It took Air Force veteran and Huber Heights resident Jackie Williams some 25 years to talk about how an Air Force colleague raped her in the late 1980s.
Williams is helping start a local support group for female veterans like her -- those living with the long-simmering trauma of sexual assault -- so others will not have to wait as long as she did.
With the National Alliance on Mental Health of Montgomery County, Williams is working with group's executive director, Michelle Maloy-Kidder, to open the group to female veterans who have their own stories to tell.
It's past time women have suffered abuse while in the military were offered a safe haven, Maloy-Kidder and Williams believe.
"There is such a great need for female veterans who have been sexually assaulted in the military," Maloy-Kidder said. "We started looking at that, and I met with Jackie and heard her story. Then we started meeting and talking and getting her perspective as a survivor of MST (military sexual trauma), it became even more clear, the importance of getting this out there, for the public."
The groups offers support, not treatment, she said. Some women are uncomfortable with going to the Dayton Veterans Affairs Medical Center, seeing it as a military facility, she said.
"Some of the females that I know who went through similar incidents, we all needed something on the outside (of the military)," said Williams, today a student at Sinclair Community College. "We're not saying the VA is not a doing special job. They have been really wonderful reaching out to us."
"This is somewhere they can be safe and communicate about what's happened to them, and how it affects their lives now," Maloy-Kidder said.
The problem has received growing attention in recent years. The Pentagon found that about 26,000 incidents of sexual assault and unwanted sexual contact were reported in 2012.
Last month, the U.S. Senate rejected a bipartisan bill to strip military commanders of authority over the prosecution of sexual assault cases. But the Senate did forward a measure that disallowed military rules of evidence to prohibit the accused from using "good character" as a defense in court-martial proceedings.
U.S. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Dayton, became particularly vocal on the issue after the 2007 murder of Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Maria Lauterbach, 20, a Vandalia native who was also eight months' pregnant at the time. Lauterbach was allegedly sexually assaulted by a senior enlisted man, Cpl. Cesar Laurean, in her unit. Even after reporting the assault, Lauterbach was forced to continue serving with Laurean.
In 2010, Laurean was convicted of first-degree murder and other charges. He is currently serving a life sentence without parole at the Pasquotank Correctional Institution, a high-security adult male prison in Elizabeth City, N.C.
Sexual assault is a problem everywhere, but it's especially damaging in the military, Turner said.
"The difference in the military is they have a custodial relationship with their service members," Turner said. "Members don't have freedom of movement."
In the civilian world, a victim can often remove herself from a bad situation, he said. Not so in the armed forces.
Also, the military has its own separate judicial system, Turner said. That judicial system can be influenced by what he called a "denial culture."
"The culture of the military, especially before the Maria Lauterbach case, essentially did not recognize sexual assault as a crime," Turner said.
That is starting to change, in part due to action in Congress, Turner said.
Having to work with an attacker is a problem especially acute in the military, Williams said.
"Some women have been either raped or sexually assaulted by a supervisor and still have to work under that supervisor," she said.
And while women in civilian occupations may turn to a police and justice system they hope to be impartial, those who serve in uniform must turn to a chain of command -- a chain of officers that sometimes is friendly with the accused, Williams contends.
"We should have a third party, that's not involved, to look at each case," she said.
The problem affects men, as well, but this support group is open only to women. Maloy-Kidder said a support group for men is a possibility.