Responding to Military Sexual Trauma: A Long Way to Go

Marcia Yerman

May 30th was Military Sexual Trauma Awareness Day.  The issue is starting to get more visibility in the press, Congressional hearings, and from key government agencies.

This article originally appeared on the website Women Make News.

May 30th was Military Sexual Trauma Awareness Day.  The issue is starting to get more traction in terms of visibility, Congressional hearings, and acknowledgement from agencies that span a full range of alphabet soup.

On Thursday, May 20th, a morning hearing was held. Healing the Wounds: Evaluating Military Sexual Trauma Issues, was presided over by John Hall (D-NY), Chairman of the Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs, and Michael Michaud (D-ME), Chairman of the Subcommittee on Health.  A series of speakers drawn from veterans’ organizations, networks devoted to women’s health and sexual abuse, and representatives from the Department of Defense and the Veterans Health Administration were present.  They each had five minutes to offer testimony. 

Just three weeks prior on April 29th, Congresswoman Niki Tsongas (D-MA) and Senator John Kerry (D-MA) announced the introduction of the Defense Sexual Trauma Response, Oversight and Good Governance Act (The Defense STRONG Act), a bipartisan piece of legislation.  Hoping to attack Military Sexual Trauma (MST) from the front end of the problem, The Defense STRONG Act will work to strengthen the pre-existing systems to “prevent sexual assaults, and provide support and guidance for victims that do report an incident.”  This would enable those harmed to access a military lawyer in order to fully understand their legal options.  Equally important, it will standardize training guidelines around MST prevention and response across all branches of the services.  When I spoke with Rep. Tsongas by telephone she explained that the act would be part of the Defense Authorization Bill (H.R. 5136), and would put a “system in place patterned after the Equal Opportunity measures.”  She said, “If a victim speaks with a victim’s advocate, it will remain confidential.  It can’t be subpoenaed.”   Tsongas added, “I’m looking forward to making sure this language stays in the bill.”

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Witnesses drilled down and pinpointed problems being faced by MST survivors as circumstances presently stand.  A wide range of symptoms, on the physical and emotional continuum, was referenced.  They included: mood disorders, depression, substance abuse, adjustment disorders, hypertension, eating disorders, sexually transferred infections (STI), unplanned pregnancy, self-destructive behaviors, and suicide.  It was noted that 75 percent of homeless female veterans have been sexually assaulted.

A sexual attack is a trigger for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  Susan McCutcheon, The Director of Family Services, Women’s Mental Health and Military Sexual Trauma, Veterans Health Administration (VHA) stated, “MST is an experience, not a diagnosis.  PTSD is the diagnosis.”

The FBI ranks rape as the second most violent crime after murder.  Repeatedly, those testifying underscored that rape is an act of violence, not sexual desire.  It was acknowledged that males in the military are casualties of MST as well as women.

For those assaulted, career goals are disrupted as they face “isolation, retribution, ostracism, and accusations.”  Their situation becomes untenable, as they must continue to live and work in close proximity with their attackers.  As Helen Benedict, author of The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq, testified, “some 90 percent of victims never report assaults within the military because the culture is so hostile to them.”  She explained how the victim is treated like a perpetrator, and in addition to not being believed, “they are intimidated out of pursing justice.”

Phyllis Greenberger, President and CEO of the Society for Women’s Health Research, told the committee that “women are the fastest growing sector of VA patients,” with “15 percent of women serving in Iraq and Afghanistan experiencing sexual assault or harassment.”  23 percent of the women using the VA services have reported MST, yet half of all cases go underreported. Jennifer Hunt, Project Coordinator, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, observed that the “majority of assailants are older and of a higher rank than their victims.” It is recognized that those who get immediate full care do the best.  Yet when women feel re-traumatized in their efforts to get help and in navigating the system, it makes moving forward problematic.

There was no lack of suggestions on how the situation could be improved. At the top of the list was the need to eliminate mixed-gender care settings. Creating separate facilities was put forth as the optimum goal.   Using a civilian rape crisis model, which is not geared to a predetermined agenda, was another proposal.  Women report a dearth of properly trained personnel, with those in counseling positions resorting to what has been termed “pills and pep talks” (despite the fact that women are not responding well to commonly prescribed medications).

Benedict put forth promoting more women and distributing them across the forces to eliminate isolation, and rejecting recruits with a history of sexual violence. Greenberger dryly offered, “No victim should have to chase after their own care.”

Scott Berkowitz, President and Founder of RAINN (Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network) sited a lack of “institutional support, leadership commitment and resources” to fix the problem and a commitment by base commanders and Pentagon Brass to “zero tolerance and routine prosecutions.”  He did, however, comment on the progress that has been moved forward under the auspices of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO), which was established in 2005 by the Department of Defense “to function as a single point of accountability and oversight for sexual assault policy.”

Kay Whitley, the Director of SAPRO, addressed prevention through training, treatment, support of victims, and system accountability.  She related that during the past three years, reports of sexual assaults had increased by 10 percent annually.  Whitley broke the best-case protocol down into “care, reporting, response, and tracking.”

Getting appropriate and timely medical care is only part of the problem.  Steering PTSD claims through the system is formidable, and often exacerbates the original trauma.  Joy J. Ilem, Deputy National Legislative Director for Disabled American Veterans, was very clear about the obstacles. She informed those in attendance, “to receive disability compensation from an MST-related condition…the standard of evidence is stricter than for combat injuries, or even for military occupational injuries. She characterized veterans’ compensation claims for disabilities resulting from MST as “an uphill battle for VA Disability Compensation,” explaining that “if an assault is not reported by the victim during his or her military service, establishing service connection later on for disabling conditions related to MST can be daunting.”

The different aspects of reporting an attack and trying to receive benefits are complex at best. Bradley G. Mayes, Director, Compensation and Pension Service, Veterans Benefits Administration, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, offered that there was “room for improvement, but we have taken steps.”  However, many concerns have to be taken into account, particularly as confidentiality is a paramount concern.

I contacted Thom Wilborn, a spokesman for Disabled American Veterans, to speak further about the two options for filing an MST report, via a Victim Reporting Preference Statement DD FORM 2910. He clarified the two different types of reports that service members can file after an attack.

  • Unrestricted Reporting – Reporting a Crime which is Investigated
  • Restricted Reporting – Confidentially Reporting a Crime which is not Investigated

A restricted report allows the victim to receive health care services, but the paperwork does not enter the realm of an official charge – thereby protecting the privacy of the victim.  It does not involve the chain of command.  In an unrestricted report, all records become public.  The information goes out to the commanding officer and division commander for a formal investigation.

A problem arises when a service member, who wants to apply for PTSD benefits and has filed a restricted report, can not get their records from one department agency to another.  Wilborn told me, “There needs to be a way to report MST and be able to advance it to whatever point the service member wants.”  He made clear that the report should be able to remain confidential, while simultaneously recorded in a way to be available for disability claims. The DAV’s primary concern is that the Department of Veteran’s Affairs be able to access restricted Department of Defense Documents.

Following the testimony, I contacted two of the invited presenters.  Jennifer Hunt, Project Coordinator, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, believed that “good steps have been made, but more must be done.”  She specifically pointed to “inter-operability” encompassing improved communication between the Department of Defense and the Veterans Administration.  She remarked on how many people were in attendance for the hearing, and lamented that that there was no time for follow up questions due to the President of Mexico’s visit.

When I spoke with Anuradha K. Bhagwati, Executive Director of Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN) and former Marine Captain, she was quite concise in her evaluation of how things stand and what needs to be done.  She said, “The Veteran’s Benefit Administration (VBA) simply does not understand how traumatic it is for an MST survivor to file a claim for compensation. The Veteran’s Administration (VA) is coming from a theoretical place.  Their system is great on paper. The VA has made overtures, but their claims officers are poorly trained.  The system is broken.  Even if victims submit evidence of trauma, it’s not enough. The VA has not been able to get up to speed.  Their services work for some people, but they are in the minority. We need people to come forward in order to prosecute offenders, but right now DOD cannot guarantee the safety of survivors. Most commanders do not handle complaints responsibly. The fact of the matter is that survivors are not sufficiently protected.

There seems like a giant abyss.  It doesn’t seem like VA is talking to MST survivors or MST advocates. MST is best understood by MST orgs (VETWOW, stopmilitaryrape.org, militarysexualtrauma.org). SWAN is advocating for third party oversight. We believe a long-term solution is to apply Title VII of the Civil Rights Act to the military.  Service members need to have the option to sue the military, if the military doesn’t protect them. Without that, commanders have no incentive to protect survivors. The Defense STRONG Act deals with the current system as we have it. It will fix some really broken pieces of the SAPRO reporting system, but it only deals with part of the problem.”

At the conclusion of Bhagwati’s testimony, she paid homage to the women from previous generations who had “suffered at the hands of fellow servicemen decades ago” – with their ordeals still yet to be recognized.  She read into the record the request of a Vietnam-era veteran who had survived MST.

The sentence was a clear but simple appeal.  “Please help me feel validated before I die.”


Analysis Human Rights

From Protected Class to High-Priority Target: How the ‘System Is Rigged’ Against Unaccompanied Migrant Children

Tina Vasquez

Vulnerable, undocumented youth who pose no real threat are being stripped of their right to an education and instead sit in detention awaiting deportation.

This is the first article in Rewire’s two-part series about the U.S. immigration system’s effects on unaccompanied children.

Earlier this month, three North Carolina high school students were released from a Lumpkin, Georgia, detention center after spending more than six months awaiting what seemed like their inevitable fate: deportation back to conditions in Central America that threatened their lives.

Wildin David Guillen Acosta, Josue Alexander Soriano Cortez, and Yefri Sorto-Hernandez were released on bail in the span of one week, thanks to an overwhelming community effort involving pro bono attorneys and bond money. However, not everyone targeted under the same government operation has been reprieved. For example, by the time reports emerged that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had detained Acosta on his way to school in Durham, North Carolina, the government agency had already quietly deported four other young people from the state, including a teenage girl from Guatemala who attended the same school.

Activated in January, that program—Operation Border Guardian—continues to affect the lives of hundreds of Central American migrants over the age of 18 who came to the United States as unaccompanied children after January 2014. Advocates believe many of those arrested under the operation are still in ICE custody.

Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Jeh Johnson has said that the goal of Operation Border Guardian is to send a message to those in Central America considering seeking asylum in the United States. But it’s not working, as Border Patrol statistics have shown. Furthermore, vulnerable, undocumented youth who pose no real threat are being stripped of their right to an education and instead sit in detention awaiting deportation. These youth arrived at the border in hopes of qualifying for asylum, but were unable to succeed in an immigration system that seems rigged against them.

“The laws are really complicated and [young people] don’t have the community support to navigate this really hostile, complex system. That infrastructure isn’t there and unless we support asylum seekers and other immigrants in this part of the country, we’ll continue to see asylum seekers and former unaccompanied minors receive their deportation orders,” said Julie Mao, the enforcement fellow at the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild.

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“A Grossly Misnamed” Operation

In January, ICE conducted a series of raids that spanned three southern states—Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas—targeting Central American asylum seekers. The raids occurred under the orders of Johnson, who has taken a hardline stance against the more than 100,000 families who have sought asylum in the United States. These families fled deadly gang violence in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala in recent years. In El Salvador, in particular, over 400 children were murdered by gang members and police officers during the first three months of 2016, doubling the country’s homicide rate, which was already among the highest in the world.

ICE picked up some 121 people in the early January raids, primarily women and their young children. Advocates argue many of those arrested were detained unlawfully, because as people who experienced severe trauma and exhibited symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, generalized anxiety, and depression, they were disabled as defined under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and ICE did not provide reasonable accommodations to ensure disabled people were not denied meaningful access to benefits or services.

Just a few weeks later, on January 23, ICE expanded the raids’ focus to include teenagers under Operation Border Guardian, which advocates said represented a “new low.”

The media, too, has also criticized DHS for its seemingly senseless targeting of a population that normally would be considered refugees. The New York Times called Operation Border Guardian “a grossly misnamed immigration-enforcement surge that went after people this country did not need to guard against.”

In response to questions about its prioritization of former unaccompanied minors, an ICE spokesperson told Rewire in an emailed statement: “As the secretary has stated repeatedly, our borders are not open to illegal migration. If someone was apprehended at the border, has been ordered removed by an immigration court, has no pending appeal, and does not qualify for asylum or other relief from removal under our laws, he or she must be sent home. We must and we will enforce the law in accordance with our enforcement priorities.”

DHS reports that 336 undocumented Central American youth have been detained in the operation. It’s not clear how many of these youth have already been deported or remain in ICE custody, as the spokesperson did not respond to that question by press time.

Acosta, Cortez, Sorto-Hernandez, and three other North Carolina teenagersSantos Geovany Padilla-Guzman, Bilmer Araeli Pujoy Juarez, Pedro Arturo Salmeron—have become known as the NC6 and the face of Operation Border Guardian, a designation they likely would have not signed up for.

Advocates estimate that thousands of deportations of low-priority migrants—those without a criminal history—occur each week. What newly arrived Central American asylum seekers like Acosta could not have known was that the federal government had been laying the groundwork for their deportations for years.

Asylum Seekers Become “High-Priority Cases”

In August 2011, the Obama administration announced it would begin reviewing immigration cases individually, allowing ICE to focus its resources on “high-priority cases.” The assumption was that those who pose a threat to public safety, for example, would constitute the administration’s highest priority, not asylum-seeking high school students.

But there was an indication from DHS that asylum-seeking students would eventually be targeted and considered high-priority. After Obama’s announcement, ICE released a statement outlining who would constitute its “highest priorities,” saying, “Specifically individuals who pose a threat to public safety such as criminal aliens and national security threats, as well as repeat immigration law violators and recent border entrants.”

In the years since, President Obama has repeatedly said “recent border crossers” are among the nation’s “highest priorities” for removal—on par with national security threats. Those targeted would be migrants with final orders of removal who, according to the administration, had received their day in court and had no more legal avenues left to seek protection. But, as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) reported, “recent border entrant” is a murky topic, and it doesn’t appear as if all cases are being reviewed individually as President Obama said they would.

“Recent border entrant” can apply to someone who has been living in the United States for three years, and a border removal applies “whenever ICE deports an individual within three years of entry—regardless of whether the initial entry was authorized—or whenever an individual is apprehended by Customs and Border Protection (CBP),” explained Thomas Homan, the head of ICE’s removal operations in a 2013 hearing with Congress, the ACLU reported.

Chris Rickerd, policy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington Legislative Office, added that “[b]ecause CBP refuses to screen the individuals it apprehends for their ties to the U.S., and DHS overuses procedures that bypass deportation hearings before a judge, many ‘border removals’ are never fully assessed to determine whether they have a legal right to stay.”

Over the years, DHS has only ramped up the department’s efforts to deport newly arrived immigrants, mostly from Central America. As the Los Angeles Times reported, these deportations are “an attempt by U.S. immigration officials to send a message of deterrence to Central America and avoid a repeat of the 2014 crisis when tens of thousands of children from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala arrived at the U.S. border.”

This is something Mao takes great issue with.

“These raids that we keep seeing are being done in order to deter another wave of children from seeking asylum—and that is not a permissible reason,” Mao said. “You deport people based on legality, not as a way of scaring others. Our country, in this political moment, is terrorizing young asylum seekers as a way of deterring others from presenting themselves at the border, and it’s pretty egregious.”

There is a direct correlation between surges of violence in the Northern Triangle—El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—and an uptick in the number of asylum seekers arriving in the United States. El Salvador, known as the murder capital of the word, recently saw an explosion of gang violence. Combine that with the possible re-emergence of so-called death squads and it’s clear why the number of Salvadoran family units apprehended on the southern border increased by 96 percent from 2015 to 2016, as Fusion reported.

Much like Mao, Elisa Benitez, co-founder of the immigrants rights’ organization Alerta Migratoria NC, believes undocumented youth are being targeted needlessly.

“They should be [considered] low-priority just because they’re kids, but immigration is classifying them at a very high level, meaning ICE is operating like this is a population that needs to be arrested ASAP,” Benitez said.

The Plight of Unaccompanied Children

Each member of the NC6 arrived in the United States as an unaccompanied child fleeing violence in their countries of origin. Acosta, for example, was threatened by gangs in his native Honduras and feared for his life. These young people should qualify as refugees based on those circumstances under international law. In the United States, after they present themselves at the border, they have to prove to an immigration judge they have a valid asylum claim—something advocates say is nearly impossible for a child to do with no understanding of the immigration system and, often, with no access to legal counsel—or they face deportation.

Unaccompanied children, if not immediately deported, have certain protections once in the United States. For example, they cannot be placed into expedited removal proceedings. According to the American Immigration Council, “they are placed into standard removal proceedings in immigration court. CBP must transfer custody of these children to Health and Human Services (HHS), Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), within 72 hours.”

While their court proceedings move forward, HHS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement manages the care of the children until they can ideally be released to their parents already based in the country. Sometimes, however, they are placed with distant relatives or U.S. sponsors. Because HHS has lowered its safety standards regarding placement, children have been subjected to sexual abuse, labor trafficking, and severe physical abuse and neglect, ThinkProgress has reported.

If while in the care of their family or a sponsor they miss a court date, detainment or deportation can be triggered once they turn 18 and no longer qualify for protections afforded to unaccompanied children. 

This is what happened to Acosta, who was placed with his mother in Durham when he arrived in the United States. ICE contends that Acosta was not targeted unfairly; rather, his missed court appearance triggered his order for removal.

Acosta’s mother told local media that after attending his first court date, Acosta “skipped subsequent ones on the advice of an attorney who told him he didn’t stand a chance.”

“That’s not true, but it’s what they were told,” Benitez said. “So, this idea that all of these kids were given their day in court is false. One kid [we work with] was even told not to sign up for school because ‘there was no point,’ it would just get him deported.”

Benitez told Rewire the reasons why these young people are being targeted and given their final orders of removal need to be re-examined.

Sixty percent of youth from Central America do not ever have access to legal representation throughout the course of their case—from the time they arrive in the United States and are designated as unaccompanied children to the time they turn 18 and are classified as asylum seekers. According to the ACLU, 44 percent of the 23,000 unaccompanied children who were required to attend immigration court this year had no lawyer, and 86 percent of those children were deported.

Immigration attorneys and advocates say that having a lawyer is absolutely necessary if a migrant is to have any chance of winning an asylum claim.

Mao told Rewire that in the Southeast where Acosta and the other members of the NC6 are from, there is a pipeline of youth who arrived in the United States as unaccompanied children who are simply “giving up” on their valid asylum claims because navigating the immigration system is simply too hard.

“They feel the system is rigged, and it is rigged,” Mao said.

Mao has been providing “technical assistance” for Acosta and other members of the NC6. Her organization doesn’t represent individuals in court, she said, but the services it provides are necessary because immigration is such a unique area of law and there are very few attorneys who know how to represent individuals who are detained and who have been designated unaccompanied minors. Those services include providing support, referrals, and technical assistance to advocates, community organizations, and families on deportation defense and custody issues.

Fighting for Asylum From Detention

Once arrested by ICE, there is no telling if someone will linger in detention for months or swiftly be deported. What is known is that if a migrant is taken by ICE in North Carolina, somewhere along the way, they will be transferred to Lumpkin, Georgia’s Stewart Detention Center. As a local paper reported, Stewart is “the last stop before they send you back to whatever country you came from.”

Stewart is the largest detention center in the country, capable of holding 2,000 migrants at any time—it’s also been the subject of numerous investigations because of reports of abuse and inadequate medical care. The detention center is run by Corrections Corporation of America, the country’s largest private prison provider and one that has become synonymous with maintaining inhumane conditions inside of its detention centers. According to a report from the National Immigrant Justice Center, Stewart’s remote location—over two hours away from Atlanta—hinders the facility from attracting and retaining adequate medical staff, while also creating barriers to visitation from attorneys and family members.

There’s also the matter of Georgia being notoriously tough on asylum seekers, even being called the “worst” place to be an undocumented immigrant. The Huffington Post reported that “Atlanta immigration judges have been accused of bullying children, badgering domestic violence victims and setting standards for relief and asylum that lawyers say are next to impossible to meet.” Even more disconcerting, according to a project by Migrahack, which pairs immigration reporters and hackers together, having an attorney in Georgia had almost no effect on whether or not a person won their asylum case, with state courts denying up to 98 percent of asylum requests. 

Acosta, Cortez, and Sorto-Hernandez spent over six months in Stewart Detention Center before they were released on baila “miracle” according to some accounts, given the fact that only about 5 percent of those detained in Stewart are released on bond.

In the weeks after ICE transferred Acosta to Stewart, there were multiple times Acosta was on the verge of deportation. ICE repeatedly denied Acosta was in danger, but advocates say they had little reason to believe the agency. Previous cases have made them wary of such claims.

Advocates believe that three of the North Carolina teens who were deported earlier this year before Acosta’s case made headlines were kept in detention for months with the goal of wearing them down so that they would sign their own deportation orders despite having valid asylum claims.

“They were tired. They couldn’t handle being in detention. They broke down and as much as they feared being returned to their home countries, they just couldn’t handle being there [in detention] anymore. They’d already been there for weeks,” Benitez said.

While ICE claims the average stay of a migrant in Stewart Detention Center is 30 days, the detention center is notorious for excessively long detainments. Acosta’s own bunkmate had been there over a year, according to Indy Week reporter David Hudnall.

As Hudnall reported, there is a massive backlog of immigration cases in the system—474,000 nationally and over 5,000 in North Carolina.

Mao told Rewire that the amount of time the remaining members of the NC6 will spend in detention varies because of different legal processes, but that it’s not unusual for young people with very strong asylum cases to sign their rights away because they can’t sustain the conditions inside detention.

Pedro Arturo Salmeron, another NC6 member, is still in detention. He was almost deported, but Mao told Rewire her organization was able to support a pro bono attorney in appealing to the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) to stop proceedings.

Japeth Matemu, an immigration attorney, recently told Indy Week’s David Hudnall that “the BIA will tell you that it can’t modify the immigration judge’s ruling unless it’s an egregious or obvious miscarriage of justice. You basically have to prove the judge is off his rocker.”

It could take another four months in detention to appeal Salmeron’s case because ICE continues to refuse to release him, according to the legal fellow.

“That’s a low estimate. It could be another year in detention before there is any movement in his case. We as an organization feel that is egregious to detain someone while their case is pending,” Mao said. “We have to keep in mind that these are kids, and some of these kids can’t survive the conditions of adult prison.”

Detention centers operate as prisons do, with those detained being placed in handcuffs and shackles, being stripped of their personal belongings, with no ability to move around freely. One of Acosta’s teachers told Rewire he wasn’t even able to receive his homework in detention.

Many of those in detention centers have experienced trauma. Multiple studies confirm that “detention has a profoundly negative impact on young people’s mental and physical well-being” and in the particular case of asylum seekers, detention may exacerbate their trauma and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. 

“People are so traumatized by the raids, and then you add detention on top of that. Some of these kids cannot psychologically and physically deal with the conditions in detention, so they waive their rights,” Mao said.

In March, Salmeron and fellow NC6 member Yefri Sorto-Hernandez received stays of deportation, meaning they would not face immediate deportation. ICE says a stay is like a “legal pause.” During the pause, immigration officials decide if evidence in the case will be reconsidered for asylum. Sorto-Hernandez was released five months later.

Benitez said that previously when she organized around detention, a stay of deportation meant the person would get released from detention, but ICE’s decision to detain some of the NC6 indefinitely until their cases are heard illustrates how “weirdly severe” the agency is being toward this particular population. Mao fears this is a tactic being used by ICE to break down young people in detention.

“ICE knows it will take months, and frankly up to a year, for some of these motions to go through the court system, but the agency is still refusing to release individuals. I can’t help but think it’s with the intention that these kids will give up their claims while suffering in detention,” Mao said.

“I think we really have to question that, why keep these young people locked up when they can be with their communities, with their families, going to school? ICE can release these kids now, but for showmanship, ICE is refusing to let them go. Is this who we want to be, is this the message we want to send the world?” she asked.

In the seven months since the announcement of Operation Border Guardian, DHS has remained quiet about whether or not there will be more raids on young Central American asylum seekers. As a new school year approaches, advocates fear that even more students will be receiving their orders for removal, and unlike the NC6, they may not have a community to rally around them, putting them at risk of quietly being deported and not heard from again.

Commentary Contraception

The Double Standard of Military Pregnancy: What Contraceptive Access Won’t Fix

Stephanie Russell-Kraft

Unique military gender politics that make it hard for some servicewomen to ask for birth control also stigmatize them if they get pregnant—especially when that happens at an overseas post or on a deployment. Any effort to increase birth control availability can only be understood against that particular cultural backdrop.

At the beginning of May, pharmaceutical giant Allergan announced that, in partnership with nonprofit Medicines360, it would begin offering its new intrauterine device (IUD) Liletta at a reduced price to military treatment facilities and veterans hospitals across the United States. The company would also support “an educational effort to raise contraception awareness among healthcare providers treating U.S. military service women,” according to its press release.

Military personnel and medical professionals agree Allergan’s initiative represents an important step toward expanding access to the IUD, which along with other long-acting reversible contraceptives (like injections) are particularly well suited to the demands of military training and deployment schedules. But this push to increase IUD use can’t be fully understood outside the context of the unique challenges and stigmas facing women of reproductive age in the U.S. military (who numbered just under 200,000 as of 2011, the latest available data obtained via FOIA by Ibis Reproductive Health).

Despite theoretically having access to a wide variety of contraceptive options, women in the military still report higher rates of unplanned pregnancy than their civilian peers, and it remains somewhat of a mystery exactly why. What is clear is that the unique military gender politics that make it hard for some women to ask for birth control also stigmatize them if they get pregnant—especially when that happens at an overseas post or on a deployment. Any effort to increase birth control availability, including Allergan’s, can only be understood against that particular cultural backdrop.

Nearly every time a U.S. military branch changes policies to include more women, critics raise the old argument that allowing women into the service, particularly in combat roles, will lead to sex between soldiers and thereby distract from the mission. Because of that, the military generally prohibits sex during deployments between service members not married to each other (exact policies vary across the branches and across units, and some are less strict). Taken as a whole, the U.S. military’s policy basically amounts to an abstinence-only approach, with women shouldering nearly all of the risk and blame when soldiers do decide to have sex on deployment.

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Bethany Saros, who enlisted in the Army as an 18-year-old in 2002, faced this blame head-on when she became pregnant by a fellow soldier during a 2007 tour in Iraq.

Although condoms were available to soldiers at her deployment site, Saros did not use birth control. Her decision not to end the pregnancy meant her deployment was over, and Saros recalls meeting several other pregnant women in Kuwait while they all waited to get shipped back. “I felt like a pariah, and I think the other girls did too,” she said.

“It’s not like anyone does this on purpose,” Saros explained. “The fathers of these babies, they don’t get any problems, and they were screwing around just as we were.”

Across all branches of service, pregnant women are typically not allowed to serve on deployments, and, though the length of time varies by branch, women are not allowed to deploy in the six to 12 months after they give birth. According to spokespeople from each of the branches, the reasoning behind the policies is to protect servicewomen and give them the time they need to recover from birth. All of the women I spoke with for this piece told me that soldiers—both male and female—often believe a woman who gets pregnant right before or during a deployment is simply trying to avoid her work.

“The first thing someone talked about when a woman got pregnant was that she was trying to get out of a deployment,” said Lauren Zapf, a former Naval officer, mental health clinician, and fellow with the Service Women’s Action Network. “Whereas if men announce that they’re going to have a baby, there’s a lot of backslapping and congratulations.”

According to Ibis Reproductive Health’s analysis of Department of Defense data, about 11 percent of active-duty military women reported an unintended pregnancy in 2008 and 7 percent reported an unintended pregnancy in 2011—in both years, this was far more than the general population. Younger, less educated, nonwhite women were much more likely to become pregnant unintentionally, as were those who were married or living with a partner, according to Ibis. Contrary to military lore, the pregnancy rates did not differ between those women who had deployed and those who didn’t during that time, the study found.

It remains unclear why exactly military women have higher reported rates of unplanned pregnancy than their civilian counterparts, but one reason has likely been their inconsistent access to birth control and limited access to abortion services. As with most institutions, there’s a difference between official policy and what happens on a day-to-day basis on military bases and in medical exam rooms. Just because most military branches officially require routine birth control consultations doesn’t mean women will always get them, according to Ibis researcher Kate Grindlay, who is one of very few independent researchers looking into this issue.

“One of the challenges that we found [in our research] was that these things were not being done in a consistent way,” Grindlay said. “Some providers having these conversations in a routine way, some weren’t.”

Access to birth control—and the conversations that lead up to it—has improved greatly for military women in the past 20 years. Elizabeth McCormick, a former Black Hawk pilot who served in the Army from 1994 to 2001, recalled that “no one talked about birth control” in any of her pre-deployment medical events in the 1990s. By contrast, some of the women I spoke with who served more recently said they didn’t have issues getting the care they needed.

However, in a 2010 Ibis survey of deployed women, 59 percent of respondents said they hadn’t discussed contraception with a military health-care provider before deployment and 41 percent said they had difficulty obtaining the birth control refills they needed while away from home. Servicewomen also reported being denied an IUD because they had not yet had children, even though nulliparous women can use the devices.

These inconsistencies are part of the problem Allergan says it hopes to address with its education efforts for military health-care providers. The company hasn’t explicitly said what those efforts will look like.

Another part of the problem, according to former Marine Corps officer and Cobra helicopter pilot Kyleanne Hunter, might be cultural. Conversations with military medical providers likely present another major barrier to proper contraceptive care because most military doctors are not only men, but also officers, who, outside the context of a hospital exam room, can give orders that must be respected.

Young female enlisted service members who have internalized the military’s rigid power structures might be reluctant to speak honestly and openly about reproductive care, posited Hunter, who’s currently a University of Denver PhD candidate studying the national security impact of integrating women into western militaries. She said the same dynamic often prevents women from coming forward after they have been sexually assaulted by a fellow service member.

“It adds one more layer to what’s already an uncomfortable conversation,” Hunter said.

When Bethany Saros returned to Fort Lewis, Washington, after leaving Iraq for her pregnancy, a conversation with a male doctor solidified her decision to quit the Army altogether.

“I had to go through a physical, and there was a Marine doctor, and he said, ‘Was there enough room on the plane for all the pregnant ladies that came back?’” she told me, still taken aback by the incident.

Grindlay said efforts like Allergan’s to increase the use of IUDs in the military are “very beneficial” to servicewomen. She also applauded a provision in the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act to require standardized clinical guidelines for contraceptive care across the armed forces. Under the new provisions, women in the armed forces must receive counseling on the “full range of methods of contraception provided by health care providers” during pre-deployment health care visits, visits during deployment, and annual physical exams.

But there’s still work to be done in order for the military to provide full access to reproductive health care, particularly when it comes to abortion. Tricare, the military’s health and insurance provider, only covers abortions “if pregnancy is the result of rape or incest or the mother’s life is at risk,” and certain countries in which the military operates ban the procedure altogether.

In a sampling of 130 online responses for a medication abortion consultation service reviewed by Ibis in 2011, several military women reported considered using “unsafe methods” to try to terminate a pregnancy themselves, according to Grindlay. One of the women, a 23-year-old stationed in Bahrain, said she had been turned away by five clinics and had contemplated taking “drastic measures.”

According to the 2011 Ibis report, many women sought abortions so that they could continue their military tour. Others feared a pregnancy would otherwise ruin their careers.

Virginia Koday, a former Marine Corps electronics technician who left the service in 2013, said in a phone interview that women can face losing their rank or getting charged for violating military policy if they become pregnant overseas. “Getting pregnant in Afghanistan is good cause to terminate your own pregnancy without anyone finding out,” she said.

“The unspoken code is that a good soldier will have an abortion, continue the mission, and get some sympathy because she chose duty over motherhood,” wrote Bethany Saros in a 2011 Salon piece about her unplanned pregnancy.

For these women, one act of unprotected sex had the potential to derail their career. For the men, it was just a night of fun.

Kyleanne Hunter said that while she doesn’t have a “whole lot of sympathy” for women who become pregnant on deployments (they’re not supposed to be having sex in the first place, she argues), she disagrees with the double standard that allows the men involved to escape punishment.

“Both parties need to be held exactly to the same accountability standards,” said Hunter. “If the woman is punished, then whoever she is involved with should be punished a well, because it takes two. She’s not alone in it. There’s no immaculate conception going on there.”

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