Our Silenced Soldiers

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When one in four confirm they’ve experienced sexual trauma while serving in the military, what can mental health professionals do to help?

By Shamontiel L. Vaughn

Every morning, one U.S. Army drill sergeant would come into the women’s barracks and say it smelled like rotting sea bass. That same drill sergeant saw Monisha Rios (now a Saybrook student currently pursuing a degree in Transformative Social Change and a public speaker) instructing a male soldier on how to properly fill out his laundry slip and accused her of fraternization. The male soldier was ordered to do several push-ups, but she was ordered to lay in the middle of a breezeway with her legs spread wide open. And while she lay there, the drill sergeant told the soldier that her mother was a whore, that she must’ve come into the army to be a prostitute, and threatened any male soldier who tried to help her.

“I knew I was going to die if I stayed in there,” Rios says.

In another instance, Rios spoke out against a then-friend and Airman who was making derogatory comments about his conquests that she felt were “littered with rape fantasy.” After telling the friend that he was being inappropriate for a classroom setting, his response was to accuse her of “liking it rough” and biting her arm through her battle dress uniform (BDU) sleeves, leaving individual bruise marks from each tooth print on the back of her arms. When another female soldier noticed and gave her an ultimatum to report it, she did so. After pointing the Airman out to both his drill sergeant and hers, he accused Rios of ruining his career. She was put on lockdown, and he was removed from his base. By the time she was transferred to a co-ed barrack at Redstone Arsenal in Alabama, she realized these instances would just never stop. Extra rules were given to female soldiers so they could never walk freely and must use the “buddy system.” Accusations were hurled at them to keep their legs closed. One roommate was almost raped.

Monisha Rios
Monisha Rios

“I knew I was going to die if I stayed in there,” Rios said. “Although I had an eating disorder, I was accused of fraudulent enlistment if I tried to leave on a medical discharge.” Rios did get a discharge after what felt like the longest 10 months of her life in the army from 1997-98. “I’ve been fighting for 20 years now for service connection for post-traumatic stress disorder related to military sexual trauma,” Rios says. “And the whole reason I got started in doing this was to raise awareness as a survivor of it myself and going through secondary trauma at multiple VA hospitals where countless survivors have been re-perpetrated on, myself included, and there’s no response.”

Mixed messages with MST behavior

Dr. Theopia Jackson
Dr. Theopia Jackson

Dr. Theopia Jackson, Saybrook’s Department Chair for the Clinical Psychology program, is no stranger to the effects of military sexual trauma even without being enlisted in the army. “I treat children who have been the victims of trauma, who also have parents who are survivors of sexual trauma in the military,” Dr. Jackson says. “And I have had students pursuing their careers who are also living with the residuals of MST. Because I understand the complexities of trauma, I’m able to coach them in how they’re getting through the course material, particularly when the course material can be so personal that it can raise issues related to their traumatic experiences.” “What’s happening in the military mirrors what’s happening in our general society and what’s happening in big business,” Dr. Theopia Jackson says. Compared to the ‘90s when Rios was serving in the army, Dr. Jackson says that people are speaking out against it more often now.

“What’s happening in the military mirrors what’s happening in our general society and what’s happening in big business,” Dr. Theopia Jackson says.

Flip through a news channel and stories of sexual misconduct are leading the pack: Senate candidate Roy Moore (R-Alabama) and former Senator Al Franken (D-Minnesota), NBC "Today" show anchor Matt Lauer, Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, actors Steven Seagal and Kevin Spacey, and comedians Louis C.K. and Bill Cosby, just to name a few. Then there’s the commander-in-chief Donald J. Trump, who has been accused of sexual misconduct by 16 different women.

Dr. Jennifer Preston
Dr. Jennifer Preston

“We have a leader of our country describing assaulting women,” says Dr. Jennifer Preston, the department chair for the Department of Counseling. “We’ve heard him joke about it without any real consequences. The message that that still sends, particularly to young men, is that women are property. So you’ve got two sides of the coin. On one side, you’ve got people working in the field trying to help, trying to understand trauma. Then on the other, you have the leader of our country saying, ‘Hey, it’s OK. You do what you want. Women are there in service to men.’ And I feel that’s a very clear message from the government. Combatting that just feels really overwhelming honestly.” While there has been a noticeable outpouring of support and encouragement to speak out, sexual assault and harassment are deeply personal issues that oftentimes people may not come forward to reveal. Out of every 1,000 rapes, 994 perpetrators will walk free, which is one of the reasons that people may never speak up. Also, because the FBI definition of "rape" concentrated only on women as potential victims, men who were the victims of sexual misconduct went under the radar for many years. The VA grants disability benefit claims for PTSD related to MST at a significantly lower rate than non-MST, PTSD-related treatment. So even if both groups were to report it, they could risk not receiving mental health care assistance by disclosing it. So how can people, specifically mental health professionals, play a role in turning the tide even when finances become tricky?

The plan to combat MST

“We have a leader of our country describing assaulting women,” Dr. Jennifer Preston says.

“I think we are getting better at training psychologists, counselors, and other professionals on issues of complex trauma and how much trauma can impact individual functioning 15, 20 years down the road,” Dr. Preston says. “So the awareness for students now is different. Counselors and psychologists more commonly understand the importance of trauma history in the way that the individual describes it. Many people may experience what I would consider to be a traumatic event but for them it’s within the rest of their context and their world. It’s not as traumatic or they may bring something in that I might not think is trauma but for them it has been.” “We also have to be curious enough to try to understand what may be some of the unspoken contributing factors,” Dr. Jackson adds. “Because not everyone, particularly not men, will walk into a therapist’s office and say, ‘I’m dealing with depression because I was raped a year ago.’ But they could come and say, ‘I’m dealing with depression. I can’t sleep.’ By the time you unpack it all, it has something to do with that rape that happened a year ago. So clinicians must be ready to go beyond symptom reduction and really try to understand quality of life from what I call a biopsychosocialculturalspiritual (BPSS) model. “A lot of the military’s training is based on research that we do as behavioral specialists,” Dr. Jackson continues. “So we also have an ethical obligation that when we do our work that we consider social justice issues. We need to be prepared to ask and answer questions to help create an environment that fosters effective and healthy military personnel who still have an ethical moral compass.” For survivors, according to Rios, it may involve believing they have a right to heal, not allowing more sexual violence, advocating for relevant and appropriate healing opportunities, and being unafraid to get to know other survivors and hear stories about how they were able to survive and overcome.  For clinicians and non-clinicians alike, it means prioritizing the voices and experiential wisdom of survivors in research and practice.