Military Service and Sexual Trauma



By Les Winick


The Veterans Administration, in a recent study of women veteran patients, reported that 55% reported some form of sexual harassment while in the service on active duty. These are women who have gone to their local V.A. facility, after discharge, and reported this information. The number of women who have proudly served our country and have not reported any sexual harassment is not known. Therefore, this 55% figure is probably much higher. There are currently 1.7 million women veterans.


The Great Lakes VA Healthviews, Vol. 3, Issue 2 for the Summer of 2005 headlined this story. The area covered by this government department includes northern Illinois and Indiana, the eastern half of Wisconsin and parts of Upper Michigan. The authors are Jill Feldman, PhD of the Jesse Brown VAMC (Veterans Administration Medical Center); Diane Shearod, LCSW (Licensed Clinical Social Worker) of the Hines VA Hospital, Julie Wright, MSW (Master of Social Welfare) of the Mountain VAMC.


The sad truth is that women who are in the military are at a very high risk of sexual assault or harassment. Military service, whether in Iraq or at a base in the United States, can be a dangerous workplace. And this act of violence can affect male as well as female soldiers.


There are some members of the military who seek medical and psychiatric help when they are the victims. Others simply report the act to their superior officers. However, many assaults are unreported. And the unreported ones are the sad cases since they go without the treatment required for their recovery.


Most people, when discharged from the armed forces, simply want to get on with their lives and do not look for any help for a sexual trauma that happened while they were in the service. But they have to live with the symptoms that interfere with their health and quality of life. These symptoms may decrease and even disappear over time, or they may get worse.


However, history has shown that someone, who has been a victim of sexual trauma tends to develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as a prolonged reaction to trauma. PTSD can appear within 3 months of the event or several years later. Each case is different.


Treatment may involve individual counseling, group support or medicine depending on the veteran’s problem. The goals of the treatment are to help the veteran better understand their reaction to the trauma, share experiences with others that have similar problems, how to cope with painful memories, emotions and problems, how to fight trauma-related problems such as an eating disorder, substance abuse or depression, reduce social isolation and improve family relationships.


The seven Veterans Administration facilities in the Great Lakes area has assigned 12 coordinators whose sole job is to help veterans get care for sexual trauma experienced during their military service. It is that big a problem.


Another study published in Military Medicine, May 2004, by M. Murdoch, M.A. Polusny, J. Hodges and N. O’Brien reported that among women who served in the military, 69% of combat veterans and 86.6% of noncombat veterans reported in-service or post-service sexual assault.


The conclusion of the authors was that these figures are considerably higher then historically reported rates for men and women in the general population. They recommend that clinicians should screen veterans for sexual traumas.


It is interesting that a report issued during the Vietnam war by AG Sadler, BM Booth, BL Cook and BN Doebbeling of the Iowa City Veterans Affairs Medical Center in July 2003, reported that rape was reported by 30% of participants. The data also stated that “military environmental factors were associated with increased likelihood of rape, including sexual harassment allowed by officers, unwanted sexual advances on duty and in sleeping quarters.


The authors wrote that “violence towards military women has identifiable risk factors. Officer leadership played an important role in the military environment and safety of women. Assailant alcohol and/or drug abuse at time of rape was notable.”


An interesting survey of women veterans taken by seven VA institutions was reported in Nov. 2004 by AG Sadler, BM Booth, MA Mengeling and BN Doebbeling. They reported that “repeated violence is a relatively common experience among women in the military, and this has substantial implications for their health”.


The 1991 Gulf War was the first major military operation where female troops were part of almost every military unit, except for combat ground units. H. Kang, N. Dalager and E. Ishil in a report for the VA dated March 2005, also reported very high incidences of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), in a health survey of 30,000 Gulf War era veterans. Their conclusion was that “sexual trauma as well as combat exposure appear to be strong risk factors for PTSD.”


Sexual assault is considered as criminal conduct and will not be tolerated in the Department of Defense. There is a military sexual trauma counseling service available to all veterans. It does not matter when and where you served, or even if the assault took place in the United States while the service person was training, there is help available. Service members who are victims of sexual assault can get information by calling a toll-free number, (800) 497-6261. This phone number is staffed 9 a.m. - 9 p.m. EST, Monday thru Friday.


Public Law 102-585 authorized the VA to provide outreach and establish Military Sexual training counseling and treatment programs for women veterans who have experienced incidents of sexual trauma while on active duty. The situation has reached the stage where women veterans “need to be informed of the availability of a Women Veterans Outreach Coordinator at each VA regional office who can assist them with their compensation claims.”


Veterans will not be billed for inpatient, outpatient or pharmaceutical co-payments, but co-payments may be charged for service that are non service connected conditions. It is interesting to note that if the VA facilities are not capable of furnishing such counseling to the veteran, then counseling will be provided with a qualified health professional.


The Womens Program includes the Women’s Primary Care Clinic, Gynecology Clinic, Reproductive Clinic, Breast Clinic and Mental Health Services. There is also a Sexual Trauma Treatment Center which will provide treatment for the psychological effects of sexual trauma.


V.A. medical services for women include hormone replacement therapy, breast and gynecological care, maternity and limited infertility (in-vitro fertilization is excluded), acute medical/surgical, emergency and substance abuse treatment, mental health, rehabilitation and long term care.


Prenancy has been a “hot potato” in the U.S. military since WW 11, and there was no clear method of how to deal with it. For example, Women’s Army Corps regulations simply stated that “An enrolled woman ...will be discharged if she becomes pregnant.” They added the clause that “Pregnancy will be included on the daily sick report as sickness ‘not in the line of duty.’”


Executive Order (EO 10240) signed by President Harry S. Truman, gave the military services permission to discharge a woman if she became pregnant, gave birth to a child, or became a parent or stepparent by adoption. This was accepted as an ironclad mandate. Military women who became pregnant were immediately discharged.


As a veteran of WW 11, I distinctly recall being told that if a superior officer tells you to jump through a hoop, you jump through a hoop. I served at a base hospital in Panama. While we delivered babies for the wives of military personnel stationed in Panama, to the best of my memory, we never had a pregnant military person in the delivery room. In thinking back, I do not recall seeing any female military personnel except for Army nurses. There were 82 Army nurses serving at three Army Medical Facilities during the attack on Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941.


The 2d District Court ruled in 1976 that a Marine Corps regulation requiring the discharge of a pregnant woman Marine violated the Fifth Amendment due process clause because it established an irrefutable presumption that any pregnant woman in uniform was permanently unfit for duty.


Faced with this decision, women who became pregnant were permitted to remain in the military, with maternity unforms developed by each service. Today, pregnancy in the military is accepted and pregnant women are given the best medical care in the country.


An organization has formed to help the women who were automatically banished from serving in the military and were summarily discharged. The “Fifth Amendment Sisters” are working to right the wrongs by trying to bring legislation to help these women. H.R. 5447 was introduced on September 24, 2002 in the Congress by Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney of Georgia. The resolution failed to get out of the Education and Workforce Committee and McKinney did not get reelected.


CW2 Mary V. Bender is an interesting story. A CW2 Warrant Officer is a specialist and expert in certain military techniques. The president commissions them to Chief Warrant Officer 2. These commisioned warrant officers are direct representatives of the president of the United States. They are specialists in whatever they are assigned, in contrast to commissioned officers, who are generalists.


Bender died from Agent Orange on Jan. 10, 2002. She served almost ten years in the Army, serving three tours of duty in Vietnam and was injured whille interrogating a prisoner when an explosive he had in his uniform went off. She remained on duty as an intelligence officer until her discharge for pregnancy in 1972.


In 1968, Bender’s actions during the TET Offensive, kept the intelligence office in Saigon from being overtaken by the enemy. She received a letter which reads in part, “Your actions are worthy of the Silver Star but because you are woman it cannot be given to you.” Her son tried to get her buried in Arlington National Cemetery, but she was refused a plot there.


After much discussion, on May 14, 1942, the bill to “Establish a Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps” (WAC) became law. The Navy authorized a Womens Naval Reserve, named the WAVES, Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, and the Marine Corps Womens Reserve, known as Marines. The Coast Guard followed with SPARS, which came from the Coast Guard motto Semper Paratus - always ready.


On Sept. 10, 1942, the WAFS, Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron delivered planes from the factory to military bases. They became known as WASPS, Womens Airforce Service Pilots on August 5, 1943. WASPS were not eligible for military health care or life insurance and they were uninsurable as civilians due to the dangerous nature of their work. Male civilian pilots, doing the same work as women pilots, received a temporary commission as Service Pilots.


By January of 1944, there were over one hundred thousand women serving in uniform. Many Army female personnel served throughout the world, but Navy regulations did not permit women to serve overseas until the war was almost over. Navy nurses did serve on board hospital ships, and in almost every overseas facility.


On Jan. 13, 1944, the Comptroller General of the Army Air Forces ruled that, “The authority in the act of September 22, 1941, to make temporary appointments as officers in the Army of the United States “from among qualified persons refers to and contemplates men exclusively and may not be regarded as authority for commissioning women as officers in the Army of the United States.”


NORM: men exclusively is in italics in the original. I can’t get it in this program.


During the WW 11 period, over 400,000 women served their country.


In 1992 the Defense Authorization Act repealed the long-standing exclusion law for women pilots. In 1993, President Clinton signed the military bill ending combat exclusion for women on combatant ships. In 1994, Defense Secretary Aspin approved a new general policy to allow Army women to serve with some ground combat units during combat. On Dec. 5, 1998, Congress initiated an investigation in the large number of complaints of military sexual misconduct and assaults. Former women military personnel formed STAMP, for the Survivors Take Action against abuse by Military personnel. They can be reached at 500 Greene Tree Place, Fairborn, OH 45324.