This week we saw a screening of Thank You For Your Service, a film about mental health in the military, directed by Tom Donahue. Serendipitous because we’d been diving deeper into the topic of the systematic dysfunction of war. It clearly starts from the top down but this isn’t an article about politics. This is a piece about the people who suffer.
In the film (stay tuned for the review) they talked about PTSD and the many different forms of trauma experienced by soldiers. In an earlier piece, we talked about rape in the military as experienced by Mary Getty who was gang raped by six soldiers she’d previously considered close friends.
Why doesn’t the government take care of our vets? Perhaps as former Mayor Guiliani said in TYFYS, government agencies don’t care about people, they aren’t paid to. As an audience member pointed out: “This film [“Thank You For Your Service”] is amazing, but what about the corrupt corporate assholes who send these men and women to war. No one wants to talk about them.”
Hopefully we’ll get there. But for now we’ll start with this… C. Paschal Eze, a Detroiter who works at the Detroit Rescue Mission with homeless veterans, recently introduced us to Military Sergeant Stephanie J. Shannon. Shannon, an honorably discharged American veteran, served for eight years in Desert Storm, Operation Desert Shield, Persian Gulf War I, 1990–91. She is also a victim of sexual assault, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Gulf War Illness (GWI). For 20 years, she lived with undiagnosed PTSD which eventually left her disabled. In response, she founded the Michigan Women Veterans Empowerment, a 501c3 faith-based nonprofit organization that empowers women veterans and their families and she is the author of #1 bestseller, Battling the Storm Within, a war memoir that details her life of living with undiagnosed PTSD, assault and GWI.
We landed an exclusive interview with Sgt. Shannon to discuss epidemics within the U.S. military. This article’s focus is sexual assault; we will run a follow-up piece on GWI.
Tell us what led you to empowering women veterans?
There was no one there for me when I returned home from war. I spent several years trying to find my voice and regain the ground I’d lost. Since then, I have rediscovered who I am and redefined my purpose. I am in a position now to help empower other women veterans that are struggling with the challenge of losing of themselves and trying to readjust back into civilian life. I am determined to make sure that no other woman veteran suffers like I did; living for so many years undiagnosed with PTSD and with no strong support system.
What percentage of women are sexually assaulted in the military?
According to the Pentagon, 1 in 3 women are sexually assaulted in the military. Military sexual trauma, or MST, is the term used by Veterans Administration to refer to experiences of sexual assault or repeated, threatening sexual harassment that a veteran experienced during his or her military service. Sexual harassment is further defined as “repeated, unsolicited verbal or physical contact of a sexual nature which is threatening in character.” More concretely, MST includes any sexual activity where a service member is involved against his or her will. For example, he or she may have been pressured into sexual activities with threats of negative consequences or with implied better treatment in exchange for sex. The victim may have been unable to consent to sexual activities. For example, [they were] intoxicated; or may have been physically forced into sexual activities. Other experiences that fall into the category of MST include unwanted sexual touching or grabbing, threatening and offensive remarks about a person’s body or sexual activities, and threatening or unwelcome sexual advances. The identity or characteristics of the perpetrator, whether the Service member was on or off duty at the time, and whether he or she was on or off base at the time do not matter. If these experiences occurred while an individual was on active duty or active duty for training, they are considered by Veterans Administration to be MST. Of the 1 in 3 women who are assaulted, 1 out of 7 do not report it. Only 1 out of 10 of those that do report it, go to trial. MST is an experience, not a diagnosis or a mental health condition. Although the reactions men and women have to MST are similar in some ways, they may also struggle with different issues. Race/ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, and other cultural variables can also affect the impact of MST.
Tell us more about military sexual assault on men.
Many men who experience MST do not speak out. According to the Pentagon, 38 men in the military are sexually assaulted daily, or 1 in 100 men. I had a man tell me about being gang-raped by 10 men. No one helped him. Male rape is looked down upon, because there is a myth that men don’t get raped. [Supposedly] only women do.
Many men are shamed and labeled gay, bisexual, or weak. There are free MST counseling serves available through the VA Healthcare Systems, however they are not services that are tailor-made to serve that population yet. Many suffer in silence, self-medicate, or even commit suicide. The veteran suicide rate is 22 people per day with women veterans 6 times more likely to commit suicide than civilian women. Most people that commit suicide suffer in silence and see no other way out of the pain. Men are not able to speak out publicly without being shamed, ridiculed, and invalidated. Most victims want privacy, respect, and support in order to recover however many only get the shame, ridicule and blame for their MST experience.
Tell us about the affects and differences between MST and PTSD.
Female and male survivors of MST experience strong emotions, depression, intense and sudden emotional reactions, anger or irritability frequently, feelings of numbness, feeling emotionally flat, or difficulty experiencing emotions like love or happiness. They can have trouble sleeping and disturbing nightmares, have difficulty focusing. Many develop problems with alcohol and drugs. Responses depend on how soon their feelings are validated and how quickly they receive help. It depends on the person’s ability to bounce back and how long it took to get mental or medical attention to address MST. It’s not anything you can predict, but the sooner you get treatment, the more probable you’ll get better.
Although PTSD is commonly associated with MST, it is not the only diagnosis that can result from MST. Fortunately, people can and do recover from experiences of trauma, and Veteran Health Administration has effective services available to help veterans do this. Some service men and woman do not experience recovery. Some face injustice and some die. After the death of PFC Lavena Johnson from self-inflicted wounds, the Johnson family felt the information from the Army was vague and contradictory. There was an official investigation that took months and was conducted by special agents from the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command, which investigates soldiers’ deaths and crimes within the Army. Investigators concluded that Private Johnson shot herself in the mouth with her M-16 rifle in a contractor’s tent on the military base in Balad, Iraq, where she was stationed. The report included witness testimony suggesting that she may have been depressed over a recent breakup. Lavena Johnson’s father, John Johnson, demanded to see the Army’s evidence. He filed Freedom of Information requests and enlisted the assistance of local legislators. Johnson formed his own investigative team, enlisting the help of family members who have studied criminal science. For eight years they have pored over the investigation documents; studied the horrifying photographs; analyzed witness statements. Mr. Johnson believes his daughter was raped and murdered, and her death was covered up. Johnson believes the Army’s findings were flawed. He says her death was investigated as a suicide, not a homicide. But the Army stands by its findings.
Congresswoman Kirsten Gillibrand looked to end the epidemic of sexual assault in the military with the Military Justice Improvement Act (MJIA) only to have it shot down and dismissed by our own congressional leaders. Often after a combat or sexual trauma you see the world as an unsafe place to live which can keep your body in a state of constantly alert and ready for a possible attack, this was my mode of operating. My military trainings and combat experiences as an 88M, transportation specialist was very rigorous and demanding. I had thoughts of being ambushed while in a convoy at any moment and being taken captive by enemy forces, even though I was trained well to respond, there was nothing like it when I was living the moment. Reactions to feeling like you are in danger can cause you to operate in a freeze mode, like a deer in the headlights or fight mode like a militant warrior. While on guard duty, which was considered one of the most important duties at my unit’s home base, the responsibility of staying awake for 12 hours or more while sitting in a tower or a bunker just watching for the moves, sounds or things that may be generated by your enemy. During the Desert Storm Persian Gulf War, the added threat of biological and chemical warfare was great due to the scud missiles that were launched towards us from Saddam Hussein.
How are the crimes handled after assault?
Unfortunately we have a Military Justice system that is grey in nature. You have to report the offense to your commanding officer and you cannot go outside of the military chain of command. It is very intimidating due to the fact your offender could be your commander, or one of his buddies, or your brother or sister in arms. Often the sexual assault cases have not been handled fairly and many [victims] are denied justice. Others are discharged and given negative reports that will affect their ability to earn rank or be promoted.
It has been a very unjust system. Only 4% of the offenders get convicted and discharged from the military. The military received more than 6,000 reports of sexual assaults last year, but only a small fraction—about 250—led to a court-martial and conviction for a related crime. According to a new Pentagon report released May 5, 2016, only about 4 percent of sexual assault complaints led to a conviction. Pentagon officials say the low conviction rate, in part, reflects the nature of the criminal justice system and the rights of the accused. It is difficult to compare the military’s data system with the civilian’s sector because the DOD’s record keeping is unique. It is noted that it’s impossible to track all civilian reports lodged with police, employers, healthcare workers in America’s communities. A complaint might not lead to a conviction [because] many reports result in no punishment [due to] an array of legal reasons that can include lack of jurisdiction, lack of evidence, a commander’s decision not to prosecute, or because the alleged perpetrator separates from the military. What’s unjust is that the military’s sexual offender system is not connected to the civilian’s sexual offender system, so you could have a military sexual offender free in society, who is not required to register on the central sexual offender registry. So a rapist, or a perpetrator can be released into society without anyone knowing, what they have done in the military. Many victims feel like they are retaliated against, denied access to mental health services without being labeled as a high risk, or incompetent to serve or lead others. Many don’t speak about it and hope that their misery will end by self-medicating, developing addictions to sex, gambling, unhealthy relationships, or suicide. Some become isolated, numb, and detached from society. They feel unsafe. When your offender is someone you know, I call it friendly fire, that is when you are hurt by someone you once trusted and relied upon to support and protect you. It is the greatest betrayal when the ones you trust, become your enemy. Many offenders are just transferred to other units and still are allowed to serve with little or no punishment. Some are moved to new duty stations or slapped on the hand in penalty and allowed to remain within the military system to offend again.
Is sexual assault of women accepted among men in the military?
Women are not the only victims and men are not the only perpetrators. It is a pink elephant in the room that everyone sees but often ignores due to the complexity of the beast. It is openly condemned by the leadership in the military and noted in the military code of conduct as unacceptable however it is an epidemic and needs to be addressed but we are just at the tip of the iceberg. Some women are sexually assaulted by other women. It’s a chronic issue that has been kept in the closet for a long time. Due to social media, many advocates and victims are getting their voices heard even though the reform [is not coming quickly enough].
What is the response from female military peers?
It depends on their experiences. Many who have never experienced sexual trauma cannot relate and often equate it as something you just have to move on from. For a sexually assaulted woman, [the speed of] healing depends upon their level of addressing the trauma. Some may be in the denial stage or have been so traumatized that they have blocked it. Sexual trauma victims are often misunderstood and the trauma may be belittled or minimized. Some women rally up and join the ranks some are not at that place of recovery and are still suffering in silence due to the lack of support and not feeling safe enough to share what they have been through. Many are still nursing their wounds, causing them to become toxic, negative, and bitter. Some have blocked out their trauma and when it’s triggered they don’t have the coping mechanisms in place to address their trauma.
What reforms would you like to see in the system?
There should be a justice system in place outside of the military’s chain of command for victims to report privately without retaliation. There should be professional legal counselors available outside of the military’s system that will provide the intervention and support for MST victims. There should be immediate mental health services and treatment offered and the victim should be given the benefit of the doubt. There should be something in place that keeps the commanders under check. Due to the [current] system, many are not being held accountable.
How does your organization help women?
I wrote my war memoir Battling the Storm Within about my 20 years’ journey of healing and restoration. Then I established my nonprofit, Michigan Women Veterans Empowerment [MWVE] to help other women veterans to do the same. At MWVE, we seek to bring awareness of the many issues facing women veterans and provide solutions, engage women veterans in conversations and build relationships, provide professional high quality speakers and panel discussions that will evoke change in the mindset of women veterans, showcase women veterans’ gifts, talents and abilities, support and encourage women veterans in every area of their lives, provide an opportunity for women veterans to network, receive education, and connect to their community resources, empower women veterans that have served or are currently serving through networking, career and professional development, and mentorship, equip women veterans with the tools to pursue a rewarding career, empower women veterans who want to become entrepreneurs, encourage women veterans through mentorship.
We help strengthen the sisterhood bond between women veterans, to develop and maintain a strong community of women veteran supporters, and to educate the community that these women have served in the military. We are hosting the first 2016 Michigan Women Veterans Empowerment Conference to be held on Saturday November 19, 2016 at the International Institute of Metropolitan Detroit 111 East Kirby Street, Detroit, MI 48202 from 8 to 4 pm. The 2016 MIWVE Conference theme: The Voices of Women Veterans: Prisms, Platforms, Pathways and Potential. We will also release the first volume of “Our Voices United” Women Veterans Anthology Book project that is collecting stories and poems of women veterans’ voices across the nation at the conference. We are establishing a women veterans outreach center in the city of Flint, MI that will provide advocacy and support services for women and their families. We are also building the MIWVE Lansing and Detroit Michigan Chapters to do the same.
What do you recommend to victims of MST?
I recommend women veterans that have suffered MST reach out for help. I tell them if you are brave enough to serve, you are brave enough to heal. You have to validate yourself and don’t expect anyone to do it for you. You want to be healed then seek it through various means and be open for change. I speak boldly to women veterans about these empowering messages: Embrace the God given power you have within yourself. The best gift is to love yourself. Don’t compare yourself to anyone else. There will always be someone that’s better in some area than you. Compete with no one but yourself by designing the life your desire by making wise choices. Master the art of loving yourself. Do not allow anyone to mistreat you or use you, because you can train people how to treat you. Do not assume anything. Question and investigate everything you want to know. Your destiny is not a matter of chance; it’s a matter of choice. Be okay with being alone and take that time to rejuvenate yourself by being your own best friend. You attract what you are, so be healthy to draw positive things into your life. Finally, invest in yourself through education and be open to non-traditional methods of natural and spiritual healing.