Senate hearing spotlights male MST victims

Rare and dramatic attention to military sexual trauma (MST) suffered by male servicemembers marked a hearing Wednesday by the Senate Committee on Armed Services’ Subcommittee on Personnel. The two-and-a-half-hour session was devoted to examining the links between MST, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and suicide while serving as a platform for Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s campaign for Senate passage of her signature Military Justice Improvement Act.

Chairing the hearing, the New York Democrat opened the proceedings with the tale of a constituent – a young Navy man named Heath Phillips – who, according to Gillibrand, was sexually assaulted by male shipmates during an alcohol-infused night ashore and was subsequently victimized again by his fellow sailors and, ultimately, by his command.

“The sexual assaults continued aboard the ship, and when his commanders allowed these assaults by his shipmates to continue without any repercussions, Heath went AWOL,” Gillibrand said. “Ultimately, he accepted an other-than-honorable discharge to end his torture. Not only was he suffering from PTSD, which led him to flee the ship, but he now is not eligible for VA benefits. It is stories like these that motivated me to hold this hearing.”

The first witness to testify at the hearing was retired Marine Lance Corp. Jeremiah Arbogast., who is crippled not from combat injuries from his deployment in Afghanistan, but from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The young Marine says he had tried to commit suicide as a result of his own military sexual assault experience – being raped by a staff sergeant -- and its aftermath. “I was humiliated at the thought of my helplessness as a man and a fellow Marine took advantage of me sexually,” Arbogast said.

After reporting the crime, Arbogast said he was made to confront his rapist in person on several occasions in hopes of eliciting a confession. During one such meeting, Arbogast was required to “wear a wire” – a recording device. Eventually the perpetrator admitted his guilt, was arrested and put on trial. Found guilty of lesser charges, he was discharged from the service. However, he served no jail time and, according to Arbogast, refused to register as a sex offender. The ex-staff sergeant’s whereabouts are reportedly unknown, leaving Arbogast still in fear of his attacker.

The subcommittee hearing also examined the efficacy of the Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs medical treatment and management of MST victims. To this point, Arbogast said that in his view, VA is deficient in providing male-specific counseling and what treatment is offered does nothing to address the stigma felt by male MST survivors.

“I joined the Marines for the opportunity to serve my country as an honorable man,” he said, “Instead, I was thrown away like a piece of garbage.” He did, however, laud his caregivers for the “top rate” treatment of the spinal cord injuries that resulted from his suicide attempt. It is care that he, as a service medical retiree, receives as a beneficiary of TRICARE, the military health insurance program.

Next to testify was Jessica Kenyon, a former Army private. After being sexually assaulted, Kenyon said she was disciplined for taking time to seek treatment for her emotional injuries, ostracized by her fellow soldiers and ignored by her commanders. This, she said, caused her to leave the Army and “currently suffer from severe depression, bouts of insomnia, debilitating memories and thoughts, triggers of all sorts, anger, chattering in my head, and constant anxiety to the point where I am forced to use all of my concentration to appear normal, which hinders my ability to read, write, have a conversation, or remember things in the short term." Nevertheless, Kenyon now volunteers on behalf of fellow military sexual trauma victims and their families. She has, by her count, counseled “thousands” – despite her own lingering emotional ills.

Kenyon said she considers MST uncommonly severe in its psychological effects. She drew a parallel between sexual attacks from fellow servicemembers in a supposedly self-protective community and incest. She likened the MST experience to being assaulted by one’s brother and then reporting the attack to one’s father. This prompted witness-senator exchanges concerning persistent reports of lower-level commanders excusing or inadequately punishing MST perpetrators if they happened to be long-term or personally favored servicemembers. “We are going to get rid of the good soldier defense, you can be assured of that,” said Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill.

The senators also touted the worth of the year-old Special Victims Counsel program whereby MST victims are assigned an active-duty attorney from their service, This dedicated legal counsel represents the injured throughout the course of any legal proceedings that follow the report of a sexual assault. This program, pioneered by the U.S. Air Force, is designed to distance MST victims from their immediate command structure to help prevent unfairness in the adjudication of their cases.

Also discussed during the hearing was the desirability of a much favored but repeatedly delayed seamless medical and service record transfer system shared by the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs. This would dramatically reduce the time between DoD and VA treatments for MST victims. Heads nodded as Sen. Angus King pronounced, “In many cases, treatment delayed is treatment denied.”

DoD and VA also produced witnesses at the hearing. First to speak was Dr. Margret Bell, VA’s director for Education & Training, National Military Sexual Assault Support Team. She presented a clinical and statistical report confirming that MST results in high incidences of PTSD and depression. Other witnesses told of the two departments’ progress in addressing MST in recent years, though one statement drew a sharp response from Gillibrand.

Dr. Nathan Galbreath, the senior executive advisor to the DoD’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, began telling of the greater number of reports of MST being filed by victims, thus answering longstanding criticism that stigma and fear have kept most victims silent. “I would offer to you that the system we have in place today is not the system we had in place a even a few years ago,” he said. “I believe that the increase in the number of reports have come from people who believe what our commanders are doing is correct…”

“Dr. Galbreath, wo out of 10 rape victims are reporting today,” interrupted Gillibrand, “ I would not pat yourself on the back for two out of 10. Granted, according to your number, we know there (are) more reports, but we don’t have the base number so we don’t know if it’s the same thing that happened between 2011 and 2012 where total reports were up but the incident rates skyrocketed so, in fact, the (reporting) percentage went down. So, please, before we have the evidence and data, we should not be patting ourselves on the back on any level. Please do not say we’re succeeding.”

“We have a long way to go,” Galbreath responded, “You’re absolutely correct.”

At hearing’s end, Gillbrand thanking the two MST victims for their courage in testifying and offering gratitude to the DoD and VA witnesses, acknowledging their obvious concern for those who suffer military sexual trauma and their departments’ commitment to providing improved care for victims and appropriate punishment for their attackers.

The American Legion has long advocated on behalf of the victims of military sexual trauma, as reflected in resolutions adopted by Legion leadership. One, Resolution No. 26, addresses a concern expressed during the subcommittee hearing. As a result of their service-connected emotional injuries, some victims of MST express symptoms and behaviors consistent with a diagnosis of personality disorder and are thus separated from service unfairly or denied post-service medical care due to the nature of their discharge. The Legion resolution calls for a study of Department of Defense policies and procedures related to such cases.

Another Legion Resolution, No. 295, addresses MST on a broader scale, asking DoD and MST to intensify their efforts to provide appropriate training of counselors and encourage greater numbers of victims to report sexual assaults in order to assure proper justice and treatment for them.