VA program helps female survivors of sexual trauma

She wanted to make a career out of the military and provide for her family.

But, while in the Navy, she was the victim of two sexual assaults in two years. That shot down her dream.

“I don’t know if there is a (how-to) book they go by,” said the woman, who left the Navy a few years after the second incident, when she was raped in 1986 by a commanding officer the same age as her father.

Today, the tears and bouts of depression still come, but they are less frequent. The 50-year-old woman is slowly — at times painstakingly — rebuilding her life.

“I was a mess,” said the mother of three who is not being named because it is The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s policy not to identify victims of rape .

The woman is among more than 400 active participants in a program at the Atlanta Department of Veterans Affairs to help survivors of military sexual trauma with intensive trauma-focused treatment that includes individual, group and peer counseling.

“Let me tell you, this was one of the hardest things I’ve gone through,” she said.

But the program helped her to get her life together. She proudly shows off a letter from a technical college praising her for being on dean’s list. She wants to go into information technology.

She used to move every two years, now she’s thinking about buying a house.

Referrals to the program come from various veterans’ groups,physical and mental health clinics and substance abuse programs. About 90 percent of the participants are women.

“Women veterans often face different challenges than those of male veterans,” said Dr. Kelly Skelton, medical director of the Atlanta VA Trauma Recovery Program. “They experience military sexual trauma at a higher rate than their male counterparts, and are more likely to become homeless. In addition, as they are more likely to be single parents than male veterans, they are faced with the additional challenge of finding family housing and of finding a well-paying job and childcare.”

One goal is to destigmatize sexual trauma so the women realize they did nothing wrong. “When you see all these other female victims, they know it is not their fault.”

The Atlanta VA Medical Center’s Women Veterans Program provides free, confidential counseling and treatment for mental and physical health conditions related to sexual trauma. In September 2013, the Atlanta VA opened the Fort McPherson Women’s Center of Excellence. In fiscal 2015, the VA expects to open a Specialty Care Outpatient Clinic in Decatur with an expanded Women’s Center of Excellence at that location.

The military is still a man’s world. Women make up nearly 15 percent of active duty military and 18 percent of National Guard and Reserve forces, according to the Department of Defense.

Going in, women say they have to constantly prove their mettle to their male colleagues.

Shannon Kincade, a peer support specialist, said between 15 and 20 percent of the women she works with have experienced some type of sexual assault. As many as 60 percent have been subjected to inappropriate comments. She said one woman was so traumatized years after the assault that she couldn’t even sit in the same VA waiting room with men.

“Here is a safe place,” she said. ‘They can come here and deal with the issue and their emotions. There’s a listening ear of sympathy.”

The issue has been pushed to the forefront recently as more women are speaking out. The military and lawmakers are taking steps to address the problem.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), has proposed an overhaul of how the military deals with sexual assault cases.

The proposal, co-sponsored by 46 other senators, would move the decision whether to prosecute certain crimes to independent, trained, professional military prosecutors, with the exception of dozens of crimes that are military in nature.

In the third quarter of fiscal 2013, the military and National Guard experienced a 46 percent increase in the number of reported sexual assaults over the same period a year earlier, according to the Department of Defense. Part of the increase may be because more women — and men — are reporting the incidents. Before, they suffered in silence.

“We are committed to preventing sexual assault in the military, and, if these crimes do occur, to providing victims the care and support they need to seek justice and heal from these traumatic events,” according to an email from Department of Defense spokeswoman Catherine T. Wilkinson.

Still, not every survivor feels comfortable going through the military system, which some say didn’t protect them in the first place.

At times, those who have experienced sexual trauma have found their way to private counseling or outside rape crisis centers.

The 50-year-old survivor, for example, feared retaliation while still in the military if she reported the assaults. In the first case, an attempted rape, her assailant warned her it would be his word against hers. The second man was an officer. She told very few people about the assaults until 2012.

She still won’t tell her story with men in the room. Her therapist asked a photographer and an Atlanta VA spokesman to leave the room as the woman discussed the rape.

She hopes her story will inspire others to seek help.

Even one person.

"Does it work? Yes," she said. "Is it hard? Yes. Is it worth it? Yes."