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.”


Commentary Violence

Major League Baseball Has More Work to Do When It Comes to Domestic Violence Charges

Claire Tighe

Major League Baseball's response to charges of domestic violence against Jose Reyes is really just a step in the right direction. The league, its fans, and the media outlets covering it have work to do before there is additional cause to celebrate.

Two weeks ago, the Colorado Rockies Major League Baseball (MLB) team made headlines for designating their shortstop, Jose Reyes, for assignment. The designation for assignment (DFA) means he was removed from their roster, most likely so the Rockies could trade him or release him to the minors.

The decision came after an announcement from MLB in May concluding that Reyes had violated its new Joint Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault, and Child Abuse policy. Reyes was put on leave in February while the league investigated charges that he had allegedly assaulted his wife in a Hawaii hotel the previous October. Though the charges were ultimately dropped, MLB still concluded that he had violated its policy—which allows discipline no matter a case’s legal status—based on the available police reports. Ultimately, Reyes was suspended for 52 games.

Many sports fans and media outlets are celebrating the Rockies’ decision to designate Reyes for assignment, framing it squarely as a moral response to his domestic violence suspension. As a result of the suspension, Reyes ultimately lost a total of $7.02 million for missing 30 percent of the season and is required to donate $100,000 to “charity focused on domestic violence.” Still, the team will owe Reyes $41 million despite the DFA—and that, spectators say, makes the Rockies’ actions worthy of praise. The Denver Post‘s Mark Kiszla, for example, wrote that the Rockies franchise owner, Dick Monfort, deserves a “standing ovation” for taking a “$40M stance against domestic violence” that was “not just financial.” According to Kiszla, “the franchise did right by battered women by showing zero tolerance for physical abuse.”

Yet instead of a purely moral response that deserves “a standing ovation,” the Reyes case is really more of a step in the right direction. If, as Bob Nightengale at USA Today suggested, MLB is setting a precedent by suspending Jose Reyes, the league and the media covering it have work to do before there is additional cause to celebrate.

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The league could have acted faster and given Reyes a longer, more consequential suspension to show its seriousness in responding to his violation of the policy. In fact, the New York Mets’ recent signing of Reyes, which the team explained as giving him a “second chance,” underscores just how much tolerance for reports of domestic violence truly exists in professional baseball as a whole.

The public excitement about the connection between Reyes’ domestic violence record and his sportsmanship is warranted, albeit overstated. As MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred put it, the league has taken “a firm national and international stance” on domestic violence. Reyes was only the second player to receive a suspension under the new policy, which was approved by the league in August 2015 as a result of the ongoing national conversation about intimate partner abuse in professional sports. His case was the first to be negotiated with the MLB Player’s Association; his was the harshest punishment a player had received at the time.

Even so, while the Rockies’ consideration of Reyes’ charges of domestic abuse in their decision should be appreciated, the DFA should be understood for what it really appears to be overall: based on the team’s response, it was a business decision, not an action on behalf of domestic violence survivors.

“Would we be sitting here talking about this if the domestic violence thing hadn’t happened in Hawaii? We wouldn’t. So it’s obviously part of the overall decision,” said Colorado general manager Jeff Bridich told the New York Times. After all, an incident causing a player to miss a third of the season is enough to make any team pause for consideration.But, as the Times pointed out, there are other reasons that the Rockies were ready to move on, including “never really wanting him in the first place,” the great performance of his replacement during the suspension, and the fact that the franchise had already sunk the costs of bringing Reyes onboard. By the terms of their contract, designating him for assignment was no more expensive than keeping him.

Furthermore, the handling of the Reyes case within the league and the franchise has been mostly professional, but there is still a lingering tone of undue apology toward Reyes—suggesting, again, that the treatment he has received may not be the unilateral condemnation of domestic violence that others have implied.

It begins with Reyes himself, who first apologized “to the Rockies organization, my teammates, all the fans, and most of all my family,” before retweeting Mike Cameron, a former MLB player who said that Reyes just had a “bad moment in life” and deserved forgiveness for committing physical violence against his wife.

Commissioner Manfred walked a thin line in a news conference in November just after the Hawaii incident, stating his interest in maintaining Reyes’ privacy despite the charges against him. “There’s a balance there,” he said. “On the one hand, I think our fans want to know that the case has been dealt with appropriately. On the other hand, whoever the player is, the fact that he’s a major league player doesn’t mean he has absolutely no right to privacy and or that everything in the context of a relationship or a marriage has to be public.”

While domestic violence can happen “behind closed doors,” that does not mean it is an issue of one’s personal privacy. As Bethany P. Withers has argued for the New York Times, there may not be public witnesses to abuse occurring between partners, but we should not ignore professional athletes who are charged with committing acts of domestic violence. Manfred’s comments, as well as Cameron’s, minimize Reyes’ Hawaii incident into “a lovers’ quarrel,” rather than a report of an abusive act of behavior that most likely exposes an ongoing pattern.

Rockies Franchise owner Dick Monfort’s comments were better, though not ideal. In April he told the Associated Press, “I’d like to know exactly what happened. It’s easy for us all to speculate on what happened. But really, until you really know, it’s hard. You’re dealing with a guy’s life, too.” Monfort, while expressing understandable concern for this player, sounds apologetic to Reyes, rather than the woman he was charged with abusing.

Sympathizing with Reyes in this matter, while he may be sorry for reportedly committing actions that had visible consequences, centers the experience of an abuser in a culture that silences, blames, shames, and erases survivors of domestic violence and perpetuates abusive behavior.

Much of the media, meanwhile, has taken action either to diminish Reyes’ alleged crimes or dismiss them completely. The Post‘s Kiszla, for example, was plain encouraging of Reyes, for whom he “hoped nothing but the best, if his wife had forgiven him.” His uninformed commentary shows utter lack of understanding of domestic violence and what Katherine Reyes might be experiencing in deciding to “not cooperate with the prosecutors” on the case. Fox News was similarly insensitive. At the very least, the media can provide a short explanation as to what domestic violence is and why victims may be reluctant to work with police and the criminal justice system in the first place. The “inaction, hostility, and bias” they might face, as the American Civil Liberties Union put it, is real. And their personal fear of consequences are legitimate.

Nightengale of USA Today had a particularly awful response, explicitly sympathizing with Reyes, saying “that one ugly night in Hawaii cost Reyes his pride and his job.” Except that domestic violence, a cycle of power and control, is hardly ever just “one ugly night.”

Furthermore, incidents of reported domestic violence need to be named as such. In the coverage of Reyes’ charges in Hawaii, the media failed to do so. Though ESPN reported Reyes had been arrested on abuse charges, it still said Reyes had “an argument with his wife [that] turned physical.” The Chicago Tribune labeled it as “an altercation.” The Tribune was also inaccurate in reporting that Reyes ‘choked’ his wife, when the it was actually strangulation. Technically, choking by definition is when the airway is blocked internally. Strangulation, however, is the act of blocking the passage of air through the external use of force. While the difference is subtle—in fact, the police report itself logged the action as “choking”—the ramifications are large. Describing the act as an expression of dominance signals to the public that acts of violence have perpetrators. It also gives detailed meaning to “domestic violence,” an all-encompassing phrase whose intricacies are not widely understood.

While it may seem petty to be picking over semantics, accurate framing is the difference between two partners having a disagreement and one partner committing threatening acts of violence against another in a cyclical power dynamic. It’s the difference between public acceptance of horrific behavior and public recognition of unhealthy, unacceptable relationship dynamics.

The focus on costs to Reyes and the Rockies should also be reframed. If we really want to talk big money, we should consider the exorbitant shared cost of domestic violence on all of our systems, both public and private. Domestic violence is “a serious, preventable public health problem.” The epidemic is estimated to cost $8.3 billion annually to the economy due to its effect on survivors’ physical and emotional health, as well as their workplace productivity. Because domestic violence is so widely underreported, this estimate is even a conservative one. It also does not encompass the cost to child survivors and the trauma inherited by future generations. Understanding the ridiculously high costs of domestic violence centers the long-lasting effects of an epidemic on survivors and our society as a whole, rather than the cost to a singular MLB player or team.

Wholly shifting the narrative is vital in Reyes’ case and in the cases of other players disciplined under MLB’s new policy. It is up to the public to connect the dots between all of the players and teams to understand the wide scale and scope of MLB’s domestic violence problem. The Mets’ quick re-signing of Reyes as a “second chance” to the player is a reminder of many teams’ true priorities.

Though the new MLB policy appears to be comprehensive and informed by experts, the league, the teams, and the media haven’t quite perfected their responses. With regard to MLB’s process and ultimate decision, critics are saying the league should act faster and make longer, more consequential suspensions in the future. If Commissioner Manfred is really going to give weight to charges of domestic violence, a quicker, more punitive response to charges like Reyes’ is a good way to start. There is also significant work to be done in the public relations and media responses to domestic violence in the League overall.

Five years ago, there was very little talk about domestic violence in professional sports, let alone in Major League Baseball. Almost ten years ago, it was a big joke. Until 2016, MLB had never suspended a player for domestic violence. It’s becoming clearer and clearer to the public that domestic violence pervades every arena, from professional sports to entertainment. There has been an explosion of coverage on the topic in relation to the National Football League, college campusesHollywood, theater, and the music industry. Domestic violence in Major League Baseball, in professional sports, and in our culture is a much larger problem than one suspension can solve. It’s up to us to see that domestic violence is not just the concern of a singular player, team, sport, or profession. We all have a domestic violence problem. Together we can solve it.

News LGBTQ

Defense Department Lifts Ban on Openly Transgender Service Members

Christine Grimaldi

“Effective immediately, transgender Americans may serve openly, and they can no longer be discharged or otherwise separated from the military just for being transgender,” Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced during a Thursday press briefing at the Pentagon.

The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) Thursday lifted the ban prohibiting openly transgender individuals from serving in the military.

“Effective immediately, transgender Americans may serve openly, and they can no longer be discharged or otherwise separated from the military just for being transgender,” Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced during a press briefing at the Pentagon. 

Although policy changes will occur over the next 12 months, Carter said, he stressed that “implementation will begin today.”

Carter last year called the ban “outdated” and pledged to start the process of allowing transgender people to serve openly in the U.S. military. As Rewire previously reported, “openly” is the key—research estimates that many transgender individuals already serve in the military, even though there are rules against it.

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The initial review process included creating a working group to study the implications associated with the seismic policy shift. Advocates considered the review period necessary to evaluate medical and other issues that didn’t arise with the 2011 repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which allowed gay and lesbian individuals to serve openly in the military.

A Carter-commissioned report released in May estimated that about 2,450 out of 1.3 million active-duty service members are transgender, according to the New York Times. Every year, about 65 service members pursue gender transition, the Times reported.

In the next 90 days, the DOD must complete and issue “medical guidance to doctors for providing transition-related care, if required, to currently serving transgender service members,” Carter said.

“Our military treatment facilities will begin providing transgender service members with all medically necessary care based on that medical guidance,” he added.

More generally, active-duty transgender service members will soon have access to comparable military-provided medical care as their cisgender counterparts—without having to conceal their gender identity.

“Right now, most of our transgender service members must go outside the military medical system in order to obtain medical care that is judged by doctors to be necessary, and they have to pay for it out of their own pockets,” Carter said early in the briefing. “This is inconsistent with our promise to all our troops that we will take care of them and pay for necessary medical treatment.”

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs opened its first clinic last November specializing in the treatment of transgender veterans. As Rewire reported at the time, the clinic provides transgender veterans with primary care, hormone therapy, and mental health services.

National Center for Transgender Equality Executive Director Mara Keisling praised the DOD for putting an end to the “outdated and unscientific ban” in a statement provided to Rewire Thursday.

“Allowing anyone who is willing and able to serve to do so without lying about who they are is a sound policy that reflects American values,” Keisling said. “Like other institutions, including allied militaries, the Defense Department has found straightforward answers for all the questions that have come up. This is the right decision for the military and brings much needed certainty for thousands of currently serving soldiers who have put their lives on the line for their country, as well as for their units.”

Keisling expressed a remaining concern: an expected 18-month delay for individuals to join the military following their transition, which Carter outlined in his briefing today.

“This delay is substantially longer than individuals for comparable medical issues,” Keisling said. “We hope that this is a lingering piece of transgender exceptionalism that we expect will change as the military sees that it is simply an unnecessary barrier to getting the best talent.”