Thursday, August 04, 2011

MST, veterans suicides

I was the only female non-commissioned officer (NCO) except for our supervisor, a senior master sergeant who had never deployed and had no experience with Force Protection. The oldest technical sergeant in our group seemed to resent us from the start of our tour. He clearly had issues with authority and women. I strived to overlook the female jokes and comments he regularly made and get along with him. One night he offered to drive me back to my living quarters. Tired and appreciative of not having to walk, I accepted a ride. In hindsight, I should have walked. He drove me to a secluded area of the base. I rejected his sexual advances and demanded that he take me back to the base. The next day, I told my boss what happened. Her response was: "It happens all the time. Forget about it." I was stunned, but knew I had nowhere else to go but back to work.
The technical sergeant began to stalk me. He even tried to break into my room one night. My boss continued to do nothing. One day in November 2009, my life and career were forever changed. Alone at my desk, finishing up paperwork for the day, I was alone. I walked to use the restroom. In the restroom, I was attacked and thrown up against the wall and raped. It seemed like slow motion. I could barely could move and breathe. The technical sergeant told me how much he enjoyed the attack. I wondered whether he was going to kill me and report me absent without leave (AWOL). He left and I just sat there in shock. The next day, I feared how my boss would react. She blithely sent me to a base chaplain who astonishingly said, "Most sexual assaults occur when drinking is involved." He told me to "take the day off and get some sleep." My disinterested boss said, "This is a 'he said-she said' kind of situation. Nobody would be able to sort out the truth." The truth was, few military commanders have the courage or training to address sexual violence in the military. I now have heard this type of story about hundreds of veteran rape and assault survivors.
After the attack, I was devastated. I felt alone and scared for my safety. At one point, I considered killing myself. After a few days, I called my supervisor back in the U.S. and they immediately requested that I be sent back home, which I was. My unit sent me for counseling and tried to investigate. They concluded little could be done since the attack happened in Iraq.

The above is from Mary Gallagher's "Recovering From My Service to Our Nation" (Huffington Post). Military Sexual Trauma, MST, is a serious problem with very little attention. If you doubt it, type "MST" into any search engine and scroll and scroll before you come across Military Sexual Trauma. The VA notes:

In both civilian and military settings, service members can experience a range of unwanted sexual behaviors that they may find distressing. These experiences happen to both women and men. "Military sexual trauma" or MST is the term used by the Department of Veterans Affairs to refer to experiences of sexual assault or repeated, threatening acts of sexual harassment.
The definition of MST used by the VA is given by U.S. Code (1720D of Title 38). It is "psychological trauma, which in the judgment of a VA mental health professional, resulted from a physical assault of a sexual nature, battery of a sexual nature, or sexual harassment which occurred while the Veteran was serving on active duty or active duty for training." Sexual harassment is further defined as "repeated, unsolicited verbal or physical contact of a sexual nature which is threatening in character."

In September 2007, NOW on PBS explored MST and you can still stream the broadcast online, the page also has links to various MST resources. The resource we note is VETWOW. WebMD notes the VA's most recent survey which found 23% of female veterans experienced sexual assault while serving and 55% of women and 38% of men experienced sexual harassment while serving. The barriers to prevention of sexual assault and sexual harassment in the military is fairly obvious: DoD managementthat doesn't care. They care in that they don't want it reported. But that's it. That's why they still employee the woman whose job it is to track this issue -- despite the fact that the woman refused to testify to Congress in 2008. It's why Robert Gates would mouth some insipid words when the press was around but nothing improved. He was Secretary of Defense under for two administrations and he was allowed to continue in his job despite the fact that the numbers kept rising (also true of suicides). And it's also the fault of the press. When Gates 'stepped down,' the media did non-stop coverage. Fawning coverage. He did a great job! They insisted. But didn't prove. And what they should have done was given him a score card on the issues he was supposed to be addressing.

No, flirting with the press wasn't one of those issues. But to hear those reporters -- off the record -- rushing up to have their photo with Gates on that last day and gushing about how no Secretary of Defense had ever made himself more available to the media was to grasp that the press didn't give a damn about scoring these issues, only about praising their hero.

MST treatment has its own barriers. Among those barriers are the small resources available and being aware of resources, also the usual issues that come from sexual traumas and the fact that service members -- men or women -- are expected to project 'strength' and it can be hard for some people to reconicle that expecation and also ask for assistance in dealing with MST. In 2010, veteran Rachel Caesar discussed with Susan Kaplan (NPR's All Things Considered -- link has audio and text) the harassment she experienced and the difficulties she faced, "I was here, coming here for therapy, everything, doing what I had to do, but I was dying inside. And nobody here knew the real trauma I was going through."

In other news, Mary Scott (WBIR -- link has text and video) reports on Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam's trip to Iraq and Afghanistan:

Madisonville natives Sgt. Bryan Graves and Staff Sgt. Darrin Goodman both served two tours together in Iraq.
They are also both deputies for the Monroe County Sheriff's Department.
They returned in March but want everyone to remember how many of their fellow soldiers are still there.
They say Iraq still feels like a war zone.
"It's still dangerous. There's still people getting blown up daily over there," said Sgt. Graves.

Senator Patty Murray is the Chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. We'll close with this news release from her office:

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE Contact: Murray Press Office

Wednesday, August 3, 2011 (202) 224-2834

VETERANS SUICIDES: Senators Call on Nation’s Governors to Begin Reporting Veterans Suicides to the VA in Order to Accurately Track National Crisis, Improve Prevention Efforts

Letter focuses on the need for 41 states that do not currently communicate information about veterans suicides to begin tracking and reporting

(Washington, D.C.) – U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), Chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, has joined with Senators Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), Max Baucus (D-MT), and Robert Casey (D-PA) to call on state Governors to begin reporting critical statistics on suicides among military veterans in their states. The effort, which comes amid a steadily rising suicide rate among veterans and members of the military, focuses on pushing 41 states to create a direct link to the VA to communicate information about veteran suicides. That information is particularly important for tracking and prevention efforts as many suicides among veterans not enrolled in the VA often go unrecorded.

“One of the most significant obstacles to understanding veteran suicide is the lack of information available regarding these individuals,” the Senators wrote. “In many cases the Department of Veterans Affairs does not even know that a veteran has died if that individual was not enrolled in VA health care.”

In addition to the National Governors Association the letter sent by the Senators also went to the National Association of Medical Examiners, which is the professional organization for medical examiners and death investigators who are responsible for investigating deaths that are violent, suspicious, or otherwise unusual.

The full text of the Senators’ letter is below:

July 20, 2011

The Honorable Dave Heineman

Chair, National Governors Association

444 North Capitol Street

Suite 267

Washington, DC 20001-1512

Dear Governor Heineman:

As you know, there has been a disturbing rise in suicide rates among veterans and members of the military. We are sure you find this trend as troubling as we do. As we continue our work to provide all the needed resources and services to assist servicemembers and veterans with mental health concerns, we ask for your assistance in this effort.

One of the most significant obstacles to understanding veteran suicide is the lack of information available regarding these individuals. In many cases the Department of Veterans Affairs does not even know that a veteran has died if that individual was not enrolled in VA health care. This makes it very difficult for researchers and mental health professionals to study the information and design effective, targeted campaigns to prevent suicide.

This is a result of the fact that only 16 states provide information to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Violent Death Reporting System. VA has also been working with the states to create a direct link between the states and VA to communicate information about veteran suicide, but so far only nine states have reached such an agreement with the Department.

We understand that many states have efforts underway to address this problem. It is important to ensure that these efforts are completed quickly. Further, with respect to the states which have not yet begun such efforts, we must encourage those governors to see that their states begin working with VA to reach an agreement and provide this information directly to the Department. As you know, these arrangements will be very beneficial as they will allow VA to utilize the timeliest data to improve the efficacy of suicide prevention efforts.

Thank you for your assistance, we look forward to working with you on behalf of the nation’s veterans.


Patty Murray John D. Rockefeller IV

Chairman Senator

Robert Casey Max Baucus

Senator Senator



Eli Zupnick

Press Secretary

U.S. Senator Patty Murray


Description: pm-sigbockDescription: you-tubeDescription: twitter3 Description: rssi-icon

The e-mail address for this site is