Female Veterans and Military Sexual Trauma

Irina Gillett, Jennifer Rios, and Caitlin Roarke


Through research and interviews with female veterans and veteran service providers, the authors have formed a community assessment on female veterans and women in the military who have experienced military sexual trauma (MST). The authors found that despite attempts to improve some military sexual assault prevention programs, services for those who have been harassed or assaulted remain inefficient and unsatisfactory. Specifically, some female veterans who have experienced MST argue the following: Firstly, the military should eliminate the questionnaire that is asked of those who have experienced MST because the 52 questions are designed as research on how to blame the survivor of the trauma. Secondly, a civilian team should investigate all MST cases because military teams are incapable of being impartial and are inept at providing the services needed for fair and thorough trials.


The Department of Defense (DoD) defines sexual assault as ¡°intentional sexual contact, characterized by use of force, threats, intimidation, abuse of authority, or when the victim does not or cannot consent. Sexual assault includes rape, forcible sodomy (oral or anal sex), and other unwanted sexual contact that is aggravated, abusive, or wrongful (to include unwanted and inappropriate sexual contact), or attempts to commit these acts¡± (Department of Defense , 2008, p.10). In 2010, the DoD reported that there were 3,158 reported sexual assaults on military personnel (Service Women¡¯s Action Network, 2011). The DoD also suggests that only 13.5% of all military sexual assaults were reported, which makes the actual number of assaults closer to 19,000 in 2010 (Service Women¡¯s Action Network, 2011; Stalsburg, 2011; Department of Defense, 2011). According to the DoD¡¯s research, ¡°in 2010, less than 21% of reported cases went to trial. Of these 529 alleged perpetrators who were prosecuted, only 53% were convicted while 41% were acquitted or had charges dismissed¡± (Stalsburg, 2011, p. 1).

The military currently offers two options for reporting sexual assault. The first, restricted reporting, allows a victim to ¡°confidentially disclose the crime to specifically identified individuals and receive medical treatment and counseling without triggering the official investigative process¡± (United States Army, 2011, p. 1). While this option allows for anonymity and medical treatment, it does not allow a victim to receive protective orders against an assailant. The second, unrestricted reporting, allows a victim to receive ¡°medical treatment, counseling and an official investigation of the crime¡± (United States Army, 2011, p. 2). In 2004, the United States Army formed a Task Force to research the effectiveness of sexual assault reporting. The research found that the policies in place were blocked by several obstacles and, in some cases, were deliberately not followed. The Task Force stated, ¡°current sexual assault prevention and response policies and programs are not integrated among supporting organizations¡± (Department of the Army, 2004, p.4). They also found that the lines of communication for reporting assaults were ¡°not widely recognized throughout the Army as confidential avenues for victims of sexual assault¡± (Department of the Army, 2004, p.4). The training programs were found to have a large focus on preventing sexual harassment, but had limited coverage of sexual assault prevention. There were inconsistencies in the proper use of response by different military leaders as well as an accumulation of genetic evidence to be processed at the United States Army Criminal Investigation Laboratory (Department of the Army, 2004). This Task Force found a great deal at fault with the report and action policies and implementation of policies with regards to military sexual assault. Several factors impeded a victim¡¯s ability to report and others slowed down or stopped the process of investigation.

The United States Army¡¯s Sexual Harassment/ Assault Response and Prevention program has begun to utilize the I. AM. Strong campaign in an attempt to prevent sexual crimes. The program emphasizes teamwork and respect as a means to prevent sexual assaults before they occur. The program takes into account the underlying culture that allows for sexual assaults to happen frequently and uses trainings to help prevent the ¡°precursors of sexual assault¡± (United States Army, 2011). These precursors include ¡°sexual innuendos, sexual harassment and egregious indecent assaults¡± (United States Army, 2011). The program offers trainings, motivational posters and banners, as well as small guidebooks on how to help fellow service members who are in need of assistance.

While improvements have been made in some military sexual assault prevention programs, services for those who have been harassed or assaulted remain inefficient and unsatisfactory. There are reports that ¡°female rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment survivors who have used Veterans Administration (VA) services reported lower quality of care and dissatisfaction with VA services compared to women using outside care¡± (Kelly et al., 2008, p. 744; Service Women¡¯s Action Network, 2011). Both men and women who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) due to MST have difficulty receiving disability payments. Furthermore, it has been found that when compensation is received, women get a lower amount than men on average (Department of Defense, 2011). These military deficiencies must be dealt with quickly, especially since it has been found that there is, in fact, a higher rate of sexual harassment and assault in the military than in civilian life: ¡°78 percent of women and 38 percent of men reported at least one experience of unwanted sexual behavior generally defined as sexual harassment and 6 percent of women and 1 percent of men reported at least one sexual assault experience during the past year¡± (Bastian et al., 1995, as cited in Hendricks et al., 2008, p. 412). It is more likely that women who experience sexual assault in the military will also experience mental health issues. One study found that ¡°women who experienced MST were more likely to endorse trauma-related psychological symptoms than women who did not experience sexual trauma in the military¡± (Rowe et al., 2009, p. 393).

RW, a female veteran who went absent without leave (AWOL) from the Marine Corps in February 2010, went to jail for going AWOL in April 2011 and was discharged from the Marine Corps in June 2011. Since then, she has been building MST groups for female veterans at a pro-soldier and anti-war coffee house. On October 6th, 2011, Irina Gillett interviewed RW to discuss her personal experiences with and insights about MST. RW emphasized that most of the women she encountered in the military and in the MST groups are women who experienced sexual abuse both prior to entering the military and during their time in the military. RW argues that the military uses statistics regarding women who voluntarily report being sexually abused prior to entering the military as a way to discredit women who experience MST. While the military uses this knowledge to blame women who are victims of MST, RW suggests that this information reveals that most women who are coming into the military are ¡°from broken homes¡± (personal communication, October 6, 2011). She also argues that, from day one, all service members are trained to expect forms of discrimination and to become quiet victims of the military:

From making you stand for hours in the sun, so you get skin cancer. [The commanders] made us roll sunscreen on our clothes and then roll around on the ground. The sunscreen that the military made us buy. They did not let us put it on our skin. From not letting us change our socks, so that we get some skin eating disease that was going around. You are trained to be a victim. I marched with a sprained ankle for three miles. I don¡¯t know how I did it, but I did. With this mentality, being a victim and sucking it up, your sexual vulnerability is at risk as well. People want to divide the sexual vulnerability that the military ignores from the rest of the abuse. You can¡¯t look at it separate from the military culture. You are trained to be quiet about abuse in general. It is part of the training and culture¡ªand not just for the women. (personal communication, October 6, 2011)

RW argues that sexual abuse and rape within the military are caused in large part by ¡°the [military¡¯s] culture of dominance and violence¡± which creates ¡°a toxic environment¡± for everyone (personal communication, October 6, 2011). She claims that women in the military experience abuse more frequently than men do because they are ¡°easier targets,¡± but the abuse is by no means limited to men attacking women (personal communication, October 6, 2011). RW also observed that many of the men she served with used their friendship with her and their self-assigned role as ¡°protectors¡± of her as a justification for abusing or raping her: ¡°It¡¯s the male patron saying, ¡®You are under my protection, therefore, you are mine, therefore, you owe this to me¡¯¡± (personal communication, October 6, 2011).

When asked what the military could do to improve the experiences of women in the military, RW suggested two specific improvements: Firstly, the military should eliminate the questionnaire that is asked of those who have experienced MST because the 52 questions are designed as research on how to blame the survivor of the trauma. Secondly, a civilian team should investigate all MST cases because military teams are incapable of being impartial and are inept at providing the services needed for fair and thorough trials.

SK is a female veteran who served as an Explosive Ordnance Disposal technician in Afghanistan, where she was the only woman on an all-male team and Task Force. On October 2nd, 2011, Gillett and Caitlin Roarke interviewed SK to discuss her personal experiences with and insights about MST. SK shared that she struggled to set boundaries with the men she worked with because she wanted to be a part of the boy¡¯s club and included in the family:

Every year we have to participate in sexual harassment training classes. Basically it¡¯s not taken seriously where everyone makes fun of it and we even had a situation where a guy stripped naked and did an erotic dance during the training. That¡¯s how life was in my unit. And our leadership condoned it…. Basically I was condoning the behavior because I wanted to be accepted and be a part of the group mentality. I do feel guilty because of how I engaged and acted in the beginning and blame myself for what happened later on when I tried to change the relationships. (personal communication, October 2, 2011)

SK laments that she did not know a higher- ranking woman who could have mentored her and helped her make choices that might have protected her safety. Similarly to RW¡¯s experiences, SK describes a progression from sexual harassment to sexual abuse and rape that was contingent on the cultural acceptance of manipulative, patriarchal excuses and a ¡°boys will be boys¡± mentality that included the belief that all women, especially attractive women, are sluts. When asked if she received any support in dealing with MST during her time overseas, SK explains:

I referred myself to psychiatry and they basically throw you sleeping pills, anti- depressants, and send you back to continue what you were doing…. There was literally one psychiatrist per 3,000 people and he was bouncing from place to place. So you can already imagine, they don¡¯t have enough time to deal with that. It¡¯s all about the freaking mission. (personal communication, October 2, 2011)

SK argues that far more support should be offered to MST victims overseas. She also agrees with RW that it is crucial for MST investigations to be transferred over to civilian teams that are properly trained and unbiased. SK believes that the Department of Defense should maintain a military sex offender registry that can alert service members, unit commanders, communities, and civilian law enforcement to the presence and movement of military sexual predators. SK argues that the Feres Doctrine, which is a Supreme Court decision from 1950 that prevents service members from suing the military for damages, needs to be overturned, so that the military can be held accountable for its decisions.

Due to the MST that female veterans, such as RW and SK, regularly experience in the military, we decided to speak with a few veteran organizations to see how they incorporate the issue of MST into their agendas. Project for Return and Opportunity in Veteran Education (PROVE) works to support student veterans and ease their transition from military service to student life. PROVE is mainly funded through an enrollment management division that is headed by a veteran at the City University of New York (CUNY). Dr. Roger Sherwood, Project Director of PROVE, stated that the organization struggles to connect to veterans on a personal level. When asked about how PROVE interacted with female veterans who have experienced MST, Sherwood admitted that most female veterans do not discuss this issue with social work interns at PROVE and that the few female veterans who have disclosed about MST have not continued engagement with PROVE. Sherwood explained that conversing with veterans about trauma usually requires a longer period of engagement than PROVE usually has with veterans.

Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta is aiming to take action to end MST. However, although Panetta expresses a desire to bring justice to sexual assault survivors within the military, he has trouble indicating what should be classified as sexual assault within the military (Pellerin, 2011). Such uncertainty and confusion inevitably trickles down to soldiers as is revealed in a Senior Airman¡¯s response to a question about sexual assault in the military:

Assault? Like rapes? I¡¯m sure it happens. Stick a group of guys in a room with only one girl for a long time and anything could happen. I don¡¯t think it¡¯s a huge problem though. I mean, honestly, how often could it happen? (personal communication, November 26, 2011)

The military appears to actively avoid addressing the issue of MST both internally and externally. When Roarke tried to interview the leaders of PTSD groups within the VA, she encountered consistent silence. Roarke repeatedly reached out to the following sites via telephone and email: the PTSD and Mental Health Center at the James J. Peters VA Medical Center, the Women¡¯s Health Center at the Northport VA Medical Center, the VA NY Harbor Healthcare System Women¡¯s Health Centers in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and St. Albans Community, the Bronx Vet Center, and the Harlem Vet Center. After reaching out to these sites for several weeks and not hearing back, Roarke was forced to conclude that no one wanted to discuss the issue of MST with her. She began to wonder whether this silence was a form of denial and was reminded of the following comment by the Senior Airman that she had interviewed:

I mean, we make jokes; I don¡¯t really think it¡¯s harassment. It¡¯s part of what we¡¯re doing. We make jokes to each other a lot. You know, between guys, I don¡¯t think that¡¯s harassment. It¡¯s part of what we do. (personal communication, November 26, 2011)

MST is the leading cause of PTSD among female veterans, while combat trauma is the leading cause of PTSD among men. We argue that it is time to listen to the demands of female veterans and make the adjustments that are necessary to greatly reduce MST.


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Kelly, M. M., Vogt, D. S., Scheiderer, E. M., Ouimette, P., Daley, J., Wolfe, J. (2008). Effects of military trauma exposure on women veterans¡¯ use and perceptions of veterans health administration care. Journal of General Internal Medicine, 23(6), 741-747.

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About the Authors

Irina Gillett received a Magna Cum Laude B.A. in philosophy from Barnard College, Columbia University. Irina is pursing a M.S.W. at the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College in Clinical Practice with Individuals and Families with a Health and Mental Health practice specialization. She is enjoying her internship at the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene where she conducts brief therapy with adults and young adults.

Jennifer Rios earned her baccalaureate degree from CUNY- Hunter College, where she was a Ronald E. McNair Scholar. She is currently pursuing her Master of Social Work (MSW) with a focus in Clinical Practice with Individuals and Families specializing in children, youth, and families. She is an MSW intern at SCO- Family of Services in Corona, Queens and is delighted that she is working with children and their families. She enjoyed straying away from children and youth to focus on female veterans experiencing military sexual trauma and has been enlightened on this issue. She is looking forward to learning more about this population. Jennifer can be reached at jrio@hunter.cuny.edu.

Caitlin Roarke received her Bachelors degree in Sociology with minors in Psychology and Art History from Manhattan College in 2011. She began her Master of Social Work in the Fall of 2011 with an internship at Middle School 390. She concentrated in clinical and individual work with interest in the LGBTQ community. she currently lives in the Bronx and can be contacted through caitlinroarke@gmail.com.

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