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Category: Violence against Women

When “Jane” Comes Marching Home Again

| May 31, 2012

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Jenny McClendon calls the military's response to sexual harassment and rape of servicewomen "a very broken system."

In May the Army began a new Defense Department policy that will open an additional 14,000 positions for women. Will we be ready for them when they come home?

It didn’t take long for Jenny McClendon, trained as a sonar operator in the Navy, to experience sexual harassment when she joined the military in 1997.  Immediately subjected to harassment by her male counterparts when she refused their sexual advances, they said she wasn’t “tough enough to be in the military.” Finally she complained to superiors, who said that being harassed was a necessary part of training. A first class petty officer called her “a lesbian, a feminist, and a Democrat,” grounds for throwing her overboard, he said.

McClendon’s experience is not unusual. The kind of abuse she describes is widely acknowledged, although probably under-reported by female veterans. And it gets worse.  Jenny McClendon was raped by a superior while on watch aboard her ship one night. It was the first of two “military sexual traumas” (MSTs) she suffered while in the service.

When she reported being raped, McClendon was accused of lying and told to “shut up” about the incident. That’s when she “began to lose it and to come apart as a person.” Back in Norfolk, Virginia, she was forced to leave her ship and to attend anger management counseling. Soon afterwards, she was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder on the basis of a 15-minute assessment. Later, when she asked for one-on-one counseling with a woman therapist, she was told she was resisting treatment. “Women get worked over because of a very broken system,” she says now.

Approximately 15 percent of military personnel serving in all branches of America’s armed forces are women. More than 282,000 of them have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade and currently 20,000 are still there. Twenty percent of returning women have been identified by the Department of Veteran’s Affairs as having experienced MST. Those figures are likely to be low. In 2011 alone nearly 3200 cases were reported but experts estimate that given the large number of cases that go unreported, the number is probably closer to 19,000.

Sexual assault and harassment are only part of the problems women in the military face when they return home. They also struggle with such issues as intimacy, spiritual crises and finding their post-war identity. These needs are critical but remain ignored or unmet.

Sexual harrassment is not acknwledged when you're in. When you do, you pay a price. . . . No way I would have told them anything.The National Center on Family Homelessness, Department of Labor

It is striking to note, for example, that from 2000 to 2010 more than 31,000 veterans were discharged having been diagnosed with a “personality disorder.” (Neither the Department of Defense nor the Pentagon has said how many of these cases involved MST, which can affect men as well as women.) Anu Bhagwati, a former Marine and now executive director of the veteran’s advocacy group Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN), told CNN in an April interview that she sees “a pattern of the military using psychiatric diagnoses to get rid of women who report sexual assaults.” In the case of a “personality disorder,” described by psychiatrists as a long-standing, inflexible pattern of maladaptive behavior, Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) becomes a pre-existing condition rather than a service-related disability. That means MST victims with personality disorder discharges don’t receive benefits. The military can simply dismiss them rather than treat them. And according to military records obtained by Yale Law School’s Veterans Legal Services Clinic and reported by CNN, the diagnosis of personality disorder is used disproportionately on women.

The betrayal is profound, says Mary Ellen Salzano, mother of a Marine and founder of a statewide collaborative for military families in California. “The first thing you learn in the military is ‘I don’t need help,’” she says. “Someone needs it more and you give it to them. So when a soldier or Marine asks for help themselves they are revealing a vulnerability that it is hard to acknowledge.  And if they can’t trust their own to help them they suffer ‘institutional trauma.’ They feel crushed. They start questioning everything. It’s huge.”

I learned in the military to take care of my own business. . . . We're taught to do our own thing, not ask for help. Or if we do ask for help we can't get it.—The National Center on Family Homelessness, Department of Labor

Salzano also says that the “S-word,” sexuality (like spirituality), is not discussed during military service or after arriving home.  “So if you come home with no sex drive or a genital injury, post-traumatic stress, or a traumatic brain injury that affects both your sexuality and your capacity for intimacy, who do you turn to for help?”

Women are particularly confused by expectations when they come home. Sometimes they realize that what kept them alive in combat can be a destructive force at home. Often, they don’t recognize what is happening to them.  “How do I live with myself when I don’t know who I am any longer?” Salzano asks rhetorically.  “How can I be intimate with others when what you learn in battle doesn’t serve you in your relationships at home?  How can you behave lovingly with your own kids when you’ve had to push kids off your Humvee and watch them be run over because they could be the enemy? Riddled with guilt and shame, how do you get to the point of forgiving yourself so that you can be nurturing again and begin the process of healing and returning to wholeness?”

Paula J. Caplan, a clinical and research psychologist and a fellow at the Women and Public Policy Program in Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, addresses many of these issues in her 2011 book, When Johnny and Jane Come Marching Home: How All of Us Can Help Veterans. Many female veterans worry, she says, about telling the real story of what happened to them at war. “Women vets carry the additional burden that to tell that awful story will be to hurt their loved ones and thus go against the traditional expectation for women to nurture rather than harm or even ask for understanding from loved ones.”

Kari Granger, formerly in the Air Force and now a program leader with Sunergos, a global performance consulting and leadership development firm, understood these issues and wanted to do something to support returning women vets. With three other former military women, Sunergos developed a program called “Leading with Resiliency and Grace.” Its mission is to help women who serve  “regain their footing with velocity,” and to bring their full capacity to whatever they are dealing with “in the flow of life.”

Granger asks what opportunities exist for these "strong, resilient women who have participated in extreme events and possibly experienced trauma? Who were they in that arena and who are they going to be going forward?” The program has helped participants, many of whom are still on active duty or in the reserves, feel empowered to make choices. “We’re not negative about the military,” Granger underscores. “This is just a new phase in the lives of women who want to re-invent themselves in order to live life fully within a new context.”

I realized that I am not along in my journey . . . I am not crazy or wounded beyond repair.—Sunergos program participant

Other women are also stepping up to help returning female vets. For example, New York filmmakers Marcia Rock and Patricia Lee Stotter produced a multi-platform documentary called Service: When Women Come Marching Home that offers an intimate look at what women vets returning home experience. “Many women had taken care of everyone and now they need care,” Stotter says. “Everyone talked about MST survivors or terrible physical injuries when these vets came home,” recalls Stotter, “but very little care was in place for them." As a result she said, the civilian world is "losing an incredible resource." Women vets "are post 9-11 idealists, They want an education, they are trying to get through the glass ceiling, and we are not meeting their needs."

In a legislative attempt to help women, and men, traumatized by MST, Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D-CA) has introduced legislation designed to combat sexual assault in the military, noting that “despite 25 years of Pentagon studies, task force recommendations and congressional hearings, sexual assaults in the military continue unabated.” The vast majority of service personnel who have been sexually abused, she points out, “have come to realize that there is no justice in the rank chain of command so they are forced to live with their trauma in secret and that in turn subjects them to a second act of victimization—they suffer while their attacker goes unpunished.”

Among other requirements, the Sexual Assault Training Oversight and Prevention Act, or STOP, as Speier’s legislation is called, removes reporting, oversight, investigation, and victim care related to sexual assaults from the normal chain of command and gives jurisdiction to an autonomous Sexual Assault and Response Office comprised of civilian and military experts. 

“As increasing numbers of women join the military and go into combat zones, the sexism that pervades our entire society helps shape what happens to them,” psychologist Paula Caplan has said. The military, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the Department of Defense are beginning to realize the full extent of this reality and seem poised to take steps to address the complex needs of military women and women veterans.  Much work remains, and success depends on grassroots women’s organizations and the efforts of individuals who understand the importance of advocacy for the women who come marching home.

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not represent WMC. WMC is a 501(c)(3) organization and does not endorse candidates.

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