Local vets speak out on military sex assault

Eastern Iowans use Web to spread the word on abuse

"Joan" and "Brigid" have dog tags that read "NOT INVISIBLE," part of the promotion for the documentary The Invisible War. Photographed on Thursday, Aug. 2, 2012, in the Gazette studio in Cedar Rapids. (Liz Martin/The Gazette-KCRG)

Every day for six months in the early ’90s, Joan had daily bouts with her boss, fending off unwanted sexual advances in his tiny, broom closet of an office.

“He would call me into his office and would push me into the corner” and then sexually assault her, said the former Army specialist whose boss, a sergeant first class, also outranked her at the military hospital where they worked.

Joan, who now works in Iowa City and goes by an alias to share her story, is a survivor of military sexual trauma, or MST. The latter is the military classification for sexual assault and harassment.

It’s a widespread problem. According to annual reports, the Department of Defense lists 3,192 reports of sexual assault in fiscal 2011, up from 2,688 in fiscal 2007. The Pentagon’s sexual assault prevention and response office estimates, however, that only 13.5 percent of incidents in the ranks are reported.

The documentary “The Invisible War,” which is being screened Friday at The Englert Theatre in Iowa City, is attempting to open the Pandora’s box on the seldom-discussed issue.

Local survivors

Joan and Brigid, both in their early 40s, did not know each other during their military careers, but today the friends use pseudonyms to co-author a blog — Enemy in the Wire — that catalogs their battles with military sexual trauma.

Brigid, a Cedar Rapids resident, said she suffered multiple assaults during her 10 years in the Iowa National Guard. She recalls the details of one when she was a teenager that occurred away from Iowa during active duty for training. Brigid was raped by two fellow trainees.

“I was passed out, drunk, and I woke up to being raped by two men,” Brigid said, recalling that she and a handful of close friends had rented a hotel room for a weekend getaway.

Brigid had gone to bed and thought the door was locked behind her. However, the two men were able to enter the room, lock themselves in and begin assaulting her.

“(My friends) broke the door down,” she said. “They witnessed my rape.”

The two men were training classmates, but neither was part of the group with whom Brigid was on vacation.

Brigid’s friends were able to chase the rapists away and persuaded her to report the incident to the Army’s criminal investigation command. She said reporting led to a six-month battle with military investigators, who forcibly ostracized her from her friends and threatened her with charges of sodomy and other offenses.

“You don’t tell. I broke the rules; I told,” she said. “And that is why a lot of women don’t come forward — because it was your fault anyway. What did you expect when you put on those boots? What did you expect? You want to play in a man’s world, well, you’re going to have to play with the men.”

Brigid eventually dropped her charges and returned to her National Guard post in Iowa, where she said she experienced multiple cases of sexual harassment and another rape by a commanding officer.

Joan had fewer issues with commanding officers and investigators than Brigid, since Joan chose to not come forward with formal complaints.

“Part of it was because it was very embarrassing, and part of it was because I had no proof,” said Joan, adding it would have been her word against an officer’s.

Both women say the sexual abuse was a leading cause of their leaving the military. They have since successfully filed claims for benefits with the Department of Veterans Affairs regarding the sexual assaults and are receiving financial compensation.

Military response

Because of the high number of sexual assaults, U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced early this year two policies to ease the process for men and women who report abuse.

The first allows victims who file a report to request an expedited transfer to a different unit. The unit commander must respond within 72 hours.

The second policy standardizes the retention period of all sexual assault records — 50 years — to streamline the process for veterans who file claims with Veterans Affairs.

Cathy Luther, who became the Iowa National Guard’s first full-time sexual assault response coordinator in 2008, said they have stepped up training for victim advocates.

“We have 40 hours of really intense training,” she said, which includes everything from medically informative lectures to learning how to identify predators.

Luther of Des Moines said with the latest crop of 21 trainees, the state will have close to 70 advocates in the Guard who can be on scene with a victim, usually within 24 hours of an incident report.

“We are committed to doing everything we can to ensure the safety, dignity and well-being of our people,” said Cynthia Smith with the Department of Defense. “One sexual assault is one too many.”

Resources for veterans

Any veteran who visits a VA hospital or clinic for health care services is screened for military sexual trauma, said Susan McCutcheon, the VA’s national mental health director for family services, women’s mental health and military sexual trauma.

Screening consists of two questions, asking whether the veteran has experienced sexual assault or sexual harassment during their military career. If veterans answer yes to either question, they are eligible to receive free mental and physical health care.

McCutcheon said 1 in 5 women and 1 in 100 men screen positive. The Service Women’s Action Network reports that, in fiscal 2010 alone, 108,121 veterans screened positive for military sexual trauma.

“That care can range from outpatient mental health counseling or treatment for physical health conditions, to residential or inpatient services for veterans who need more intense treatment,” said Margret Bell, the acting director for education and training for the VA’s national military sexual trauma support team.

In Iowa City — where “The Invisible War” will be screened — the veteran population has multiple resources, one of them being the University of Iowa’s Veterans Center.

John Mikelson, the center’s coordinator, said he has frequently referred UI student veterans to the local VA, the Women’s Resource and Action Center, and the Rape Victim Advocacy Program.

However, he said military sexual trauma is an issue that is not openly discussed.

“It is not discussed, because people still feel very anxious,” he said. “People are embarrassed it has happened to them; they feel betrayed. It wasn’t the enemy; it was somebody on their team that was supposed to be there to protect them.”

‘The Invisible War’

Amy Ziering — one of the two filmmakers — began gathering data for the documentary in 2008, and with each phone call, she said, she was struck by the gravity of the situation.

“I had no idea what I was going to find, but honestly, everything I found was so much worse than I thought,” she said. “It was traumatizing, rattling, a strain.”

While much of the film is the cataloging of hardships women veterans face when reporting incidents or attempting to receive care, Bell said the film opens an important dialogue for improvement.

“I think it would be hard to find someone in the VA who wouldn’t think it was important for us to talk more about these issues,” she said, “and more importantly, to be aware of the impact these issues have on people. And certainly the film is designed to do that.”

That’s why American Legion Post 29 in Washington, Iowa, brought the documentary to Iowa City and why Joan and Brigid are co-sponsoring the film’s screening through their blog.

“I think there are silent wounded among us,” Joan said. “They will not speak about their sexual trauma or abuse that made their wonderful military career go straight to hell. This film is an opportunity to raise awareness in the community and show survivors, ‘We’re with ya.’ ”

Ziering said she hopes her film can lead to real change.

“If the military sees and understands this issue is affecting troop readiness and morale, they can take it on and change it,” she said.

“The Invisible War” will screen at two locations in Iowa City:

  • 7:30 p.m. Friday at The Englert Theatre, 221 E. Washington St. Admission is free.

  • Aug. 24-30: The film will be shown at The Bijou Cinema, Iowa Memorial Union, on the UI campus. Tickets are $7, $3 for students

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