Female Soldiers Know: Sexual Assault Can Lead to PTSD

Anchorage Daily News

May 26, 2008 – Last month I attended a presentation on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, at the Anchorage Veterans Administration Clinic. PowerPoint slides provided a definition of PTSD and common causes of this disorder: IEDs, seeing the bodies of dead children, experiencing serious bodily injuries, and others.

I asked the briefer, a VA psychiatrist, whether the VA also considered Military Sexual Trauma an experience that can lead to PTSD. He replied “no.”

I looked at the physician with amazement. Many peer-reviewed journal articles assert that Military Sexual Trauma, or MST, is especially associated with PTSD. That the Veterans Administration continues to disassociate MST with PTSD is remarkable.

But it may be understandable, considering the military is a culture that ostracizes and ridicules women who “rock the boat” by reporting incidents of sexual assault and violence.

What is needed, if the military and VA are to respond appropriately to MST, is a broad-based, systemic change in the military’s culture. Like other large organizations, there is a reluctance to undertake such changes when the top leadership finds such change unnecessary.

Public Law 109-162, the Violence Against Women Act of 2005, is designed to “bring together the criminal justice, social service, and health systems in an effort to intervene and prevent domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, stalking, and rape.”

As a result, local, state and national laws have changed. Services, businesses and communities are responding to victims’ needs. Abusers are being prosecuted. Victims in greater numbers are seeking services and reporting crimes. VAWA helped forge new alliances between police officers, courts and victim advocates.

The act has performed as designed, except in our military.

The military prefers to handle potentially embarrassing matters such as MST “in-house.”

When considering the military’s archaic legal system and widespread sexually inappropriate behaviors, one may understand the commanders’ unwillingness to observe VAWA standards. The hierarchical chain of command provides higher-ranking persons with authority over those of lower rank. Commanders have full discretion when considering whether an investigation into sexual assault is conducted, whether a particular case goes to a military trial (courts-martial) and how the perpetrator is punished, or not.

I’ve seen commanders who were downright giddy about their power over others. I’ve witnessed atrocious things they have said and done, because they could.

Certainly, the commander working with the Judge Advocate General’s Corps uses laws and regulations spelled out in the Uniform Code of Military Justice. But this code has not been substantially revised since the 1950s.

Officers in charge can select which JAG officer serves as the prosecutor (representing the command) and which serves as the defense attorney (often with the same allegiance). Officers in charge can set the perpetrator’s punishment, if there is any.

In a state or federal court, different entities are responsible for these different trial functions. The system of military justice is not encumbered by concerns about conflict of interest or abuse of power. Military rules of evidence provide exceptions for sexual assault cases and, therefore, disallow the victim privacy and confidentiality.

Most alarming, questioning during a military trial permits the use of long-outdated sexist and stereotypical attitudes. State or federal courts prohibit questioning of the victim in this manner.

Military Sexual Trauma leading to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is not a new development. Sexual violence by service members against service members has gone on for decades and the military has not fully addressed this crime or its consequences.

At the end of the presentation at the VA Clinic in April, an elderly woman behind me, probably a Korean War veteran, raised her hand and acknowledged to the briefer “I have what she said.”

This veteran shed tears and spoke in a quivering voice as she expressed her pain without using clinically descriptive words. Those who listened could empathize with her, understand her pain, and in horror, share her traumatization and re-traumatization for more than 50 years. We should all be saddened to know that for this veteran and many others like her, the pain lingers and does not quickly dissipate.

And in hearing and knowing this, my heart broke … again.

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