Military Sexual Trauma & Women Veterans

BY KATE O’HARE-PALMER

It is a throwback in time, the secrets of some women in the military during the Vietnam era. We gathered in Washington, D.C., to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial last November. We came together to remember, share our stories, and be thankful for our lives. We stood shoulder to shoulder on a cold November night to remember those no longer with us as their names were read. We were grateful for those men and women we worked with. We were grateful for those we healed.

But there were other ghosts who stood there with us that night—ghosts who stood off to the side in our peripheral vision, men we may still feel deep within us. We are hooked deeply enough to still bleed and cry. Even after all these years, their memories are still present, but pushed far back to only wander at night.

Many of the stories aren’t told in public. Many weren’t even shared with spouses, loved ones, or healthcare workers. Maybe not even with tent mates or hooch mates. They weren’t shared in many of the bases around the world where women in service were confronted again and again with the terror of military sexual trauma.

During the Vietnam War Era, if you reported a sexual assault there was no hope that it would be taken seriously. There were rarely repercussions for acts against women. The good-ole-boy military did not discipline a man for behaving like a “normal male.” The stigma about getting raped was so great that victims kept it to themselves. Often women kept quiet so as not to frighten the other women in their units.

Many women were awakened in the night by a man breaking into the hooch, or they woke as they were about to be raped. Guards posted around women’s areas often were paid to look the other way. It was a hazard for a woman to go to the latrine at night alone.

One woman told of her first day in-country in Vietnam when she flew into Da Nang. An officer at the airport offered her a place to rest after more than twenty-four hours of travel. She was assaulted by him, then taken back to the airport. She collapsed and was taken to a hospital and treated, then she went on to her duty station. No charges were made, no questions asked when she reported for duty, and no medical records existed when, years later, she finally went for treatment at a VA hospital for MST.

Carrying a weapon did not guarantee safety, either. The incidence of a higher-ranking man forcing himself on a woman under his command was common. There was no place to lodge a complaint, let alone feel secure. Transferring or exiting the military were the only ways out.

Other issues arose when a gay or lesbian service military member was assaulted. These assaults also were swept away, and serious repercussions existed for those identified as gay or lesbian. Even those thought to be gay or lesbian could be interrogated, harassed, and forced to resign or leave military service. Discharge proceedings often were implemented immediately.

Fear and numbness blocked out everything else. Yet those who were assaulted lived on. They felt “lucky to be alive.” Many did not address the feelings of numbness; sleeping troubles; attention deficit and concentration issues; problems with drugs or alcohol or relationships; health problems such as sexual issues, chronic pain, weight issues, eating problems, stomach or gut problems; anger, depression, or irritability; problems with triggering events; and thoughts of suicide.

Today we see an increased incidence of MST. For the Department of Defense sexual assault includes rape, forcible penetration via threats of death or grievous harm, and wrongful sexual contact without consent. Sexual harassment is not included.

The National Sexual Violence Resource Center (www.nsvrc.org ) claims that there were more than 26, 000 reports—14, 000 by men and 12, 000 by women—of unwanted sexual contact in the military in 2012. Of the 1, 714 cases that qualified for possible disciplinary action, only 594 went to a military court.

DOD estimates that the actual number of assaults is five to six times higher than the number reported.

During 2010, 20 percent of female veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan reported having experienced MST. Researchers noted that these veterans were at four times greater risk of homelessness than civilian women.

And in 2002, one in five active-duty women reported physical and sexual assault by their intimate partners—often partners who were active duty or retired.

These statistics are staggering. Improvements to the system must be made.

Kate O’Hare-Palmer chairs VVA’s Women Veterans Committee. She can be reached at  koharepalmer@vva.org




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