- Posted June 1, 2012 by
Military Sexual Trauma: An Epidemic
In the last few years, as the debate played out surrounding the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, it was easy to get the impression that by allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in our armed forces, we would be introducing the worst kinds of sexual tension into the military. Detractors of the abolition of regulations which forbade homosexuals to be truthful about their sexual orientation said that morale and cohesion would suffer, possibly irreparably.
One gets the impression from reading the comments made by those detractors that they were genuinely concerned about sexual tension in the various branches of the military. On the other hand, if you were to Google the names of these same people to try and find quotes from them speaking out against military sexual trauma (MST), your search would be relatively fruitless.
If you are not familiar with the epidemic of military sexual trauma, you are not alone. Raising awareness about it has been a lonely battle, waged primarily by its survivors and tireless advocates, while the military itself, through either the Department of Defense (which oversees the four main branches of service, the Army, the Air Force, the Marines, and the Navy) or the Department of Homeland Security (which oversees the Coast Guard), has done precious little, within or without, to highlight (or combat) MST.
As a plot device, the story is very common. We start with a victim who has been sexually assaulted. In the wake of this, the victim/protagonist, emotionally weaker than the attacker, struggles in isolation and shame to muster the courage to report the assault. When (and if) that step is finally taken, the victim initially receives sympathy and caring, and assurances are made that their bravery in coming forward will be rewarded with justice.
Time passes, and justice is slow. A defense is mounted, both socially and in the courtroom, depicting the victim as a sort of aggressor, attempting to sully the reputation of the accused. The victim, broken but not beaten, bravely recounts the assault, first responding to sympathetic questions by the prosecutor and then accusatory questioning by the defense attorney. A few minutes of dramatic interrogation will usually ensue, but in the end, the victim prevails, and the defense attorney slinks back toward the defendant, eyes lowered, knowing the cause is all but lost.
If this were a movie, the only acceptable denouement would involve a packed courtroom, tensions rising, dramatic music swelling, and the jury foreman, following a close-up of an intense stare across the room, seemingly directly into the soul of the accused, would rise and declare, “Guilty!”
Any writer will tell you that such an ending is a given. While it may be permissible to flirt with doubt about the victim’s virtue or the attacker’s actions (all for dramatic effect), in the end, the sexual predator must be held accountable and punished. As a society, we have collective expectations and demands regarding such accounts. We have ideals about such circumstances that a storyteller is bound to acknowledge if the tale is to be accepted.
Take the sex of the victim as an example. As you read the above outline, it is likely that, despite the purposeful exclusion of gender-related pronouns, you imagined the victim to be a woman. If you are like most people, when provided with very little (and very general) information about a rape, your brain’s central casting office calls up a certain type of actress: petite, vulnerable, her innocence unquestionable. Such is our conditioning. It is why that screenwriter has to follow certain rules in order for the story to be socially plausible. A victim must be physically weak, an aggressor strong, and ultimately, our collective consciousness demands that there is justice for a victim of sexual assault.
But what if the victim were not weak and defenseless? What if she has been trained to fight, rigorously, in defense of herself and her country? (What if “she” were not even a woman?) What if the victim never sees justice? Would we want to believe the story? Or would we demand a re-write?
I chose to focus more on the stories of two women in this article; it will take the reader five minutes to Google the statistics regarding military rape for his or her own edification. But I want to include three statistics that I think are most telling and troubling. According to the Military Rape Crisis Center, 90% of all Coast Guard rapes go unreported; of those that are reported, 2% result in a court-martial. Most disturbingly, 92% of all rape victims are involuntarily discharged as a result of their rape.
Wednesday, May 30, 2012, marked the fifth observation of Military Sexual Trauma Awareness Day. It is likely that, that despite its having been reported, you are not aware of the epidemic of sexual violence that exists in the United States Armed Forces. According to the web site My Duty to Speak (mydutytospeak.com), “approximately 30 to 40% of female veterans and 10% of male veterans claim to have experienced some form of military sexual trauma. Sexual harassment rates are often much higher.”
My Duty to Speak is a platform for victims of military sexual trauma to share their stories. When you go to the site, you are greeted with a message from Panayiota Bertzikis, founder and director of the Military Rape Crisis Center, an advocacy group for survivors of military sexual trauma (www.stopmilitaryrape.org), a position for which, with her dedication, compassion, and determination, she seems to have been created but, with all of her heart, wishes she had never had to undertake. She founded the center in the wake of her own sexual assault while an active duty Coast Guardsman.
Panayiota Bertzikis enlisted in the Coast Guard in 2005, at the age of 23, and doing so was the culmination of a dream. Raised partly in Greece, in a fishing family, she had spent much of her life on the water. After moving to the United States and settling in New York City, she would watch the Coast Guard sailing up and down the Hudson, and she knew that she wanted to one day be a part of that, mixing a love of the water and a call to service.
On her first day of assignment to Station Burlington (following eight weeks of rigorous training during which exactly one hour was spent on the subject of sexual harassment), she was met with a Chief who did not believe that women should be allowed to serve. Rather than be discouraged, she was determined to be the hardest-working, best person at the station. Her dedication and hard work, however, were not met with approval by the Chief. When she began to report on her days off, to work towards Boat Crew qualification, the Chief angrily threatened to have her arrested for trespassing. He told her that he did not think she could ever qualify for ice rescue duty because of the softness of a woman’s skin.
At one point, she was beaten so severely (to the point of concussion) with a rolled-up newspaper by a shipmate while several men sat and laughed at her. The Chief’s response to that incident was to question her as to how, if she could not handle being beaten with a newspaper, she could ever possibly stand the rigors of search and rescue. Following this incident, she was sent for evaluation by a Coast Guard psychologist, who simply told her, “Sailors will be sailors,” and warned her that she needed to toughen up if she was going to be able to serve in the Coast Guard.
Due largely to disparaging remarks from the Chief, her reputation was not a good one among her shipmates, and she had very few friends. She was soon approached by a shipmate who shared with her his surprise, upon getting to know her, that she was not the horrible person the Chief was making her out to be. Trusting him, she had no apprehension when, on May 30, 2006, he called her and asked if she wanted to go on a hike with him.
They reached a pond, and he suggested that they go swimming. Not having packed her bathing suit, she declined to join him. She sat nearby, though, not paying any special attention to him, slightly uncomfortable with his nude bathing but mindful of the troubles she had already had in trying to be “one of the boys.” When he emerged from the water, he walked over to her and stood with his penis practically in her face. “You know what to do with that,” was all he said. She rose and attempted to remove herself from the situation, and that is when he punched her, causing her to suffer yet another concussion, and threw her down to the ground. Then, he raped her.
Bruised and bloody, she returned to her station, but she did not immediately report the rape. Having been subjected to the verbal assaults from the Chief as well as other shipmates, she wondered if maybe they were right. If she was too weak to defend herself, maybe she didn’t belong in the Coast Guard. There also was the very real fear that, if she could be blamed for being beaten with a newspaper, she could also be blamed for being raped.
That evening, her rapist wrote a drunken letter to her, apologizing for what he did. The next day, at breakfast, he sat down across from her and asked her if she had enjoyed the hike. Leaving him, she went to her room and contacted her best friend, a civilian. She had talked with him the night before, and he had encouraged her to report her rape. Once more, he told that she had to let Command know what this man had done.
She attempted to report her assault to the executive petty officer, and he kicked her out of his office. Later permitted to tell her story, this time to her chief, she arrived at his office to find her attacker already there. The chief called them both liars and childish and ordered them both to participate in a twisted kind of team-building exercise.
The exercise? After reporting that she had been raped, the Chief ordered her to clean an isolated attic with her rapist. Alone.
Afterwards, she returned to her room and took photographs of all of the bruises he had left on her body when he raped her. If nobody at the Station was going to care enough to do a proper documentation, she would do it herself.
There are protocols for reporting an assault and protocols to follow if a victim feels that their report has not been adequately handled. Bertzikis called several of the offices whose personnel were supposed to be available to assist her, yet none of them returned her call. Finally, a friend stationed in Boston attempted to report Bertzikis’ rape, which resulted in the command in Boston calling the Chief in Burlington.
For this, she was called back in and given a dressing down for going outside the Station to report her problems. She already had an appointment with a civilian counselor set up in Boston, but she was ordered to call the command office in Boston and recant her complaint against her Chief or she would be forbidden to leave the Station. She never did make the call, and she received retaliatory punishment for opening her mouth.
That weekend, one of her few friends at the Station, a reservist, inquired about her bruises, and she told him what happened. Later that evening, as she was distraught and vomiting from the stress of the events, her friend and the Officer of the Day contacted the Chief, who ordered that she be taken to the hospital.
By her rapist.
The man who had beaten and raped her was the person she was ordered to allow to take her to the hospital.
While there, she tried to report the rape to a Burlington police officer, but he refused to take the report, saying it was out of his jurisdiction. Following this, enraged at Bertzikis making her story “public,” the Chief sent her to Station South Portland (Maine), so that she could be independently evaluated before he discharged her for being a troublemaker. When the Chief in South Portland, who had no problem at all with Bertzikis, reported that he could not find any reason to discharge her, she was released to return to Station Burlington.
Emotionally, though, she could not do it, so she was sent to Boston, where there would be medical and legal assistance for her, as well as a victim advocate, and with the combination of all of these things, she was assured that she would get the help she needed. She was driven to Boston, where she was interviewed by a Coast Guard investigator.
During her interview, she was careful to recount every detail, but she could not help but notice that he was writing down very little of what she had to say. She encouraged him to take note of specific facts she was mentioning, and even though she could see that his hands remained still, he assured her he was writing it all down. (Subsequently, when she reviewed her file, she was able to confirm that none of the information she stressed to him had been included.)
She was “temporarily” transferred to the Station in Boston, even though, on paper, she remained assigned to the Chief in Burlington. While in Boston, she was assigned menial tasks and forbidden to perform any work that would have helped her advance her position within the Coast Guard. She was also assigned a victim advocate. Early on, however, it was clear from her questioning that the advocate did not believe Bertzikis to be a victim but a troublemaker. On top of this, the reason for her transfer to Boston was made public knowledge to her shipmates there.
Based on these reports, her shipmates took to harassing her. One such incident involved a group of Coast Guardsmen who had cornered her on a walkway between two buildings. They began calling her a “crazy, lying whore” who had “snitched on (our) friend.” One of them told her that, “You are hot. I’d love to rape you, too.” A passerby, a fellow shipmate who did not personally know Bertzikis, walked up and stopped the men. His attention allowed her, crying, her uniform ripped, to run away, while the men nonchalantly went about their business.
The passerby (who years later identified himself to Bertzikis after seeing her blog) went immediately to the Coast Guard Investigative Office to report what he saw, but he was told that it was an ongoing investigation that was a mess, and he was warned to stay away from it. But the man didn’t want to let it go. On his own, he went to Bertzikis’ victim advocate, who did nothing. While he could not understand how everyone seemed to be ignoring Bertzikis’ plight, it was made very clear to him that any further attempts to report what he saw would result in damage to his own career in the Coast Guard.
One task Bertzikis was assigned was to work in the base coffee shop. All the while, her file was getting thicker and thicker with information the Coast Guard was manufacturing to support its allegation that she was trouble. When she was able to see her file years later through a Freedom of Information Act request, she found an interview that had been done with a civilian co-worker at the coffee shop, who reported that Bertzikis was going to hang out with civilian friends she met at church. The statement included the opinion that it was thought Bertzikis was lying about that, just as they believed she was lying about the rape. (Her rape was characterized more than once in her service record as an “inappropriate relationship.”)
Eventually, the Coast Guard psychologist recommended her for a medical board discharge due to her difficulties dealing with her rape. When her advocate believed her to be suicidal, she was hospitalized for psychiatric treatment. This angered the Coast Guard psychologist due to, among other reasons, the cost of such treatment. It was the opinion of the psychiatrist in the hospital that she needed outpatient counseling and that her condition was such that she should never have been seen as an inpatient. The Coast Guard psychologist lamented in his report about how they had transferred her out of Station Burlington, but she was still not doing well.
How could she do well? Less than two months after her rape, she had been reassigned twice, forbidden to do work which could advance her, forbidden to see a counselor, verbally, physically, and sexually harassed in retaliation for reporting her “inappropriate relationship,” and she was the victim of persecutory treatment by the Coast Guard.
Eventually, she was assigned a Coast Guard lawyer to help her, and one of the few questions he posed to her about the victim was, “If he had never been accused of rape before, why would he start now?”
Once again, it didn’t matter that she could tell someone what had happened. It didn’t matter that there was a confession by her rapist. It didn’t matter that she had photographs that clearly showed the extent to which she had been beaten during her attack. It didn’t matter. No one wanted to believe her; and so no one did.
It was ultimately recommended that she be discharged from service due to an adjustment disorder. When her paperwork came through, however, instead of being a medical discharge, for which the Coast Guard would have had to pay her monthly benefits, she was being cut loose with an administrative discharge. It was classified as an honorable discharge, but the reason listed, in bold capital letters, was “UNACCEPTABLE CONDUCT.” In one of the few concessions that would be made by the Coast Guard on Bertzikis’ behalf, the reason was changed to “MISCELLANEOUS/OTHER.”
While she was still in the Coast Guard, Bertzikis started blogging about her experience (she had already begun offering support to fellow sexual trauma victims), and she was contacted by several other military sexual trauma victims who shared similar stories. Putting herself out there on the Internet, stories began pouring to her. It was clear that hers was not an isolated incident. In fact, rape followed by persecution and neglect was a pattern in the military, especially the Coast Guard. It was in the wake of this, before she was even kicked out of the Coast Guard, that she founded the Military Rape Crisis Center as a way for survivors to offer mutual support. This work has devolved into traveling the globe to speak out about the issue of military sexual trauma. Since her discharge, she has worked tirelessly as an advocate for the survivors of military sexual trauma.
In 2008, she and her friends held the first formal observation of Military Sexual Trauma Awareness Day, and through her efforts, more and more people are holding observances every year.
When you meet Panayiota, you are struck by her very unassuming nature. Despite her training, despite her inner strength, she remains a quiet, serious, woman, who blushes easily and is evidently naturally shy. It is clear from talking to her that she would have given anything to live her life blending in with her fellow brothers and sisters in the Coast Guard, and if she had to become notable, nothing would have given her more satisfaction than to have that notoriety come from being a good and loyal Coast Guardsman. Instead, she has come to be known and admired for her strength in victimhood.
She still refers to Coast Guardsmen as “my shipmates.” Six years later, despite all of the abuse at the hands of those shipmates, she wishes she could rejoin. If they called her tomorrow, she would gladly re-enlist, finish the work required to be certified to go on search and rescue missions, and do everything within her power to be a good Coast Guardsman.
That will never happen because she filed a report that says she was raped; thus, she will never be able to serve again. That does not mean, though, that her mission has changed. Through My Duty to Speak and the Military Rape Crisis Center, Bertzikis continues to search and rescue, pulling fellow survivors from the icy water and ensuring that their stories are heard.
When you first meet Luisa Valdez, you are aware of one thing: a force of nature has overtaken the room. My initial experience of Luisa came during the first monthly volunteer meeting I attended at an organization here in Phoenix where she has been helping out for quite a while. The meeting was already underway when the door opened, and in swept this incredibly striking figure who circled the table, stopping only long enough to give each person there a big hug, and it didn’t matter whether the person knew her or not. Her greeting was not just, “Hello;” it was to bestow upon each of us a gift that was at once identical to what the others received, yet uniquely our own.
That, in a nutshell, is Luisa Valdez: a person whose only goal is to give the gift of herself to the world. And what a gift!
While she also was a victim of military sexual trauma, her life story and the events surrounding her assault are very different. For one thing, the repeated sexual traumas she suffered in the Army were not the first time someone had attempted to make her a victim. From an early age, Valdez was violated on several occasions by a male relative.
Not feeling comfortable to discuss her assault within her family, after a year or two of repeated abuse, she summoned the courage to talk to an authority figure about her abuse. Still vivid in her mind is how, after she had confided to him, he rose from his desk, closed the door to his office, pulled down the shades, and began to molest her.
When she was 17, she followed in the footsteps of 40 other members of her family and enlisted in the military. For her, the choice was the Army. Following basic training, she was assigned, one month shy of her 18th birthday, to her new infantry unit. She arrived Easter weekend, and it was soon evident to both the command of the unit and to her that a mistake had been made, possibly a clerical error, resulting in her being the only female in her unit. Upon inquiry, the response from above was that, as she was the only logistics and supply person in the unit, and they needed a logistics and supply person, she would have to stay.
The unit didn’t want her, and they made it very clear to her, in every possible way. Almost immediately, the sexual harassment started. This was in addition, of course, to an intensification of the already grueling treatment new recruits are subjected to in the infantry. Marches that for male newbies were eight or nine miles with heavy packs became nine, ten, and eleven miles for Valdez, with even heavier packs.
Through all of this treatment, however, she remained true to the example of honor and service and toughness that her family had set for her. Whatever was thrown at her, she took it. She understood that her life was nothing like it had been on the outside. When you are in the military, things don’t work the way they do in civilian life, and when you are pushed, you don’t push back; you push yourself even harder. That was how she viewed being part of the Army.
The misogyny and physical intimidation progressed very quickly to what seems to be the next logical step in the military. After about 40 days in her unit, the rapes started. Unlike the sexual assault experienced by Bertzikis, the attacks visited upon Valdez were multiple and repeated, at the hands of four separate soldiers, sometimes individually and sometimes in groups.
It had only been seven or eight years since that day she sat in that authority figure’s office as a little girl and watched as he closed the door and darkened not only the room but a piece of her soul. Now, she was a small cog in a large machine that was designed to break a person down and rebuild them, completely, as a member of the team. Internally, she debated the merits, both personally and professionally, of blowing the whistle. She once again found herself at a crossroads. Should she report? She was now a grown woman, in a much different place and time, but was she facing a repeat of that same earlier trauma?
Sadly, the answer is, “Yes.”
Before she was able to report her attacks, she was given a lecture by her commander about the impression he and others were getting that she was promiscuous. Apparently, simply by being an unwilling participant in sexual assault, she was being labeled as a slut. Because of the mix-up in her placement, she had to be housed away from the unit in which she was serving, in a barracks where there were other women. Her commander took it upon himself to have some of the women talk to her and give counsel regarding her sexual habits.
Unable to take it any longer, she went to her Resource Officer and inquired about her options as an MST victim in a unit where the commander was spreading lies and rumors about her. The Resource Officer tried in vain to dissuade her from going further with an official complaint. He called the commander into the room as she was discussing her complaints, and they both fumed at her for daring to speak out.
Eventually, she would serve in different units, away from the men who initiated her into the ever-expanding club of military sexual trauma victims. The scars, however, remain. She successfully completed her service contract with an Honorable Discharge and is on disability for physical injuries unrelated to her sexual assaults as well as post-traumatic stress disorder regarding her experience with MST.
Today, she is married and very happy with her wife and the situation in her life. She has devoted herself to a life of service, to the LGBTQ and HIV+ community, to holistic health care and wellness education, and to the world in general,and she regrets nothing about where she is today. She desires to be a safe space for all who need one.
When I ask her how she copes, how she is able to wake up every day and go on, she tears a bit. It is difficult, to say the least, but she challenges herself to keep remembering that she is alive, she is whole, that although she has been beaten, she is not now (and will never be) broken.
Earlier, I used an example of the cinematic portrayal of the victims of sexual assault. Real life, though, is not a movie. In real life, in the case of military rape, it is more the rule than the exception that a sexual predator will go unpunished. It is more likely than not that he or she will never even be charged. If you are a survivor of military sexual trauma, justice must take the form of something other than a conviction.
For Panayiota Bertzikis, what justice there is comes from being able to provide a voice for other survivors, by sharing her story and theirs and outing those in the military whose sole purpose seems to be the denial of MST.
For Luisa Valdez, justice is being able to give of herself to those in need, anywhere, anytime. When I asked how and why, she simply said that it keeps her from focusing on the fractured pieces within that remain after repeated childhood and military sexual abuse. By sharing herself, she adds to the many stories upon which people can call for strength and courage.
Just two days before this year’s observance of Military Sexual Trauma Awareness Day, the nation observed Memorial Day, an annual holiday to honor all men and women who have served in our nation’s armed forces, especially those who have made the “ultimate sacrifice,” by which we usually mean those service people who gave their lives in combat. Especially in recent years, Memorial Day has also become a day not only to memorialize but also to give thanks and honor to all who currently wear a uniform in service of the United States.
As part of a roundtable discussion on MSNBC the day before Memorial Day, commentator Chris Hayes made some comments that brought down upon his head a heap of condemnation. He said, in effect, that he was uncomfortable with the term “heroes” to describe soldiers killed in combat, as use of the term, in his opinion, confers an elevated justification for any war. As we are wont to do in this country, many people slammed Hayes for voicing his thoughts, especially on Memorial Day weekend. To have done so was seen as dishonoring the troops.
I, for one (for slightly different reasons than Hayes’), agree with him. There is a culture in America that suggests that simply serving in the armed forces ennobles a person, that in donning a uniform an individual has fulfilled his or her obligation and earned heroic status. Treated as unpatriotic (some would say treasonous) is the individual who stands up and argues against this ennobling. You hear it when people voice dissent against the multi-front war on terror. It is acceptable to criticize the motives behind the war or the civilian leadership of the military, but you must couch your speech with an immediate qualification that you have nothing but respect for all of the individual troops on the ground. Somewhere along the way, we have developed a dogma of near-infallibility that we apply to those who protect and defend our freedoms.
It is a combination of misguided American exceptionalism and patriotic fervor, and it is probably the greatest disservice to those men and women of which we could be guilty. By wrapping these human beings in Old Glory, we make it impossible to acknowledge the individual shortcomings that many of them possess. To recognize these shortcomings somehow would impugn the flag, the nation, and, by extension, ourselves. So stories come and go about atrocities committed by members of the military against civilians or enemy combatants. We read them, and then we forget them. Many find “good” reasons to justify the atrocious behavior, or they deny that it really happened, or, worse, they try and brand such soldiers as heroes. Thus, we feed the cult of misplaced patriotism and, by believing we are defending our sons and daughters in uniform, we actually dishonor them in the most shameful way.
We do not ennoble them; we enable them.
In creating and sustaining this myth of perfection, we allow those who would choose to ignore the epidemic of military sexual trauma to carry out what they believe to be their duty, unchecked. As a nation, with our hands over our hearts and stars and stripes in our eyes, we say to the survivors of MST, “No, it didn’t happen. You were not raped. You were not harassed. You were not assaulted. American soldiers do not rape.”
They do, though; and they get raped, sexually as well as emotionally. Coast Guardsman Bertzikis walked away from her late spring hike bearing the physical markings of her attack. Slowly, those scars would heal, and the only physical evidence of her brutal rape would be a few files maintained by the Coast Guard, files which perpetuated a myth that her assault was simply an “inappropriate relationship.” In doing so, the Coast Guard believes it is continuing to support service people everywhere. But we know differently, and we must endeavor to not forget, to not neglect, to not bring any further shame upon these silent veterans who pay daily the dearest price for choosing to serve, without benefit of the honor of their comrades or recognition by those they pledged to defend,
It falls to each and every one of us to change that, and we can start today, right now. Thank those who would stand up and be heard. Salute what has to be one of the most difficult forms of bravery for anyone and honor those men and women for their sacrifice.
I thank Panayiota and Luisa, not only for their bravery, but also for their tenacity and their dedication to all victims.
As a person who was nearly completely unaware of MST before I heard their stories, I thank them.
As a victim of childhood sexual trauma, I thank them.
And as a fellow human being who hungers for examples of how this world is not completely devoid of true nobility and honor, I thank them.