Science Isn't Golden

Matters of the mind and heart

Military Sexual Assault: The Aftermath

What happens in the military after rape

First published 7/28/3012 @ http://whenjohnnyandjanecomemarching.weebly.com/blog.html

Colleen Bushnell is one brave woman. After spending nine years in the military, she returned home as Air Force Staff Sgt. Bushnell, suffering from the effects of having been sexually assaulted while in the military.

Other brave women from outside the military who have spoken up about the torment of being sexually assaulted by someone in their own family or someone else they had reason to trust or were expected to trust have educated us about the self-doubt that results, as well as the desperate conflicts about what — if anything — to do and whom to talk with. They have been terrified about damaging their families or wider social circles, even about hurting the perpetrators, if they came forward and have often been unable to sleep, wondering if there was some way they could have prevented the attacks. They have feared that, like so many victims of sexual assault, they would not be believed and would only sully their own reputations by speaking up.

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Imagine, then, how it is to be sexually assaulted in the military by someone of a higher rank or by someone of equal or even lower rank but with whom one has trained and is in, or soon will be in, a life-or-death situation in which they depend on each other. Imagine how it is to be a woman in the military, where women have fought hard for acceptance but are still light-years from achieving true equality.

Colleen Bushnell is one of five veterans participating in the Long Ride Home, bicycling across the United States to draw attention to the difficulties that women victims of sexual assault in the military have about whether or not to report (most victims choose not to, out of fear and unwarranted but understandable shame, and too rarely are the crimes successfully prosecuted even when reported), as well as about how hard it is upon returning home, to struggle with the longlasting consequences of the assaults themselves and the frequent mishandling of them if they did report them. (see http://www.timesunion.com/local/article/Battling-hostile-forces-m...)

The brilliant film, "SERVICE: When Women Come Marching Home," (servicethefilm.com/) depicts such struggles and was recently shown in the U.S. Senate at the invitation of Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chair Senator Patty Murray. The Service Women's Action Network (http://servicewomen.org/) and Protect Our Defenders (http://www.protectourdefenders.com/) are strong advocates for change in the handling of these complaints, as well as for finding ways to prevent the assaults.

I have written here previously about the appalling and too-frequent practice of using psychiatric diagnoses to try to silence, demean, or dismiss the accusations of survivors. Professor Jenny McClendon, now a logic instructor but formerly a sonar operator for the Navy (http://www.cnn.com/2012/04/14/health/military-sexual-assaults-per...), spoke courageously on CNN about what happened to her. She was raped while in the Navy, and after reporting it, was diagnosed with a personality disorder. This happens all too often, conveying a shocking message and creating serious material consequences. The message is: "You are not upset because you were raped. You are upset because of a personality disorder. You are upset because of a maladaptive organization of your entire personality that has characterized you all your life." The material consequences include (but are certainly not limited to) failing to qualify for treatment in the VA system, because only treatment for "service-related disabilities" are covered, and the personality disorder is blamed for whatever upset the victim experiences.

This happens to men, too. It should happen to no one. These women and these organizations need all the support they can get, and if you look at their websites, you can see ways to support them, including by sending donations and contacting your members of Congress to urge them to support relevant legislation.

But above all, consider seeking out veterans who have been through this kind of trauma and labeling, offer to listen quietly, with respect, and without judgment to their stories, and let them know that being devastated by having been raped by those whom they had reason to believe they could trust is not a sign of mental illness but is instead a totally understandable, human reaction. Support Colleen Bushnell on her journey and those who go with her, as well as others like Jenny McClendon who also speak out bravely. And watch for screenings of "SERVICE: When Women Come Marching Home" (servicethefilm.com/), or better yet, arrange for a screening in your town. This film will move you.

©2012 by Paula J. Caplan                          All rights reserved

Paula J. Caplan, Ph.D., a clinical and research psychologist, is an Associate at Harvard University's DuBois Institute and former Fellow in Harvard Kennedy School's Women and Public Policy Program. more...

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