DRENCHED BY 30 INCHES OF RAIN A YEAR, Roseburg’s rolling, fir-covered hills wrap around 59-year-old Carrie Jones’s home like a berm protecting her against memories of desolate, sun-scorched texas, where she spent her short military career in the 1970s.
The desert, for Jones, holds the danger.
It’s where fellow US Army soldiers drilled holes in the bathroom walls to watch Jones shower; where her commanding officer locked her in his quarters and forced her to watch pornography with him; where a group of pilots on a training exercise took turns raping her. It’s where soldiers put a pillowcase over Jones’s head, took her to an isolated barn, strung her up by her hands, cut her clothes off, and assaulted her, calling it “Prisoner of War” training; where they left her hanging for so long she had to have tendon surgery and was never able to play her beloved clarinet again. It’s where, a few months before her enlistment ended, Jones’s commanding officer drove her to a remote area of Fort Hood and raped her in the middle of the day.
Jones (who prefers her real name not be used) entered the army in 1974 at age 21 and rode a wave of post-Vietnam military gender integration into the First Cavalry Division. When she enlisted, Jones says she was a “happy person,” a confident practical jokester who, in training, once installed a speaker in a fire hydrant to surprise passersby.
“I came back a different person,” she recalls during a conversation inside a suburban Starbucks, her right hand nervously rubbing her thigh. “And it was our side that did it to me.”
Nearly 40 years later, Jones is still living with the effects of the attacks she suffered while wearing the United States’ uniform. Today, she figures as an early—if perhaps extreme—example of a hidden plague within the US armed forces: an epidemic of sexual assault against servicewomen.
For decades, veterans like Jones survived largely in silence, but that’s slowly changing. In 1992, the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee recognized a new medical term: military sexual trauma, or MST. The definition: “psychological trauma, which in the judgment of a VA mental health professional, resulted from a physical assault of a sexual nature, battery of a sexual nature, or sexual harassment which occurred while the Veteran was serving on active duty or active duty for training.”
The VA estimates that roughly 20–30 percent of women who have served in the military report experiencing some form of military sexual trauma. The Department of Defense reported that in 2010 alone, current military personnel filed 3,158 reports of sexual assault on both men and women. (MST affects a larger percentage of females in the armed forces, but it remains a concern for men, too.) Moreover, a study published by the DOD estimates that as many as 85 percent of sexual abuses go unreported.
In recent years, with the US embroiled in conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, the numbers, visibility, and importance of women in the military have increased. They currently make up 14 percent of the armed forces, a number that is projected to grow to 20 percent by 2020. In 2008, Ann Dunwoody became the nation’s first female four-star general. And this past winter, the Military Leadership Diversity Commission recommended that the military end its ban on allowing women to serve in direct combat roles. Yet the military and government are only now coming to grips with the pervasive problems caused by MST.
“There’s more shame, secrecy, and stigma attached to post-traumatic stress disorder associated with military sexual trauma than with combat-related PTSD,” says Marcia Hall, a counselor and Women’s Health Program manager at the Roseburg VA. “It’s a hidden war.”
As servicemen and women return from conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, stories abound about the injuries suffered in combat: about the improvements in medical technology that spare lives when roadside bombs take limbs. About the post-traumatic stress disorder that comes with watching a best friend’s Humvee disintegrate into a fiery metal pulp 10 feet away. About how this generation of vets compare with their Vietnam-era counterparts. But we hear less frequently about the injuries female soldiers, specifically, suffer—sometimes at the hands of their male comrades.
“Every year the rates of MST have risen,” says Sonja Fry, a social worker and MST counselor at the Eugene Behavioral Health Recovery and Reintegration Services office. “This generation is a lot more open; they’re allowed to talk about it more. The problem is not going away anytime soon.”
Oregon finds itself on the battle lines. Despite not having an active military base, our state is home to more than 25,000 female veterans, 7,000 of whom are enrolled in the Portland VA’s Women Veterans Health Program. Last September, Portland’s VA opened the Women Veterans Health Care Facility, the first female-only VA clinic in the state and one of few in the country. This spring, Oregon lawmakers passed legislation calling for improvements in both the scope and quality of health care available to veterans affected by MST. (see Codifying Care) Nationally, Congress’s 2010 Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act included a provision specifically asking for better care and treatment of MST. In February, spitfire DC attorney Susan L. Burke—whose clients include victims of torture at Abu Ghraib—filed a lawsuit on behalf of 17 former and active duty service members, including two men and two Washington state women, alleging the Department of Defense, namely Secretaries of Defense Robert Gates and Donald Rumsfeld, failed to prevent, investigate, and prosecute the perpetrators of rape and sexual assaults.
The health consequences of military sexual trauma are severe: insomnia, depression, substance abuse, and even death. A 2010 study by researchers at Oregon Health & Science University and Portland State University found that male veterans are twice as likely as nonveterans to take their own life, while young female veterans are three times as likely. And according to a 2009 study in Clinical Psychology Review, sexual trauma is actually more likely to result in stress-related physical and psychological ailments than combat trauma.
In other words, psychologically, you might be better off seeing your buddy blown up than being raped.
The Department of Defense has created new programs to raise awareness, from annual sexual assault summits for high-ranking officers to a recent social marketing campaign—“Hurts One. Affects All”—aimed at encouraging soldiers to help prevent the sexual abuse of their colleagues. A recent report from the DOD showed that sexual assaults against women on active duty dropped by 2.4 percent between 2005 and 2009. But the full impacts of military sexual trauma on individual soldiers are still being understood. Like Jones, a growing number of veterans are only now coming forward years, even decades, later to report past abuses, many of them unaware until recently that any service in the military (not just war) qualifies them as a veteran.
Jones’s story and those of the two other Oregon women that follow offer a glimpse of the lingering scars—as painful and life-altering as those acquired on the battlefield—MST can leave on a life.