Sexual Assault in the Ranks

The Veterans Administration recently announced the opening of a new treatment facility for female veterans. When it opens in December, the New Jersey facility will be the only residential treatment center in the country exclusively treating women with what's known as MST: military sexual trauma. It's a growing problem in the ranks: a Pentagon report released last March showed that the number of reported incidents of sexual assault spiked from 2,400 in 2005 to nearly 3,000 last year—an increase of roughly 24 percent. Dr. Mic Hunter is a student of the problem. He holds a doctorate in clinical psychology, maintains a practice in St. Paul, Minn., and recently published a book titled, "Honor Betrayed: Sexual Abuse in America's Military," which looks at this issue among women and homosexuals. NEWSWEEK's David Botti spoke with Hunter about the scope of the problem, the type of abuse some veterans deal with—and possible solutions. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: What is the history of military sexual abuse, and what's the record of treatment given to victims?
Mic Hunter:
There are two questions there. One is how long has this been going on. The answer is forever. We have records of it in the Civil War, and certainly in war sexual assault has been widespread. How long [have people been paying attention to it?] Only recently. The '60s was the first time that sexual assault of a male was even [considered illegal] in the military. All the laws were written for the victim to be female. And so every time there's a scandal, people talk about there being zero tolerance for it. Only recently has meaningful action been taken.

What types of cases are you seeing?
There's a whole continuum from harassment, to fondling, to violent gang rapes. Particularly, males tend to be gang-raped, and so they suffer more physical consequences than females, who tend to get raped by a single perpetrator. One of the things that's different about the military is that you can't just walk off your job like you could in the civilian world. And you're in a situation where you might worry that you're gonna get killed, that if you report me you'll get accidentally killed from friendly fire. If it's a male-on-male sexual abuse there's a concern that a superior will say, "Well, that wasn't sexual abuse, that was homosexual contact, and so we're gonna bring you up on that."

How does rank play into all of this?
Sexual assault is about power. Someone who already has authority over someone can use that as a way to be sexually inappropriate with them. From the very beginning military personnel are trained to follow orders, and so they're at a disadvantage; it's harder for them to say no to somebody. In one case this sergeant ordered a woman to come to his barracks after lights-out, and she thought that was kind of funny. She didn't really think of it as an illegal order, and then once he got her there he sexually assaulted her. People in the military have that whole idea: "Well, I'm a trained killer, but I froze in this situation." The reaction was: "It's not the enemy attacking me, it's family." It has an incest dynamic in it: "I'm supposed to trust these people; they're supposed to be part of this special organization, and now look what's happening to me."

How is the military sexual trauma in this conflict—the Iraq time period—unique?
Historically, occupation armies have a higher incidence of sexual assault than do active invading armies. We know that since WWII. The thing that's different about this war from previous wars is that more people are talking about it. I just got back from the male survivor conference in New York City, where there were two workshops on military sexual trauma, which is the first time in 11 years there has been a single one. So to have two of them … something different is happening. When the VA is starting to have groups for sexual abuse survivors, these people that were abused 30 years ago are coming forward and asking for help. So we know that it's been going on forever … but how it's different is that they have services for it.

Is there anything being done to treat sexual abuse victims while they're still deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan?
There are toll-free numbers that people can call, and e-mails. I tried calling those and e-mailing them, and it was out of order every time I called it. That's one of things that people talk about, how the worst part was not the sexual assault, it was how they were treated afterward—that they were making a big deal out of nothing or "That's what you get for being in a man's army. You shouldn't have been there in the first place," or "That's all you're good for is to service male personnel." And people are also afraid that it will destroy their career. People that have volunteered and want a career in this, they're told, "Well, if you report this you'll be seen as a nutcase and you'll never advance, or you'll be seen as a troublemaker." A lot of people are going to civilian mental health people because they're afraid they won't be believed, or they'll be punished somehow if they go to the VA.

Is anything being done to help the perpetrators with their problem?
Well, frequently what happens is that the victim gets transferred; the perpetrators, their lives don't change much. Part of that is because base commanders take it personally if something like this happens, because it happened on their watch, and they don't want to look bad. And so a lot of people are told, "Just work it out between the two of you, or we'll transfer one of you, and don't make an official report." You can get help without making a report.'

What is the VA doing about all of this?
Some hospitals really get it and have somebody that's identified as [the go-to person]. They have brochures that are out in waiting rooms. There's still a huge stigma in that some people will say, "You ought to not have this person specialize, because then everybody knows if you go to see that person what you're going to see them for." We already know that combat veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder are afraid they'll be stigmatized if they seek help for their PTSD from combat, and then you add sexual abuse in there and it's even more of a stigma. A lot of guys that have PTSD from combat also have the sexual abuse. That's one of the risk factors. Someone who has experienced childhood sexual abuse, or abuse as an adult, and then is exposed to combat is more likely to develop posttraumatic stress disorder.

How has military sexual abuse changed as the armed forces have changed?
The military culture has changed. It's an all-volunteer army, for one thing. You get people who want to be there, instead of just draftees. You're getting more women, and that's changing the culture. The topic of sexual abuse, generally, is less taboo … it's not one in a million cases. We know that historically, over the last 60 years, one in a hundred male veterans reported they were sexually assaulted while in the military. And, of course, that's underreported, because sexual abuse itself is the most underreported crime.