Military Sexual Trauma: An Interview with an MST Therapist

In March of 2013, Military Sexual Trauma survivors testified…

in front of the United States Congress about sexual assault in the military for the first time in 10 years. Sgt. Rebecca Harvilla was one of the survivors to testify, stating that the sexual abuse she received began as “sexual jokes, innuendo and simulated sexual play [that] escalated to groping, slapping […] and ultimately rape.” As if being subjected to sexual abuse during training and a tour in Afghanistan weren’t awful enough, Harvilla recounted that “she was told by a military chaplain that ‘it must have been God’s will for her to be raped’[…]” and that the photos of the attack were later found by a friend on a pornography site. It gets worse: when Harvilla reported the attack, it was dismissed by her commanders.

Sadly, Harvilla’s story is as common in the military as is it for civilians. In the 2013 release of the US Department of Defense annual report on Sexual Assault Prevention and Response, it states that “about 26,000 service members said they experienced unwanted sexual contact in 2012, nearly 7,000 more than in 2010, when about 19,300 members of the military reported inappropriate sexual contact.” That calculates to “more than 70 per day in the United States military during 2012,” which translates to “a 1/3 increase in two years’ time.” When we consider that many assaults go unreported or are dismissed, like Harvilla’s case, and that soldiers can barely trust those whose role in the military it is to prevent sexual abuse/support survivors, citizens and soldiers alike are asking: What is being done about military sexual trauma? What support is provided to survivors? What are the causes, and how can military sexual assault be prevented/eradicated?

Recently, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kelley True, a Military Sexual Trauma (MST) Therapist who works for the Vet Center. True specializes in providing treatment to survivors of military sexual trauma. As part of her work, True also spends time analyzing the causes and patterns associated with military sexual assault. “This is a very complicated issue,” True began. “When recruits enter the military, there is an indoctrination process that occurs—we call it basic training or boot camp. […] They learn to act as one cohesive unit rather than individuals. […] Recruits quickly learn that if they do not act as a part of the team, they will be marginalized by others. [A]ggression and fearlessness are nurtured, along with discipline, following orders, and respecting the chain of command.”

“I believe, in any social structure,” True continued, “that there are naturally going to be outliers who mishandle the aggression, power, and control that are necessarily part of the structure. This is where we begin to see sexual and gender based harassment and assault occur. Here, we have a perfect storm. The nurture and reward of power, control, and aggression; outliers who mishandle those elements; and learned cohesiveness and loyalty to the team which impedes the victim’s natural self-protective response.”

Another element of sexual violence in the military, True asserts, are the systemic patterns of abusers and victims. “Other observations I have made in my work with survivors,” True stated, “is that often the crime is more coercive in nature. This means that victims are caught in a situation with someone they are trained to take orders from without question, and in a very confused and frightened state, comply with those orders. This does not mean that violent rape never occurs, because it does. But coercion, it appears, is the path of least resistance.” Through True’s statements about the indoctrination of basic training and the “perfect storm” that could result, it is easy to understand why coercion is the “path of least resistance;” because team members do not want to be the outlier, sexual coercion becomes a tool for both lateral and commanding perpetrators. “If the perpetrator is someone who is lateral, then again, the victim must overcome the ingrained values learned during the indoctrination process: ‘Always have your buddy’s back, never throw your buddy under the bus…’ etc. I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard Veterans say, ‘I didn’t want to ruin his career,’ or ‘I knew everyone in the unit would turn against me.’ Unfortunately, these themes are not uncommon in civilian rape reports/cases as well: how often do apologists rally against an accuser because the accused’s life will be ruined (think Stuebenville)?

Another component is added when abuse is perpetrated by the victim’s direct report or someone above them in military hierarchy. “Most of my clients,” True added, “were assaulted by someone in their chain of command. This severely limits the victim’s choices in regard to reporting harassment and assault. If the perpetrator is a rank or two above them, the victim can report to a superior officer, but historically, this does not guarantee an appropriate response by command. Furthermore, if the perpetrator is higher up in the chain of command, the options for reporting are all but non-existent for the victim.” It seems, from True’s statements, that the system for reporting sexual assault in the military is broken. True noted that many victims are risking “their friends and families (the military is often regarded as family), their income, often the roof over their head, their career, and their entire culture and way of life.” When one considers the odds that are stacked against victims and what is at risk for victims, it is understandable why military sexual assaults go under reported.

Another harrowing aspect of military sexual assault is what happens to those who experience it. According to True, not only are victims’ reports going unheard, but most times victims do not finish their contract due to “problems” that arise after their attack. True stated “the most disturbing pattern” she’s noted is that “around 80% are discharged before their contract is fulfilled, sometimes because their performance begins to suffer due to further harassment or because they must continue to work with or for the perpetrator. Sometimes they begin to have disciplinary issues. In any case, of those women who are prematurely discharged, around 90% are discharged with inaccurate diagnoses for mental health issues such as ‘adjustment disorders’ or ‘personality disorders.’ Both can prevent the survivor from receiving VA disability compensation for the psychological injury they’ve suffered. Some are relieved to be discharged, […]but others are completely devastated at thought of losing the careers that they loved.”

Disenchanted though they may be, many reach out to the Vet Center for support. Although True mentioned that the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response program (SAPR) is responsible for the “trained advocacy of victims (i.e. throughout the reporting and adjudication process), training and education for military members throughout the system, and improving the legal process,” as the assault and rape reports continue to poor out of the woodwork (including one report made against the head of this program, Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski), it’s hard to see the improvements the military has been trying to make. Most recently, lawmakers have been stepping in, like California Democratic Congresswoman Jackie Speier, who is leading the Sexual Assault Training Oversight and Prevention, or STOP, act. “Speier’s bill aims [create] an independent office within the military to handle investigations, medical services, and most importantly, prosecutions — removing the ability of a senior officer to overturn cases of sexual assault.”

True believes this is exactly what the DoD needs: accountability and training. “I think we’d see more convictions if we took the reporting process out of the chain of command where higher ranking officials can determine the fate of both victim and perpetrator,” True said. “Also, there is a mechanism where convictions in a military court can be overturned by what is called a Convening Authority by simply not accepting the court’s verdict. This must change.” In fact, True is correct: just recently “Lt. Col. James Wilkerson […] fondled a female guest at his home and was convicted of aggravated sexual assault and other charges. After appealing to Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin — even telling him they once served together in Iraq — his case was overturned and he was back to active duty.”

True concluded our interview by saying she believes “that some sort of independent authority must regulate the way military sexual trauma is handled.” At this time, however, the landscape seems bleak in that there is so much to improve, change, and dismantle when it comes to military sexual trauma. True said it best: “Making changes to the adjudication process can be accomplished in very little time. What will take longer is the cultural shift that must occur.” Many feminists know how difficult it is to shift culture, and while True might be talking specifically about the military, it is clear that the cultural shift that must take place should be on a much larger scale. However, attacking each area of culture to dismantle and rebuild institutionalized sexism and sexual violence could result in massive changes once each area has been revolutionized. It seems that attackers inside the military do not learn sexual violence within that institution particularly, but within the larger context of society. The permutation of power and aggression, as True mentioned, that takes place during basic training can encourage the sexual violence that has already been ingrained through patriarchy. This is not a problem with military culture; it’s a problem with culture.

Thankfully, there are people in office, like Congresswoman Jackie Speier, and people at the Vet Centers, like military sexual trauma therapist Kelley True, who are real advocates for soldiers and officers who are also survivors.To all survivors out there, military or otherwise, know that you are not alone and that there are people who are your advocates. For military sexual trauma survivors, here is some advice from Kelley True:

“The most important factor in recovery is talking about it with someone who is trusted and empathetic. And the sooner military sexual trauma survivors engage in that process, the better the outcome long-term. For those who are still in the military, seek out a SAPR advocate who can guide and assist you through the process whether you chose to file a restricted report (where medical care and counseling is provided, but you can chose not to pursue legal action), or an unrestricted report (where legal action is taken). For those who have left the military, the V.A. can provide you with the care that you need to recover. Or better yet, go to your nearest Vet Center for treatment and supportive services, all free of charge.”

Photo by Jessica Rippel