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Support groups ease suffering of male victims of military sex assaults

One veteran didn't tell his wife for nearly 40 years. Another kept his secret until August, when he broke down and wept in his doctor's office. A third was at a veterans hospital when a social worker asked him: Were you ever sexually assaulted in the military?

"I had a sense that I could trust her. So I said 'Yeah,' " said Greg, 54, a Navy veteran. "I really couldn't believe I said it. My mind was thinking, 'Did you really just say that out loud?' But I was at the point in my life where I really needed help."

In September, social workers at the Lovell Federal Health Care Center in North Chicago organized a support group for men who had been sexually assaulted in the military. Now, every Tuesday morning, 10 men gather to talk about the assaults that, they say, drove many of them from the military and changed the course of their lives, but which, for decades, they never disclosed to anyone.

"I couldn't talk about it," said Larry, 60, an Air Force veteran who said he was opening the door to his barracks room one evening in 1971 when he was pushed inside by two assailants, held down and raped. "Coming into this group, it gets easier to talk, especially when you start to trust people."

A series of high-profile military scandals led to reforms last year in the way the Pentagon handles reports of rape within the ranks.

Yet amid the congressional hearings and calls for change, advocates say a little-known fact has gotten lost: Thousands of men in the military are victims of sexual assault.

Women in the service are assaulted at a much higher rate than men. But because far more men than women serve in the military, the sheer number of male victims is greater. According to Defense Department estimates, about 13,900 men in 2012 experienced unwanted sexual contact, which includes rape and other types of assault. That compares with about 12,100 women.

"It's a hidden, large army of men," said Michael Miller, director of the 2013 documentary "Justice Denied," which helped raise awareness about the issue. "Some are coming forward. But it's like a tiny leak in the dam."

Group formed

At Lovell Federal Health Care Center, the idea for the men's support group took root in July when a social worker, Delia De Avila, was watching a televised congressional hearing over her lunch break. A broad-chested Navy veteran took the stand that day and choked back emotion as he talked about his experience as a survivor of sexual assault. He complained bitterly that programs at the Veterans Health Administration were designed primarily for women. The testimony deeply moved De Avila, who is in charge of programs at Lovell to help sexual assault victims.

"What are we doing wrong?" she recalled thinking. De Avila knew that men made up about one-third of the approximately 400 veterans at Lovell who receive care related to sexual assault. Though there were three support groups for women, no one had started a group for men.

And so, De Avila and a co-worker, Diane Johnson, began to inquire among their male patients as to whether they would attend a support group. It was an uncertain proposition. Studies show that men who are sexually assaulted are far less likely to tell anyone -- including friends, spouses and authorities -- and far less likely to seek counseling and medical care. But by the end of the summer, De Avila had found four men who were willing to meet: two in their 50s, one in his 60s and another in his 20s.

Group therapy, De Avila knew, could be a powerful force for healing. "They are able to hear one another's stories," she said. "That connection is critical. Even as clinicians, we can't give them what they can give to each other."

On a September morning, the men gathered for the first time in an out-of-the-way conference room where the pale-green walls were decorated with bucolic watercolor paintings. The mood was tense, the men recalled. They stared silently at the table, careful not to make eye contact.

But, for each of the men, there was a power in simply walking into the room.

Two of the men were stunned to realize that they knew each other. "What really surprised me was who this had happened to," said Greg, who like the other men featured in this article agreed to be interviewed on the condition that the Tribune identify them by first name only. "I would always say, 'Why me?' "

Seeing the faces around the table, he said, made him realize that there were others like him.

For Larry, the Air Force veteran who was attacked in his barracks, "it was good seeing someone I knew. It was a relief really."

All of the men had struggled with addictions that, they say, helped numb the pain and blur the memories of their assaults. Two had served time in prison, one for drug charges and the other for burglary and theft, according to records. All had struggled with issues of trust and intimacy. Now, they gathered in a room to figure out if their problems might have to do with the secret they had carried for so long.

"I had pushed it away and smothered it for so many years that I thought I forgot about it, but I didn't forget about it. It came out in other ways," Greg said.

Awareness grows

The group at Lovell was one of many signs of a sea change in how the Department of Veterans Affairs treats male victims of sexual violence. When Congress in 1992 first authorized the VA to provide care for victims of sexual assault, the legislation referred only to women and made no mention that men can be victims too, according to Margret Bell, director of sexual trauma education and training at the VA.

In addition, programs for victims of sexual assault were, for years, run by the VA's women's health office -- a fact that, critics say, marginalized the experiences of male victims. In 2006, in an effort to become more inclusive, those treatment programs were brought under the umbrella of a more gender-neutral mental health services program.

In more recent years, VA officials say, they have doubled their efforts to reach out to male survivors. "I don't want a man to walk into a VA facility and think that the VA doesn't know that (sexual assault) happens to men," said Bell. "So often our men think they're the only one. They think it's their fault."

To combat that assumption, VA officials last year began circulating a new poster about sexual trauma. In it, seven people stand beside the words: "You're not alone in recovering from military sexual trauma." The people are of all races, and ages. What's more, three are men.

That gender balance was critically important to Bell, who said: "We wanted to make sure that men saw themselves in the poster. We also really wanted a poster that had a positive tone to it, a poster that acknowledged the difficulty of this issue while also giving people a sense that recovery is possible."

At the VA, a veteran is not required to have reported or documented an assault to receive care, Bell said. Since 2000, every veteran who comes to a VA is asked in an intake evaluation whether he or she was sexually assaulted in the military. In many cases, veterans are asked more than once because officials know that victims -- and male victims especially -- aren't likely to disclose their history the first time they are asked.

Women in the military are more likely to be the victim of sexual assault, according to the Defense Department. Roughly 6 percent of active-duty women experienced unwanted sexual contact in 2012, compared with 1 percent of men. But because there are many more men than women serving, those percentages translate to a greater number of male victims.

"Men are raised with this idea of being strong, of what it means to be a man," Bell said. "Certainly the idea of victimization is dramatically at odds with that. Often men talk about feeling 'less of a man.' There is a reluctance to speak up in the first place, out of identity reasons and out of a sense of disbelief. 'How did this happen to me?' "

A critical tool

At Lovell, the men's support group has grown from four to 10 men in six months. Those who attend say the group has become a critical tool in their recovery.

Greg was a 17-year-old seaman apprentice serving on a Navy warship in 1977 when he was awoken in the middle of the night, led to an isolated area and attacked by a superior officer and another shipmate, he said. He had been in the Navy for less than six months and had hoped to make the military his career. Instead, he went AWOL, trying to escape the ship, he said.

He left the Navy after three years and didn't tell anyone about the attack. Now, he said, he has found comfort in the support group.

"I can honestly say now that I look forward to coming. I've gained that much trust. I can share with them," Greg said. Still, he struggles with relationships -- always keeping people at a distance -- and even decades after the attack, feels a palatable sense of rage toward his attacker.

"I would like to kill the person who did it to me, without hesitation," he said.

The other men nod their heads and murmur in agreement.

"What would be very difficult to explain to a stranger is very easy to get across here," said Jay, 58, who said he was assaulted in 1974 when he was a petty officer serving on a Navy ship that supplied submarines.

"I can say things that I can't say in one-on-one therapy. It goes back to this commonality. These guys know. It's like an unspoken brotherhood. And I really didn't think I would find that.' "

cmastony@tribune.com

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