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'Military Sexual Trauma': the victims behind allegations of abuse in the U.S. Armed Forces

The murder of Vanessa Guillen has reignited debate about the military justice system and its failure to protect female soldiers and the victims of sexual abuse. More and more female veterans are speaking out. (Lealo en español)
24 Jul 2020 – 11:19 AM EDT
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As a young girl growing up in Honduras, Marta Vazquez, dreamed of becoming an American soldier after witnessing humanitarian missions conducted by the U.S. military in her own country.

“I admired them. Wow! I wondered what it must feel like to be part of the most important army in the world?’”

But after joining up in 2008, her dream was cut short by what the military labels ‘ Military Sexual Trauma,’ a term used by the U.S. Veteran’s Administration to describe the mental damage suffered by victims of sexual abuse in its ranks.

During several tours of duty in South Korea and Iraq – where she also suffered a traumatic brain injury from an explosion – she said she was constantly harassed, and, on one occasion, drugged and raped. When she complained, she suffered retaliation that drove her to depression and the verge of suicide.

“To me, the military is like a bad marriage. You fall in love and then, when it’s too late, you realize you are married to a monster,” she said.

Tragically, the trauma suffered by Vazquez is not uncommon in the military and rarely results in serious punishment for the abuser.

Vanessa Guillen

Now, after the murder of Vanessa Guillen, a 20-year-old Army soldier at Fort Hood, Texas, an ugly light is being shone upon the way the U.S. military handles sexual misconduct in its ranks. It has also sparked the social media hashtag #IAmVanessaGuillen, which others have used to share their stories.

Many critics, including the relatives of victims, as well as former military officers and members of Congress, are now calling for drastic reform to end what they consider to be a systemic problem of covering up to protect the military chain of command.

“It’s been a huge problem for a long time that the military has refused to address,” said retired Col Don Christensen, former Chief Prosecutor for the Air Force. “The odds are if you are a sexual offender in the military you will never be prosecuted,” added Christenson, who now leads the non-profit Protect Our Defenders, which aims to end sexual misconduct in the military.

To make matters worse, when victims complain they are frequently targeted for retaliation by their chain of command, and driven to depression, heavy medication and suicide. Many end up being forced out of the military with no benefits.

“There is little veterans can do to fix an unjust discharge,” a detailed report by Human Rights Watch concluded in 2016 . That is principally because US law prohibits them from suing the military for any harm suffered related to their service.

Christensen compares the problem to the Catholic Church and pedophile priests. “The military, like any institution, is inherently unable to give itself a critical review. They are very loyal to the chain of command and are incapable of accepting the fact that the chain of command is actually part of the problem,” he said.

“They usually blame the survivor,” said Ruth Moore, a former Navy veteran who was raped twice by a superior and tried to commit suicide. “I fought to get benefits and disability. My rapist was allowed to retire with full benefits,” added Moore, who is now a behavioral therapist in Maine, working with survivors of military abuse.

Carri Goodwin, 20, died of an overdose after she complained she was raped twice by her recruiter and her sergeant and was given a bad conduct discharge from the U.S. Marine Corps in 2009. Her father, Gary Noling, a former Marine himself, has been fighting to get a military funeral for her ever since. He wears her military dog tags and keeps her ashes on the mantel of his Wisconsin home.

“She wrote it all down in a journal. She wrote the name of her rapist,” said Noling, 54. “The Marine Corps said there was no proof of rape. No-one was charged. But the symptoms of rape were there and they put her on anti-depressants,” he said.

She overdosed five days after being sent home.

“Her death went unnoticed. There was no vigil. Nobody cared. The military should have buried. We never even got a flag,” he said.

He hopes Vanessa Guillen’s death will change that. After his daughter died, he started a Facebook group called 'Carri’s Dad' with a photo of his daughter. When Vanessa went missing, he replaced Carri’s photo with Vanessa.

“All of a sudden Vanessa became my daughter,” he said. “This has taken on a new level now. Vanessa is the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

After Guillen’s death, Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy announced that he would recommend a "full, independent" review of the case.

McCarthy called Guillen's death "heartbreaking" in an exclusive interview with Univision on Wednesday. "We are looking very hard at these challenges, sexual assault in particular and sexual harassment," he said. " The trends, they don't look good, so we're addressing that," he added.

The Pentagon is especially concerned by the potential impact on recruitment, with 148,000 Hispanic serving in the military, about 16% of the overall force. Women make up about 17% of the members of the military.

" Right now we feel we may have lost the trust, especially among a community down there in Fort Hood, and what we are doing is everything possible ... [to regain] ... that trust," James McPherson, UnderSecretary of the Army, told Univision.

Guillen's family has said it will have a private meeting with President Donald Trump on July 29, followed the next day by the introduction of the #IAmVanessaGuillen bill in Congress.

But Christensen says he is not optimistic.

“I have no faith that the military will carry out a realistic review. They have made it clear they will not welcome anyone who has a contrary viewpoint,” he said.

“The Vanessa Guillen case is important because, over the years, change has only come due to a travesty of justice. That’s when Congress has the guts to overrule the generals and the admirals,” he added.

Christensen and others say what is needed is a major overhaul of the military justice system, including independent, civilian prosecutors in sexual abuse cases.

‘Wetback’

Vazquez was only 17, and six months pregnant with her second child, when she set off in 1992 to join her sister in Arizona. After being detained for entering the country illegally, she made it to Tucson. “My sister said, ‘You’re crazy. We don’t join the military, we clean houses,’” pointing out that she would need legal immigration papers before she could join up.

Undeterred, Vazquez waited 16 years until she finally obtained residency in 2008, by which time she had married and added a pairof twins to her growing family. She also had a good job running her own trucking company.

But, within a month of obtaining her green card, she enrolled in basic training for the U.S. Army at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri.

That’s when her dream began to unravel.

“My harassment started the day I arrived at Basic Training,” she said. It began with her Drill Sergeant calling her ‘wetback’ and ‘desert crawler.’ Female privates were made to take naked photos of other women in the showers, that were shared among the male officers.

But, she made it through hoping that things would get better. It didn’t.


For the next ten years, between two stints in South Korea, and one tour in Iraq, Vazquez says she suffered constant sexual abuse, including rape, that she eventually had to be discharged with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. Her diagnosis included both a combat brain injury from an explosion in Iraq, as well as a less well-known trauma from the abuse inflicted upon her, known as Military Sexual Trauma, or MST.

“It happens so often they had to give a term for it,” she said.

In the process, Vazquez learned something many women in the military have painfully discovered. “As soon as you complain they put a target on your back and everything goes in the wrong direction,” she said. “The retaliation was worse than the abuse,” she added.

The Pentagon said it does not discuss individual cases. But it does recognize that MST is a problem.

A big problem.

Officially, the military says it has a zero-tolerance policy for sexual assault. Indeed, officers are trained to be a killing machine on the battlefield, but gentlemen off it. To be sure, while most soldiers live up to the high standards expected of them, a shocking number do not.

By the Pentagon’s own admission, the estimated number of sexual assaults increased in 2018 to 20,500. The Pentagon also reported in 2019 that 1,021 formal sexual harassment complaints were submitted - a 10% increase from the previous year.

One in four veterans screened by the Veterans Administration report having experienced MST, according to the VA.

"Welcome to the Army"

In Vazquez’s case, when she arrived at her first posting in South Korea, she says she was confronted by abuse the moment she walked into her barracks. When she entered her room she discovered her room mate being raped in the bathroom. When she reported it, her senior officer told her “welcome to the Army.”

When she attempted to avoid enticement from abusive officers in her chain of command, she began to feel ostracized. She was advised to visit the Army Chaplain, rather than file a formal complaint.

“He told me, ‘That’s life honey,’ and patted me on the butt,” she said. The chaplain, a married man, offered to protect her, in return for sexual favors. “Be my Queen for a year,” she said he told her, brushing off Vazquez’s remonstrations that she also had a husband and four children back in Arizona.

After that she found herself being put on extra duties as word spread among the officers that she might be a problem. “ They try and force you to quit. They call it ‘failure to adapt.’ That’s how they deal with the problem. They get rid of the ones who don’t comply,” she said.

When she stuck it out, she was sent for a psychological evaluation and then moved to another base in South Korea.

But Vazquez said her record of standing up for herself followed her, in confidential written reports sent along the chain of command. “Word gets around fast; ‘she’s bad news, be careful with that chick,’” she said.

"Snitch"

One evening in October 2012, she was ordered to play ‘Beer pong’ (a drinking game) with other officers who were drunk. She refused and she says she was drugged with a soda and woke up unconscious in a bedroom. “I could hear voices and laughing, but I couldn’t move my body at all,” she said.

Even though she didn’t report it, her punishment only increased after that. She was putin extra duties, cutting the grass all day.

They saw me as the snitch who brought everything down, who ruined their little system of brotherhood," said Vazquez. “They said, ‘ there is that f***ing bitch, snitch. Why they let f***king Mexicans joining the military?’”

Vazquez says she was in shock, and was scared they were going to kill her. Even though she said nothing, the rumor spread, and the military began to investigate what had happened.

A month later, a hearing was held, which her unit commander joined by videoconference as he was in Afghanistan. Vazquez said she sat alone, across the room from the accused officer, a Hispanic sergeant, who was surrounded by other men from the battalion in a show of support.

She said her commander stated it was regrettable what had happened and that it was best for her and her mental health if she was sent back to South Korea. She was given ten days to pack her bags.

The Sergeant was ordered to remain with his unit in Iraq, because “we need him,” Vazquez recalled her commander saying. “They praised him,” she exclaimed.

“The problem was that I never joined that clan of perversity, of crime, of breaking all the rules that the army itself sets for you,” she said.

In photos: How Military Sexual Trauma destroyed the dream of soldier Marta Vazquez

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Retaliation

Male and female military personnel who report sexual abuse are 12 times as likely to experience some form of retaliation as to see the offender held to account, according to 113-page report by Human Rights Watch in 2015.

Military surveys indicate that most respondents— 62 percent—who experienced unwanted sexual contact and reported it to a military authority faced retaliation as a result of reporting,” it found.

“Many survivors told Human Rights Watch that they considered the aftermath of the sexual assault—bullying and isolation from peers or the damage done to their career as a result of reporting—worse than the assault itself,” it stated.

Retaliation against survivors ranges from threats, vandalism, and harassment to poor work assignments, loss of promotion opportunities, disciplinary action including discharge, and even criminal charges.

They can be punished by the commander for minor misconduct after the report. The retaliation can come from their peers who no longer will socialize with them. “It can be very devastating for a survivor. They feel ill, often alone. They often will turn to self-medication through alcohol or drug abuse,” HRW found.

“One in three women who report sexual assault are forced out of the military within a year,” said Christensen.

“When I was in (the military), I saw the way victims were treated. I would be shunned for bringing these issues up,” he said.

Christensen recalled an incident when he was the Air Force chief prosecutor and he convicted a senior F-16 pilot for sexually assaulting a civilian. “Four months later, the unit commander threw out the conviction because he said he was, quote, ‘a good family man,’ said Christensen.

That incident prompted him to retire and become an advocate for victims of abuse.

Describing her own 27-year battle for disability pay, Moore said she was blocked at every turn before finally winning a landmark victory. She concluded that the military played a higher priority over unit morale and respect for the chain of command, than victim’s rights.

“They don’t want to do anything that would disrupt operational readiness. It’s really as simple as that. They want to keep the unit looking good, otherwise it reflects badly on the chain of command,” she said.

After she was raped, Moore herself tried to commit suicide by overdosing on her medication while in the military and was thrown in jail for destruction of government property. “When I complained I was raped again,” she said.

Wounded Warrior

In 2014, Vazquez ended up being shipped back to Fort Bliss, Texas to a ‘Warrior Transition Unit’, before being discharged in April 2015 with “permanent and total disability” due to her PTSD.

Without enough years to earn retirement, she was instead awarded a disability allowance after a Veteran Administration examination concluded that “the severity of your service-connected PTSD precludes employment.”

Her diagnosis included “major depressive disorder”, anxiety disorder, memory loss, and insomnia. She also suffers from anger management and difficulty managing social interactions.

“It’s a neuron injury which affects the brain,” said Moore, the behavioral therapist. “It creates feelings of anger and low self-esteem, and affects social skills and communication, a bit like Asperger’s syndrome. They tend to see things in black and white very literally. They misinterpret a lot of things,” she added.

On its website, the Veterans Administration says it is "strongly committed to ensuring that veterans have access to the help they need in order to recover from MST."

Confined to her home, Vazquez was on 11 medications for a time, before she stopped taking them. “I was a zombie. That’s how the military wants you to feel,” she said.

Now aged 45, she only takes three medications, and has her life back under control.

She tries not to go out as much as possible, except for trips to the VA hospital where her older sister works as a nurse. “How ironic is that,” she notes, recalling how it’s now 28 years since she embarked on her quest to join the military, with her sisters’ help.

She prefers to stay home and feed the chickens, turkeys and goats in the backyard of her home in Phoenix where she lives with her 19-year-old twins, her 95-year-old father, and her second husband. “I really don’t have a problem with coronavirus quarantine. It’s best for me to stay home,” she said.

However, she is active in her community in a network of volunteers helping newly arrived asylum seekers with children.

She says she would never recommend they follow her example of joining the military.

“They go in a child and they come out with no soul, without emotions, with addictions,” she said.

She likens her illness to allergies which come and go, and can be triggered by events. The Vanessa Guillen murder has triggered some of her old demons. “I am still paying the consequences, the aftermath."

Like many, she hopes that the Guillen case brings about reforms, but she is not optimistic. “They all know what happened, and no one is going to say anything, ”it's a barbaric cover up.”

And, she has this message for sexual offenders in the military: “Be prepared, we’re not afraid, we’re speaking out, we’re coming for you. If you are still doing it, stop. Vanessa Guillen is the beginning of the end of your era.”

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