“Jessica” (pseudonym) was 18 years old when she enlisted in the Army. She was trained as a mechanic, and enjoyed what she did.
The Army provided her the family she didn’t have at home and a sense of belonging and stability. At the time, the United States was not engaged in a war. A year later, this would change.
Jessica was sent to Afghanistan. While there, she was injured when the truck she was driving hit an IED. After her body healed, and she continued in her unit. Like all service people who serve in a war, Jessica saw and experienced many horrific things.
After her time in Afghanistan ended and she was back in the US, Jessica’s body wasn’t the same. She had an undiagnosed TBI (traumatic brain injury) from the IED. She had intense mood swings. She couldn’t concentrate. She had nightmares nearly every night.
These were all problems that Jessica felt like she could talk about with other veterans, friends and family. Things like TBI and PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) have become well known and understood.
What Jessica didn’t feel like she could talk about was the rape by her commanding officer, the very person in the chain of command she was expected to report sexual assault to, and who she looked up to like a father.
Jessica’s sexual assault is an all too common occurrence in the military. . The statistics on female veterans who have experienced sexual assault are staggering. Women represent only 14.6% of the military, yet they account for 95% of sexual crime victims.
There is an atmosphere in the military that discourages the reporting of sexual assault. It is a victim-blaming system that puts the responsibility of sexual attacks on the victims, not the perpetrators.
Out of the 26,000 service members who reported that they experienced unwanted sexual contact in 2012, only 3,374 were reported. (Source: United States Department of Defense Sexual Assault and Prevention and Response annual report for 2012). Jessica had seen what women in her unit suffered when they reported any type of sexual assault or harassment. They were told they would be reported themselves for making a false report or committing adultery. They were threatened. They were physically attacked. They were not believed.
So Jessica tried to stay away from her commander as much as possible, and returned home as soon as she was able to, keeping her assault secret like so many other female veterans.
Veterans who suffer from sexual assault in the military are at an increased risk for suicide.
Jessica tried to kill herself twice before finding help.
She was frustrated with the response of the VA (long wait times for appointments, frequent transition of staff members, even disbelief and asking questions such as ‘what were you wearing when the assault happened’), so sought counseling through a local community mental health center. Her PTSD, depression, and anxiety were treated through medication, EMDR, and counseling.
Today, years later, she continues to struggle with what happened to her, but she has rebuilt her life.
Jessica isn’t alone in this. There are hundreds of thousands of female veterans in our communities who have untreated or under-treated mental health issues. Some of these women are successfully treated, but many end up homeless and suicidal.
Female veterans are the new faces in trauma, and their numbers will continue to grow as the numbers of sexual assaults on female soldiers increases.
More and more women are coming forward and telling their stories, and people are listening and responding. Sexual assault has no place in our armed forces.