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Door sign asking visitors to not knock, resident has severe PTSD. Photo by Patricia Murphy.

Door sign asking visitors to not knock, resident has severe PTSD. Photo by Patricia Murphy.


Sexual Assault In The US Military: Post Trauma And The Role Of Sexual Harassment

Patricia Murphy

The post–traumatic reaction after a sexual assault is often very similar to post trauma from combat. Victims may withdraw, sometimes self–medicating with drugs and alcohol.

Mental health experts at the University of Washington say the quicker someone starts to process the traumatic event, the better.

There are many treatment options that can help. But years later, many veterans who were sexually assaulted during their service still struggle to regain their lives.

KUOW's Patricia Murphy reports in the third and final part of our series on military sexual assault.


The sign posted on the door is a warning: "Resident has severe PTSD and social anxiety. Please don't knock."

Once, someone did.

Lori: "He was beside himself, just in tears, locked in our basement."

Peter's wife Lori had to quit her job to care for her husband who is housebound with post trauma.

Nineteen years ago, Peter was raped while serving in the Army in Korea. He has never recovered.

He is frequently suicidal. Today he can often be found pacing the couple's living room in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, surrounded by six dogs.

The house is dark.

Peter: "I took an oath: Never leave a fallen comrade to fall into the hands of the enemy. My life has proven to me that there is no greater enemy to any human being than despair, than disgrace, than shame."

With the support of his family and his therapist, Peter is talking about his assault for the first time. He wants to help.

The man who raped Peter assaulted another man two months prior. Court–martial transcripts reveal that after word of the assault got out, both victims were ridiculed by their fellow soldiers.

Peter says he was ordered by his sergeant to never speak of the assault or he would be prosecuted under Don't Ask, Don't Tell.

Lorie Zoellner: "And that type of negative support is one of the best predictors for who's going to have chronic problems. It's one of the things, when we're thinking about early interventions, that could get in and actually change."

Lorie Zoellner is the director of the University of Washington's Center for Anxiety and Traumatic Stress.

Zoellner: "Sexual assault changes how you view yourself as a person. It changes how you view the world. And so the world now is a much more dangerous place, where people want to use you, abuse you, may potentially hurt you."

And all of that, Zoellner says, starts translating into how you actually behave.

Peter was eventually discharged from the Army for poor performance. That hurt him when he applied for disability benefits from the VA.

Peter: "I should have left the military as a medically and honorably discharged veteran for post–traumatic stress due to military sexual trauma. That is what should have been done. But keeping their dirty little secret is more important than keeping their word to the very people they rely on to keep their power."

First, they said there was no record of his service, no evidence of the assault.

Peter's wife Lori spent years trying to prove her husband's military history.

Finally with Congressional help, she received his records and transcripts of the court–martial.

But the denials were debilitating for everyone. Without medical benefits, the family was financially devastated.

The Department of Defense's Major General Mary Kay Hertog has heard that message before. She's the new director of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, or SAPRO.

Hertog: "We think we need to do a better job of transitioning our service members from active–duty status to veteran's status if they've been a victim of sexual assault. And not just the ones that have reported, but the many others who haven't reported."

This year, Congress mandated that the Department of Defense and Veteran's Affairs give victims better access to evidence and records relating to sexual assaults.

Two years ago, 17 years after his assault, Peter was granted permanent disability status from the VA.

Military life is not for the faint of heart.

Deborah served in the Marines. She now lives in South Puget Sound.

She says her female drill instructors were up front with her about the culture they had entered into.

Deborah: "We were taught very early on that we were going to be viewed and considered to be walking mattresses."

During basic training, Deborah says some male drill instructors were open about their disdain for women.

Deborah: "There were a few times when I heard some male drill instructors when I was passing through the training cycles say some very derogatory things about not only the female recruits, but about the female drill instructors. How they stink that time of month. Just laughing at them."

This is just the kind of command climate that Major General Hertog is trying correct.

Hertog: "I truly believe there is a linkage between sexual harassment that's been allowed to go on that could eventually phase into sexual assault. You have to get up in front of your troops and say, this is what you cannot say, this is how I expect you to act. And frankly, if folks don't put a stop to that peer–to–peer or superior–to–subordinate, it will escalate."

Hertog entered the Air Force in 1978 as an ROTC distinguished graduate. She says, while coming up through the ranks, she frequently had to fight against sexual harassment. She says growing up in a military family helped her sense of self.

Hertog: "I knew how I was supposed to be treated and how I was not supposed to be treated, and I wasn't gonna let anybody marginalize me or anybody demean me. I was going to stand up for myself, even if it wasn't the popular thing to do or if it brought negative attention to me."

Many, including Hertog, agree that this is an area where training can make a difference.

SAPRO is working on developing more consistent training standards.

Hertog: "We are intent on changing culture here. And every single day we have to hammer it home that this is a crime and you don't treat your fellow soldier, sailor, airmen or Marine this way. That is your brother or sister out there and you're to protect them at all costs, not to assault them."

But culture change within the military's hyper–masculine environment is both challenging and nuanced.

Deborah says the sexual assault and harassment prevention training she received while in the Marines was infrequent, ineffective, and at times, offensive.

Deborah: "They had two classes and they played a 9–1–1 tape of a girl being raped. That was their, that was their way of handling rape and sexual assaults."

During one session the group was presented with a date–rape scenario. Deborah says she was shocked when the discussion focused on conduct violations and what the woman should have done differently.

Deborah: "I remember folding my arms. I was the only female in this group and thinking, I would not report this. There's no incentive to report this if this was me. Off the bat, there's no incentive. You're telling me I'm going to get in trouble."

So when Deborah says she was raped one night in her bedroom, she chose to handle it on her own and not file an official report.

Hertog knows that victim confidence to report is one of SAPRO's biggest hurdles.

Hertog: "My big concern is for every report of sexual assault, you can pretty much be guaranteed that there's probably five times as many out there that will never come forward."

On paper, the military has a zero–tolerance policy against sexual assault and sexual harassment.

Military leaders acknowledge that a sea change is necessary. Under the best circumstances, it's likely to be slow.

Deborah says she has great respect for the Marines and many of the men and women who serve in the Armed Forces. But right now, especially for women, she says the best defense is a good offense.

Deborah: "Ultimately, I would say have a back–up plan if you are raped. Prepare yourself for the worst. Know what you're going to do if you're faced with sexual assault. Know how you're going to react. Have a battle plan going in."

I'm Patricia Murphy, KUOW News.

© Copyright 2012, KUOW