The War Within: Part I - Military Sexual Trauma

Rebekah Havrilla endured four years of relentless sexual harassment and was raped by a fellow soldier toward the end of her tour defusing roadside bombs in Afghanistan, she says. By the end, “I just wanted to survive. I just wanted to go home. I just wanted to get out of the Army.” 

Leaving the Army, however, didn’t put an end to Havrilla’s nightmares and anxiety. She’s one of tens of thousands of servicemembers who suffer from post-traumatic stress as a result of military sexual trauma (MST). Her case is unusual, however, in that she’s receiving some VA disability benefits. MST survivors face a higher burden of proof than combat veterans when applying for PTS benefits. Most are turned away.   

Approximately two-thirds of MST claims for PTS are rejected or returned to the veteran for additional documentation, according to data the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN) obtained in a public-records lawsuit against VA.

“The military-sexual-trauma survivor is punished again,” says Anuradha Bhagwati, a former Marine captain and executive director of SWAN, which has a separate class-action suit against the Department of Defense over the harassment and assaults. “The government wins, at the end of the day, because they don’t have to award benefits.”Burden of Proof. Military sexual trauma is the leading cause of post-traumatic stress among female veterans. The extent of the problem is unknown, because victims are reluctant to come forward. The Pentagon estimates that there were more than 19,000 sexual assaults in the ranks in 2010 – an increase of about 3,000 from 2009. Only 3,158 were officially reported. About 40 percent of MST survivors are men. Around 25 percent of sexual assaults occur during combat deployments.

Survivors face a perplexing double standard from VA when they file PTS claims, says Greg Jacob, a former Marine who is now policy director for SWAN. Last year, VA eased the burden of proof for combat PTS claims. Essentially, veterans no longer need independent evidence to confirm they were exposed to enemy threats such as roadside bombs or mortar attacks.

Sexual-trauma survivors, however, still have to submit corroborating evidence of their assault. That’s a significant challenge, even if they report harassment or assault at the time it happens. DoD only keeps rape kits for a year, and sexual-harassment investigations for two years. By the time an assault survivor gets out of the service and files a PTS claim with VA, the evidence has usually been destroyed, Jacob says.

VA allows so-called secondary evidence, such as statements from friends, relatives or others with whom the survivor may have confided about the assault. It’s meaningless, Jacob says. “VA says you can submit it. But it has no guidance for the claims officer to accept it, and hasn’t published anything about what the burden of proof is.” Open Access. One arm of VA is being praised for helping MST survivors deal with PTS. The Veterans Health Administration, which oversees hospitals, clinics and patient care, “has done a remarkable job with military sexual trauma,” Jacob says. “It will give you any necessary care for free, even if you don’t qualify as service-connected.” The Veterans Benefits Administration, which makes claims decisions, “needs to catch up,” he says.

That observation is borne out by Greg Jeloudov’s experience. Jeloudov says he was harassed and then raped during basic training in 2009. When he tried to report the assault, he says he was forced to sign a statement falsely admitting he was gay, and discharged from the Army under the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. “I feared for my life and the safety of my family,” he says. “I had to get out.”

Jeloudov has been unable to keep a job as a result of the trauma, and is estranged from his wife and stepsons, he says. His claim was rejected, but VA has provided medical care for him since September 2010.

“VA has given me a helping hand addressing my issues,” Jeloudov says. “I’ve been seeing an excellent doctor and excellent social workers.” VA also responded to his request to be re-examined, by female VA doctors, when he appealed his claim denial. “They listened to me,” he says.

However, Jeloudov is still unsure if the VA regional office will grant him benefits. “I’m still waiting for the flick of their pen to decide my fate.”Career Crash. Many veterans mourn military careers cut short by sexual trauma. Air Force reservist Mary Gallagher was diagnosed with PTS and taken out of the line of duty two months after she was allegedly sexually assaulted by a fellow tech sergeant while they were stationed in Baghdad in November 2009. She expects to be fully discharged by the end of the year unless her condition improves. “I am sad my career had to end with something that never should have happened in the first place,” she says.

Gallagher was sent to Iraq in September 2009 with an Air National Guard detachment from Massachusetts. She alerted her supervisor that a fellow tech sergeant started stalking her and tried to break into her room after she rebuffed his sexual advances. Her supervisor’s response: “Hey, this stuff happens. Don’t worry about it.” 

A week later, Gallagher says, the tech sergeant sexually assaulted her in the women’s restroom. Gallagher bypassed her supervisor and called her home unit in Rhode Island. “I was scared to death,” Gallagher says. “He could have easily killed me that day, gotten rid of the body, and reported me as AWOL.”

The commanders from Gallagher’s home unit arranged for her transfer back to the United States and connected her to counseling. A year and a half later, she is planning a new career as a veterans’ advocate, but remains disenchanted with the military’s response. Her assailant was not convicted and is still in uniform. “(That’s) the strongest evidence that the program the military has in place to deal with this issue isn’t working,” she says.

Andrea Neutzling shares that frustration. She says she was sexually assaulted twice during her 10 years in the Army and Army Reserve. The first incident, in Korea in 2002, resulted in her assailant being confined to base for five days. Then, in 2005, she was allegedly raped by two soldiers from another unit that was on the verge of departing from Iraq. Although she had bruises from her shoulders to her elbows and on her thighs, a chaplain told Neutzling she didn’t “act like a rape victim,” she says. Her commanders put a “letter of interest” in her file for committing adultery because she was married. The perpetrators were not charged, her sergeant told her later, because it would have prevented their unit from returning to the United States.

“I had wanted to be in the Army from the time I was in kindergarten,” Neutzling says. “I’d like to see things change before my daughter gets old enough to join.”The Challenge of Change. Rebekah Havrilla is most struck by the pervasive harassment that persisted throughout her time in the service. She and other women who graduated from the rigorous Naval School Explosive Ordnance Disposal weren’t admired for their skills. Instead, she says, the presumption was that “you provided sexual services to somebody” to get through it.

The harassment became especially unbearable during the last half of her yearlong deployment to Afghanistan, she says. She was the only female, and the lowest-ranking member, of a bomb-disposal team led by a man who she says openly groped her and peppered her with sexually inappropriate comments. Havrilla sought treatment as her anxiety level went through the roof and she started to lose sleep. She was diagnosed with PTS and put on antidepressants and sleeping pills. And then, she says, a colleague raped her.

Of all of that, however, the harassment haunts her the most. “While the rape was traumatic, it was not nearly as devastating to me as the things people did to me on a daily basis,” she says.

Today, Havrilla deals with chronic depression and has difficulty sleeping. VA benefits haven’t provided much relief. Most VA medical centers are open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and jumping through the system’s hoops is a full-time job, she says. That’s hard to do if people work, as she does, or are raising children.

Havrilla has sought help on her own, and now works as a caseworker for SWAN. She’s applied to graduate school and plans to earn her doctorate degree in clinical psychology. Along the way, she hopes to change the culture that has allowed military sexual harassment and assault to erode the lives of many veterans, male and female. 

“I just want to help women who have been in this situation, and work to change the system,” Havrilla says. “We can change this so it doesn’t happen to anyone.”