Sexual assaults haunt victims after military discharge
ANDALE, Kansas (AP) – At 22, Natalie Longee is already a veteran in the war on terror. She has guarded prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and escorted truck convoys in Iraq. She has heard the bombs, survived ambushes and seen the cost of war first hand. And she is traumatized.
But it’s not the war that has her most rattled. It is the fear than she will be raped again.
Six months since her military discharge, Longee joins the ranks of veterans seeking help from the trauma of sexual assaults perpetrated by fellow soldiers.
“I am not just scared of bombs,” Longee said. “I’m scared people are going to come in. I am scared of rape happening again.”
The Department of Veterans Affairs now routinely asks all veterans that come to it for services whether they suffered sexual trauma in the military. What the VA found was that that between 20 and 25 percent of women veterans told them they were sexually assaulted, said Carol O’Brien, director of the Center for Sexual Trauma Services at the Bay Pines VA Medical Center in St. Petersburg, Fla. Between 1 and 2 percent of men also said they experienced a sexual assault.
Those VA numbers are far higher than official military estimates, victim advocates contend, because many victims are afraid to report it to superior officers.
Sexual assault in the military differs from rape in civilian life because the military experience is all-encompassing, O’Brien said. Victims often have to go to work the next day with their attacker and have less control over their lives than do civilians.
“People in the military see the military environment as family, their protector, and they expect that to be a very safe environment. … When sexual assault happens in the military, it is something that flies in the face of everything they expected,” O’Brien said.
The Bay Pines VA hospital, which offers a treatment program for sexual post traumatic stress disorder, has a months-long waiting list. Half of its military sexual trauma patients are men, she said.
Two VA hospitals now offer such residential treatment programs for military sexual trauma, including the VA facility in Menlo Park, Calif. But all veterans hospitals across the nation have at least one military sexual trauma coordinator, said Connie Larosa, deputy field director for the VA’s central region.
Lt. Col. Joe Richard, a spokesman for the Pentagon, said the military is making an effort to improve reporting and prevention of sexual crimes. Heading that effort is Air Force Brig. Gen. K.C. McClain, who was appointed last month to a newly created position as policy chief for matters related to sexual assault prevention and response.
“Those service members are given every opportunity to stay in the military and address and treat the serious problem and seek the legal remedies that are required,” Richard said. “Nobody is going to be allowed to get away with sexual assault in the U.S. military.”
The military investigated 1,012 alleged cases of sexual assault last year, compared to 901 the previous year, according to a Pentagon report.
Among one of the most publicized at the time was the rape of Sgt. Andra Wood at a desert post in Kuwait in November. Wood – a member of the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division in Fort Lewis – was hit in the back of the head near the showers at Camp Udairi shortly after she got off guard duty in the middle of the night.
When she regained consciousness, she was tied, gagged and unclothed. Wood said in a March interview with the television show “Dateline NBC” that the Army initially denied her counseling and asked her to take a polygraph. She said Army officials told her the best therapy was to go back with her unit, which was getting ready to go into Iraq.
Her mother, Barbara Wharton, told The Associated Press in a phone interview from her Pennsylvania home that the NBC interview subsequently made things “very much worse” for her daughter in the Army.
“After the interview we learned they were going to court martial her and one of the charges was adultery,” Wharton said. “That is when I flew to Fort Lewis because I just had enough of the Army.”
Jeff Young, spokesman for Fort Lewis, did not specifically address Wood’s case when contacted for comment but instead issued a general statement saying the Army takes allegations of sexual assault very seriously.
“Soldiers have access to and are provided medical treatment, psychological counseling and spiritual support,” he said. “Any allegation of sexual harassment by a soldier is investigated thoroughly.”
Wood, 23, did not respond to an AP request for an interview. Her mother said her daughter gets upset whenever the subject of her sexual attack comes up.
Subsequent to her discharge in April, Wood has been getting counseling through the VA, Wharton said.
That same sense of career loss also haunts Longee as she struggles to cope with her military discharge and her subsequent medical treatment for her sexual trauma and post traumatic stress disorder.
Now back at her Kansas home, Longee gingerly held a small glass pendant that came from a chandelier in Saddam Hussein’s mansion as she talked about her deployment. And this, she said, is a fragment from the marble floor of the palace of his son, Odai, after it was bombed.
Her story also initially received widespread media attention after she went public with it following the alleged rape on Jan. 6, 2003, at the Fort Hood barracks.
Longee accused a fellow soldier whom she had befriended during their deployment in Cuba of sexually attacking her. She had let him stay in her barracks room to finish playing a video game, while she fell sleep. She accused him of raping her, he claimed the sex was consensual.
“We all trusted each other because we were deployed,” Longee said. “That is why I can’t understand why that happened.”
After a military hearing earlier this year, the Army dismissed the two charges of rape and one of attempted forcible sodomy against her accused attacker. It concluded there was insufficient evidence of the use of force or lack of consent.
“It’s not just the rape – it’s what happened afterward. … I don’t think I will ever be able to get over it,” Longee said.
Longee was deployed to Iraq shortly after the incident – something she said she initially welcomed because it got her away from daily contact with her alleged attacker at Fort Hood.
But while in Iraq, Longee said she was taunted by her superiors and fellow soldiers for reporting the sexual assault. She said she had to discuss intimate details of the rape with military investigators over a satellite phone within earshot of others.
Her team leader in Iraq was the former roommate of her accused attacker in Fort Hood. A mock rape was staged in front of her, she said.
But at the hearing for her alleged attacker, much of the testimony focused on her own mother’s criminal past as well her mother’s contacts with the media and her efforts to raise money to hire an attorney, according to redacted transcripts obtained by the AP and interviews with the family.
The investigating officer wrote in his report following the hearing that Longee was not a credible witness. He cited inconsistencies in her testimony and her failure to cry for help during the alleged attack.
Dan Hassett, media relations officer at Fort Hood, said the Army has no comment on Longee’s allegations or her case.
Following a long hospitalization after her discharge, Longee is now back in Andale and getting outpatient treatment at the VA hospital in Wichita. She still wants the military to prosecute her alleged attacker.
“I need to have some type of justice, so I can rest,” Longee said.
Veterans needing counseling for sexual assault or combat-releated readjustment can contact the Department of Veterans Affairs at (800) 827-1000 or at http://www.va.gov/rcs/