Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., spoke on the urgent need for reform in how military sexual assault is prosecuted. Christophe Haubursin / MEDILL

Christophe Haubursin / Medill News Service

WASHINGTON — Appearing before a Senate panel, former Lance Corp. Jeremiah Arbogast asked for better healthcare for veterans from a wheelchair stamped with a Marine Corps emblem.

But Arbogast’s injuries were not sustained on the battlefield. They were from a 9mm gunshot wound to the chest — a suicide attempt gone wrong after he was sexually assaulted by a senior officer in the Marine Corps.

The Senate Armed Services subcommittee on personnel was silent late last February
as he told his story — even the mantle clock seemed frozen, stuck at 9:49 a.m.

“After the rape, I began to fall apart emotionally and it took me about 60 days to report the assault,” Arbogast said. “I feared of being blamed, retaliated against, and I was embarrassed.”

After his alleged assailant walked away clean, Arbogast says he received inadequate psychological care at Veterans Affairs hospitals and eventually attempted suicide, leaving him partially paralyzed. It’s been two years since he decided to switch to a private provider for mental health-care.

But he’s not alone.

Veterans who have attempted to obtain mental health services for conditions like PTSD arising after sexual assaults in the military say they have encountered significant bureaucratic obstacles throughout the VA. They say the VA is not equipped to treat the lasting effects of sexual assault the same way it is able to address combat trauma.

As a legislative battle over reporting military sexual assault winds down on Capitol Hill, one survivor says getting mental health treatment for those affected veterans will be the next hurdle.

“If the Army says this will undermine good order and discipline, legislators are hesitant to pull the trigger and hold the military accountable for its actions,” said Brian Lewis, a victim and also a board member at Protect Our Defenders, a military sexual assault advocacy group. “[But] when you’re dealing with a longstanding epidemic such as 26,000 rapes and sexual assaults a year, you already don’t have good order and discipline.”

A Capitol Hill showdown

At veterans’ hospitals across the nation, victims of PTSD brought on by military sexual assault are hard pressed to find the care that they need.

According to a survey of veterans screened for VA healthcare, one in five women and one in 100 men say they have experienced sexual trauma in the military. Although rates are higher among women, significant numbers of both men and women have been affected.

The government has granted disability benefits for PTSD from sexual trauma at a much lower rate than for other PTSD claims, according an American Civil Liberties Union report. At least that was the case every year from 2008 to 2012. On average, 32 percent of PTSD claims related to sexual assault were approved, while 53 percent of all other PTSD claims were approved, the ACLU study said..

At the same February hearing, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand argued that hurdles to reporting sexual assaults in the military have contributed to poor care for veterans.

After a year-long legislative fight on Capitol Hill, Gillibrand’s Military Justice Improvement Act was derailed two weeks ago, ending the New York Democrat’s crusade to remove prosecution of military sexual assault from the military chain of command.

As Gillibrand pointed out when attempting to advance her legislation, the VA website says the difficulties a military sexual assault survivor will experience depend on “the types of responses from others he [or] she received at the time of the [assault].”

In a statement after her bill stalled, she said the Senate had “failed” victims of military sexual assault.

“We have not taken a step far enough,” Gillibrand said. “We know the deck is stacked against victims of sexual assault in the military, and today, we saw the same in the halls of Congress.”

Opposition to the bill was led by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who said Gillibrand’s plan would have undermined authority in the military.

After Gillibrand’s bill was blocked, McCaskill’s measure sailed through the Senate unanimously. The bill eliminates the “good soldier” defense in which accused members of the military can use a good service record as evidence they did not assault someone. Her bill must still gain approval in the U.S. House.

McCaskill’s measure got through the Senate after the Missouri Democrat fought for provisions in a December defense authorization bill that revoked a commander’s ability to overturn jury convictions and required a civilian review when a commander does not prosecute a case.

This legislative action came after the Defense Department reported military sexual assaults are on the rise. An agency report this year estimated that a total of 26,000 cases of sexual assault occurred in the military in 2012, a 37 percent increase from 2011.

Jeremiah Arbogast says he was "thrown away like a piece of garbage" when he tried to get mental health-care at VA hospitals. (Courtesy of Jeremiah Arbogast)

Jeremiah Arbogast says he was “thrown away like a piece of garbage” when he tried to get mental health-care at VA hospitals. (Courtesy of Jeremiah Arbogast)

A failing dance

The VA website lists services available for the mental and physical symptoms that may occur after a military sexual assault. But by many accounts, these services are not easy to access.
For retired Maj. Tara Johnson, uncomfortable suspicion from her health-care providers made it difficult to get treatment, she said at a U.S. House hearing in July 2013. Johnson said she suffered multiple sexual assaults during her 10 years in the Marine Corps, but never disclosed the experiences. Testifying before a House committee, she said she “had seen the unfair treatment of those who had disclosed incidents to their commands.”

When she met with a provider at a VA medical center in 2010, Johnson finally summoned the courage to tell her story, through tears. She said the provider doubted her off the bat.

“The provider looked at me, widened his eyes and asked, ‘Well, do you really think you were raped?’” she said. “I now pay out of pocket to receive care.”

Despite the higher rate of rejection for mental health treatment for assault victims — as asserted by the ACLU study — the Veterans Health Administration is seeing more patients. And it’s treating more: 2013 saw a 14.6 percent increase in the number of people being treated for military sexual trauma by VHA from 2012, with 93,439 veterans receiving such care.

It’s a positive trend thanks to an increasingly open dialogue, Brian Lewis says, but institutional bias still trivializes assault-related PTSD and offers few services to male victims.

“VA has little to no institutional [energy] … when it comes to treating military sexual assault,” he said. “Getting these survivors the care they deserve is simply very challenging for an institution that is used to treating combat veterans.”

“An exclusive club”

Last July, former Army Pvt. Victoria Sanders testified before the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee about how she is still plagued by anxiety, depression, fear and flashbacks to the room where rape occurred.

“I belong to an exclusive club,” Sanders said in her written statement. “The kind no one wants to be a lifetime member of, vacations are permitted but PTSD will always be there.”

The National Institute on Mental Health reports the anxiety disorder — characterized by re-experiencing and hyper-arousal symptoms — often occurs after “violent personal assaults,” such as rape.

Addressing PTSD has been a major focus of the VA, particularly among post 9/11 veterans. The department runs a National Center for PTSD resources and regularly carries out PTSD awareness campaigns.

In 2010, the VA adopted new evidence standards to expedite veterans’ access to combat-related PTSD treatment. However, military sexual trauma was not included in those changes, even if the sexual assault or harassment occurred in a combat zone — leaving a double standard for assault victims seeking help.

At the same time, the resource units intended to help these patients are often understaffed and under-informed. Former Navy seaman Heath Phillips who said he was sexually assaulted several times soon after his enlistment at 17, once approached a receptionist at a VA hospital in upstate New York who didn’t even know what military sexual trauma — MST — was. When Phillips explained, he said the shocked receptionist asked Phillips why he would want to live after such an experience.

“They treat you so differently,” said Phillips, who says he travels 50 miles for services at the nearest veterans’ hospital in Syracuse.

“They treat you like you’re an alien, like you’re gonna have another head pop out of your shoulders,” he said. “You’re treated in a different way once they find out what you’re really there for. When I was being seen for the [military sexual trauma], I was treated differently.”

For Arbogast, the situation was no different.

“The way I felt, I was constantly figured as something that they just wanted to do away with,” Arbogast said in an interview. “I was thrown away like a piece of garbage. It really didn’t matter what care they gave me, as long as they got rid of me.”

Margaret Bell, a member of the National Military Sexual Trauma Education & Training team, said the VA is committed to helping veterans receive treatment and is researching new ways to help. In testimony at the same Senate subcommittee hearing last month, she emphasized that military sexual trauma is an experience that triggers different reactions among individuals and requires personally-tailored care.

The problem, Heath Phillips said, is that military sexual trauma is a newly-identified condition in the public dialogue. VA facilities are required to have military sexual trauma coordinators present, but will often have only one psychologist – a person that veterans may or may not connect with.

“I think it’s too new. It does not feel as organized…” Phillips said. “How can you be treated at a facility that doesn’t know what MST is?”

Arbogast testified to Congress several times, and was a strong advocate of Sen. Gillibrand's Military Justice Improvement Act. (Courtesy of Jeremiah Arbogast)

Arbogast testified to Congress several times, and was a strong advocate of Sen. Gillibrand’s Military Justice Improvement Act. (Courtesy of Jeremiah Arbogast)


Delays, and their consequences

For service members, the consequences of a lackluster mental health-care system are real. A February 2013 study by the VA reported that an estimated 22 veterans commit suicide per day — a rate that has slowly risen over the past decade.

Bell said internal data from the VA show a correlation between military sexual assault and suicide attempts and deaths that is comparable to research that shows a connection between civilian sexual assault and suicide.

Each day that goes by without adequate services puts veterans’ lives at risk, Brian Lewis said. Lewis just entered a prolonged exposure therapy program, and asked to have a male care provider instead of a female. But for that request, he’ll have to wait an additional three weeks.

“Because you want to make a specific request, you have to wait,” Lewis said. “If I was in a crisis mode, that three weeks could make a difference between life and death.”

But Arbogast believes that change will come to the VA system. It will take time to spread awareness on the issue, but changes to the system would guarantee that veterans be treated in “better ways.”

“I have hope, but a lot of times they want to stay with the status quo,” he said. “They just want to.”