance after instance of a failed system in which I became ostracized, singled out, publicly shamed, disciplined for getting treatment and treated as though I was the one who did something wrong,” she said.

A bipartisan majority of senators have said they support Gillibrand’s initiative, but not enough to clear the 60-vote majority needed to bypass a filibuster.

Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., told the two victims he believes commanders must be made to exercise authority in prosecutions responsibly rather than being stripped of it.

“From my point of view, this is a problem that will never be solved if you tell the commander this is no longer your problem,” he said.

Among a number of new measures passed by Congress to help victims is a requirement that prosecution decisions be pushed higher in the chain of command, and that only top service branch officials can decide not to follow recommendations to prosecute.

Powerful members of the Senate Armed Services Committee from within Gillibrand’s own party also side with the Pentagon in opposing the overhaul of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, including committee chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., and Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.

While pointing to numerous changes that have been made to better take care of victims, opponents call Gillibrand’s bill a bridge too far. Stripping commanders of authority would badly impact the maintenance of good order and discipline in the military, they say.

McCaskill has presented statistics from other nations’ militaries that have removed prosecutions from the chain of command, and says doing so has not increased victims’ willingness to report crimes.

The former prosecutor said she believes commanders, who don’t care about military prosecutors’ win-loss ratios, might be more likely to prosecute cases with marginal evidence that professional prosecutors themselves would be.

“There’s a disagreement here,” McCaskill told reporters earlier this month. “We do not believe that her bill will protect victims. We do not believe that it will result in more prosecutions. We do not believe it will increase reporting. And we believe there’s real workability problems in terms of how quickly these cases will be brought to court.”

McCaskill and another opponent of Gillibrand’s bill, Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., told Arbogast they intended to move to prevent military courts from letting troops off lightly in sexual assault cases because of past service records.

“This good soldier defense has no place in determining the outcome of these defenses,” Ayotte said.

Arbogast said Congress must act to change the culture around sexual assault prosecutions.

“The belief system about rape must change with in the armed forces,” he said. “And [it] will only change when the perpetrators are consistently prosecuted and no longer given leniency in their sentencing by their commanders.”

carroll.chris@stripes.com
Twitter: @ChrisCarroll_
 

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