Sex trauma is a big problem in military, says VA

By MIKE TIGHE | La Crosse (Wis.) Tribune | Published: April 6, 2013

TOMAH — Sexual assaults have been a “big, huge” problem in the military that have been grossly underreported, says Dr. Cindy Keene.

“The military comes out with numbers like, for last year, there were 3,000 reports. But their own research shows an estimated 19,000 cases,” said Keene, a psychologist who is military sexual trauma coordinator at the Tomah VA Medical Center.

“When cases were reported, they were not handled by command, or victims were told to forget, or cases were dropped,” Keene said.

The VA has been collecting data on military sex abuse for 10 years. It has found that 1 in 5 women report being victims, compared with 1 in 100 men.

Last year alone, 500 veterans who came to the Tomah VA listed sexual trauma suffered in the military as one of their reasons for seeking services, Keene said.

The Tomah VA is reaching out to victims. Keene will be one of the main speakers at a recovery workshop Monday for both veterans and active service members. The workshop will walk participants through the recovery process and include discussion of therapy techniques.

Keynote speaker will be retired Army Col. Jill Chambers, who says military sexual trauma, commonly called MST, “has been a problem for a very long time. The severity just hasn’t been addressed.”

Until now, she said, “with some really incredible programs working for both men and women and great strides in treatment. The military leadership has a significant outreach program to make a difference.”

She cites the Department of Defense’s Sexual Assault and Prevention Office, which traces its beginnings to 2004 and has established methods for reporting and handling assaults.

MST can range from simple harassment to improper and unwanted touching to actual assault, Keene said. Most victims don’t report incidents while they still are in the service.

“And when they leave the military, they often don’t report it until they come here,” to the VA Medical Center, she said.

Many victims fear being questioned about their morals and testifying in a court-martial, Keene said.

MST is all the more debilitating because it occurs in an environment that is supposed to be based on camaraderie and safety, “a buddy system,” she said.

Treating the trauma

MST is treated under the umbrella of post-traumatic stress disorder, although Chambers eschews the “disorder” label.

Her objection to the term arose when she was working on wounded warrior issues and a soldier told her of his experience during an incident involving massive civilian casualties.

“A dad came in carrying the body of his son, with no head,” she said. The soldier “told me things went downhill from there. He said, ’Sometimes, I wish I could have lost an arm or a leg.’”

Instead, he carried invisible wounds that left him traumatized.

“Calling it a disorder makes me look weak,” the soldier told Chambers. “I don’t have a disorder — there is just something wrong with the way I feel.”

So, Chambers said, “Drop the disorder because it makes people so self-conscious and stigmatized. Having a disorder is the kiss of death in the military.”

Chambers herself developed post-traumatic stress from being at the Pentagon when terrorists slammed a plane into it on Sept. 11, 2001, although she didn’t recognize her trauma for years.

“It followed me around from 9/11 to 2009,” but she attributed her nightmares, stress and lack of sleep to her hectic schedule working for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“I was crazy busy and wasn’t taking care of myself,” she said.

But after she retired in 2009, she said, “I figured this can’t be healthy.”

She learned to use relaxation techniques to help her own recovery.

“I improved my sleep, and nutrition, and focused my activity,” she said. “I’m 54, but I feel like I’m 24.”

Chambers said she did not experience MST during her 28-year career, but her daughter, Army Capt. Gwynn Miller, did.

“My daughter never told me about it” until last year, Chambers said.

Miller found the Defense Department’s outreach program “very helpful, with an open environment to seek help,” Chambers said.

Although Chambers said she does not know the details of her daughter’s case, the program “helped her self image and helped her move on. I was delighted to hear her say this.”

Despite progress, problems persist

Psychologist Keene said the military is improving the way it handles sex abuse. “It is trying very hard, with victim advocates and procedures, but it is a matter of changing a culture,” she said.

Despite successes, Keene said, a case at a U.S. air base in Aviano, Italy, last month showed that problems persist. After a military jury convicted a sergeant of sexually assaulting a house guest, the commanding officer reversed the verdict and restored the officer to duty.

The case prompted outrage among victim advocates and members of Congress, spurring congressional hearings.

Keene said there is some movement to have such cases moved to civilian courts instead of military ones.

Cases like the Aviano reversal are setbacks for MST victims who are struggling with trust issues already, she said.

“A lot of times, people with PTSD will try to avoid danger that may not be realistic,” she said. “They may be withdrawn and have panic attacks.

“We are trying to help them unlock what is safe and decide who you can trust,” she said.


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