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The silent battle for servicewomen: Sexual assault

By Melissa Dribben, Inquirer Staff Writer

The U.S. military is struggling to defend troops who are under siege day and night on ill-defined battlefields. Troops who are fighting wars in which it can be impossible to identify the enemy or to know whom to trust. And when they are betrayed, they dare not tell anyone.

They are the nation’s women in uniform, and they are being sexually harassed, abused, and assaulted at an alarming rate by their fellow soldiers and officers.

Since 9/11, with unprecedented numbers of women serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, the nation’s military leaders say that misogyny is undermining troop readiness.

Women enlist for the same reasons as other soldiers, to further their education, establish careers, and serve their country. These were Linda Bullock’s motives, too, when she joined the Army Reserve at 18. She wanted to belong to a community based on honor and trust. Something she couldn’t find in her own family where she had been repeatedly raped by a close relative.

Bullock was sent to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio for training.

Although she had never been away from home before, the city girl from Baltimore, “a string bean” at 5-foot-9 and 135 pounds, surprised herself with her toughness. “It was cool,” she says.

After two weeks of field exercises, she returned to her barracks desperate for a shower.

While the rest of her fellow soldiers left to get dressed, Bullock stayed behind, luxuriating in the hot water. The bathroom was deserted when she finally wrapped herself in a towel. Suddenly, her drill sergeant appeared.

“Who else is here?” she remembers him asking.

“No one,” she said. Then he covered her mouth, threw her down, and raped her.

“He acted like he was on a mission,” Bullock says. She was strong, but no match for a man of about 6-foot-3 and at least 200 pounds. “And anyway, I was too petrified to move.” When he finished, he threatened, “If you tell anybody – not that they’ll believe you – you might as well kiss your career goodbye.”

So she said nothing about it for the next 25 years.

A 2010 study commissioned by the Department of Defense found that 4 percent of military women on active duty had been sexually abused or assaulted while on the job. But about 70 percent and 80 percent of victims do not report their attacks.

The U.S. military is struggling to defend troops who are under siege day and night on ill-defined battlefields. Troops who are fighting wars in which it can be impossible to identify the enemy or to know whom to trust. And when they are betrayed, they dare not tell anyone.

They are the nation’s women in uniform, and they are being sexually harassed, abused, and assaulted at an alarming rate by their fellow soldiers and officers.

Since 9/11, with unprecedented numbers of women serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, the nation’s military leaders say that misogyny is undermining troop readiness.

Women enlist for the same reasons as other soldiers, to further their education, establish careers, and serve their country. These were Linda Bullock’s motives, too, when she joined the Army Reserve at 18. She wanted to belong to a community based on honor and trust. Something she couldn’t find in her own family where she had been repeatedly raped by a close relative.

Bullock was sent to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio for training.

Although she had never been away from home before, the city girl from Baltimore, “a string bean” at 5-foot-9 and 135 pounds, surprised herself with her toughness. “It was cool,” she says.

After two weeks of field exercises, she returned to her barracks desperate for a shower.

While the rest of her fellow soldiers left to get dressed, Bullock stayed behind, luxuriating in the hot water. The bathroom was deserted when she finally wrapped herself in a towel. Suddenly, her drill sergeant appeared.

“Who else is here?” she remembers him asking.

“No one,” she said. Then he covered her mouth, threw her down, and raped her.

“He acted like he was on a mission,” Bullock says. She was strong, but no match for a man of about 6-foot-3 and at least 200 pounds. “And anyway, I was too petrified to move.” When he finished, he threatened, “If you tell anybody – not that they’ll believe you – you might as well kiss your career goodbye.”

So she said nothing about it for the next 25 years.

A 2010 study commissioned by the Department of Defense found that 4 percent of military women on active duty had been sexually abused or assaulted while on the job. But about 70 percent and 80 percent of victims do not report their attacks.

Military courts do not protect a victim’s identity as carefully as the civilian justice system does. Confidential conversations between a victim and a psychologist, medical professional, even a chaplain can be used by defense attorneys. And there is skepticism that attackers will be punished.

Of the 2,284 sexual-assault investigations conducted in 2009, nearly half were dropped because evidence was insufficient, the victim declined to pursue the case, or the court ruled that the allegations were unfounded.

In a confidential interview with the Defense Department task force, one military judge advocate general said: “We don’t lose cases due to lack of effort or care. They are tough cases.”

Recognizing the problem, the nation’s military leadership has adopted a new policy toward sexual abuse, said Major Gen. Mary Kay Hertog. “We’re not going to ignore it, we’re not going to excuse it, and we’re not going to condone it.”

Hertog, the new director of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO), said, “It’s all about the climate that is set by that commander on the ground.”

Recruits need to be trained to respect and protect one another, response services need improvement, and abusers must be brought to justice. But like any complex system, she said, the military cannot transform itself overnight.

“It’s evolutionary. … It takes a long time to change the culture.”

Some victims are tired of waiting. In February, 15 women and two men, both active duty and veterans, filed a class-action suit against the Pentagon. The suit claimed that the military failed to properly investigate rapes and sexual assaults.

The weekend before the 10th anniversary of 9/11, more than 20 additional names were added to the lawsuit, said Susan Burke, the plaintiffs’ lead lawyer.

“It is clear there needs to be dramatic and immediate reform,” said Burke, former counsel to Mayor Nutter. “The military cannot be permitted to continue to retaliate against soldiers who have been raped and sexually assaulted. The military needs to prosecute the perpetrators, not blame the victims.”

“I really wanted to jump out of airplanes,” says Michele Roscher.

Home-schooled in a small Massachusetts town, Roscher enlisted in the Army Reserve at 17, determined to serve her country.

“I liked the idea that I was doing something important.”

In 2003, she received orders sending her to Iraq and was assigned to a unit in Norristown for pre-deployment training, one of three women among 130 soldiers.

Because there was no physical base, they stayed in a hotel. The first night, Roscher joined a group going to a TGI Friday’s near Plymouth Meeting Mall.

“My sergeant major bought me my first drink,” she recalls. “The first thing I was told is never refuse a beer. If you don’t drink a beer someone buys for you, it’s called ‘alcohol abuse.’ ”

Heavy drinking, she says, enjoys a righteous role in the service. “There’s a big feeling that we’d better party while we can because we don’t know who’s coming home.”

After one beer, Roscher was woozy. “I kept saying, ‘No, I’m good,’ but they kept buying me more beers.” The group drifted back to the hotel bar, where the drinking continued. She was unsteady on her feet when a specialist, several years older and one rank above her, offered to walk her to her room. Instead, he took her to his.

“I wasn’t coherent enough to figure it out,” she recalls. “I remember being on the floor saying: ‘No! Stop it!’ The next thing I remember, he … forced me to give him oral sex.”

She never reported the incident.

If she had, she felt sure she’d be moved to another unit. “And if a female comes to your unit, everyone knows why. You’re labeled.” Worse, she says, “I thought I deserved it. I shouldn’t have drunk so much.”

During her first nine months in Iraq, she dated a soldier who was abusive and used to punch her “playfully,” leaving bruises on her body. She stayed with him anyway, figuring that the mistreatment was a small price to pay for the protection he gave her from other men in her unit.

Back in the States, she broke off the relationship, went to Pennsylvania State University, and earned her degree in political science and criminal justice.

In November 2007, Roscher was redeployed. During that tour, the sexual harassment was relentless, she says. One staff sergeant kept pressuring her to sleep with him, even though he was married.

“What happens on active duty is like ‘what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.’ He told me, ‘You don’t know my wife’s number.’ ”

When she refused his advances, she says, the sergeant “did everything he could to make me look bad” and tried to sabotage her career.

She was sent to Sadr City and survived an attack that killed a major and a female soldier. Before she could recover from the shock, she received an e-mail from an officer. “He said the reason I was brought to Sadr City was so he could look at my ass.”

The choices for women soldiers, she says, are simple. “If you’re not a bitch, you’re a whore. If you talk to guys, if you’re nice, it’s assumed you’re sleeping with them. If you don’t go out, you’re not one of the guys, and you’re hung out to dry. People don’t talk to you, and in combat they’re not willing to put their neck out for you.”

She didn’t dare confide in other women, she says. “It’s very cutthroat. Even if I said I was sexually assaulted, it’s like, ‘You’re in the military. Deal with it.’ ”

The Defense Department report on sexual assault begins with a quote from then-Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates: “This type of act not only does unconscionable harm to the victim; it destabilizes the workplace and threatens national security.”

The military maintains that sexual assault among troops is similar to date rape among college students. Most troops are between 18 and 24, they drink, test limits, and make stupid choices.

The difference is that on a university campus, the victim can distance herself from her attacker, says Patricia Hayes, chief consultant for the VA’s health care for women. When a soldier has been assaulted by someone in her unit, “there’s an incredible sense of betrayal. It’s similar to incest.”

Furthermore, in the context of war, where people are being blown up, maimed, and killed, sexual assault can be viewed as a “lesser” trauma, nothing to complain about.

Psychologists theorize that in Iraq and Afghanistan, the strain of living on constant alert, in a restricted to a protected zone with long periods of downtime, may feed the impulse among some troops to prey on the vulnerable.

All service branches now require pre-deployment training to teach troops to protect themselves and to intervene when they suspect abuse. And the VA has been trying to spread the word that help is available, free and confidential.

In February, the Department of Defense contracted with RAINN, the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, to set up a 24-hour hotline for servicemen and -women. From any post in the world, victims can use phone, text or an online chat to reach a specially trained advocate who can provide support and help obtain medical services.

During the last six months, the site has received 14,000 visitors, and more than 1,000 have sought help.

Roscher kept her private turmoil to herself for more than five years, accepting promotions and assignments and earning the honor of being chosen to jump out of a plane into the La Fiere drop zone in Normandy on the 65th anniversary of D-Day.

But in 2009, when she received her orders to report to Afghanistan, her past caught up with her. She was constantly crying, panicking at sudden noises, not sleeping or eating well, showing all the signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a common reaction to sexual trauma.

“I was afraid if I got deployed again,” she said, “I was not going to be able to recover.”

During a screening at the Coatesville VA Hospital before receiving care for an unrelated problem, she was asked if she had ever experienced unwanted sexual advances in the military.

Her answer led her to Kristine Sudol-Regan, one of the VA’s psychologists specializing in military sexual trauma.

Sudol-Regan said it’s not unusual for her to be the first person her patients have ever told about an assault.

For Linda Bullock, now 50, revealing her secret to the therapist was the beginning of a long, difficult recovery.

After a psychological breakdown in 2009, she landed at the Coatesville VA, where she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Although she had never been in combat, Bullock’s doctors said she had developed PTSD from the rape, which was followed by years of sexual harassment from fellow soldiers and officers, and the crushing weight of her silence.

Bullock’s experience is common, says Sudol-Regan. Many military patients joined the armed services to escape dysfunctional homes.

One Defense Department study found that 56 percent of female recruits reported some form of unwanted sexual contact before entering military service and 25 percent had been raped. The study concluded, “Previous victims of sexual abuse or assault are at increased risk for future sexual assault.”

The reason for this, psychologists suspect, is that victims signal vulnerability in some way, making them easier targets. Their response to risky situations may also be delayed or inadequate.

Over the last several years, both the Defense Department and the VA have been trying to earn back soldiers’ trust and provide victims with the medical and psychological care they deserve.

*

Each service branch now employs and trains specialists called Sexual Assault Response Coordinators, or SARCs, who teach prevention and response and provide help for victims at all military bases worldwide. And every medical center in the VA system has therapists like Sudol-Regan on staff who specialize in military sexual trauma, or MST.

With Sudol-Regan’s help, Roscher and Bullock are mending their lives. Roscher is completing nursing school and is engaged to be married. Bullock is living independently and working for a home health care agency.

“Over the past six years, MST has gotten so much more publicity for veterans to know they can come to us,” says Sudol-Regan. “Success is hard to measure. For some, it’s the ability to reconnect to their families. Others, just to leave the house is a huge accomplishment.”

For still others, like Bullock and Roscher, she said, “it’s being able to build healthy relationships, get jobs, and be more able to ask for help when they need it. That’s a big one. I credit the veterans for having the courage to come forward and the VA for creating a safe place.”

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