Pleas for more help for military veterans to recover from sexual assault

Demand for mental-health treatment stemming from sexual assaults is outstripping the Veterans Administration's ability to provide it. Military veterans testified Wednesday of their frustrations.

When Jeremiah Arbogast was a lance corporal, he was drugged and then raped by his boss, a fellow Marine.

Mr. Arbogast taped a wire to himself in 2001 and recorded a confession during a confrontation with the boss, who ultimately received a dishonorable discharge but no jail time. The jury cited the boss's 23 years of service in declining to lock him behind bars. 

Once out of the Marines, the rapist failed to register as a sex offender, as he had been directed to do. He also scraped the tips of his finger pads, to erase fingerprints, Arbogast testified Wednesday before a Senate Armed Services subcommittee. Today, Arbogast added, he has no idea where the man who raped him is – a situation that, along with the trauma of the crime itself, prompted a discharge from the Marines for post-traumatic stress disorder.

Moreover, he told lawmakers, the mental-health care the Veterans Administration has offered him since then left much to be desired.

Arbogast’s story offers a window into the treatment of veterans who were sexually assaulted while serving in the US military, the subject of a hearing Wednesday on the ties among sexual assault, post-traumatic stress disorder, and suicide. Demands for the military to combat sexual assault in its ranks are intensifying on Capitol Hill and among senior defense officials. Chaired by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) of New York, the hearing comes even the senator's controversial bill to strip commanders of their authority for prosecuting such assaults – which the Pentagon opposes, saying it can take care of the problem itself – is gaining supporters in Congress.

Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) studies have found a “strong link” between sexual trauma and risk for suicide, said Susan McCutcheon, the VA’s national mental health director at the hearing.

What’s more, sexual assault leads to an increased risk of sexually transmitted infections and post-traumatic stress, added Karen Guice, the Pentagon’s principal deputy assistant secretary of Defense for health affairs.

Female veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars who experienced sexual assault are five to eight times more likely to be diagnosed with PTSD than are women veterans who were not attacked, noted Senator Gillibrand.

Care can be hard to come by, according to some sexual assault victims. “Good counselors are the stuff of legends,” Jessica Kenyon, a former Army private first class who was sexually assaulted during her time in the military, said at the hearing. “They’re always 50 miles away.” What’s more, she added, “If they are any good, they have a very long [waiting] list.” 

Arbogast, for his part, says the VA offered him therapy, but he would have had to drive 90 miles from his home every day for six weeks.

Officials from the Pentagon and the VA assured lawmakers that they are aware of the shortage of counselors and are trying to do better in the face of rising demand for services.

Some of those services involve treatment for assaults that took place before troops ever joined the military. 

Between 2012 and 2013 alone, for example, the number of service members who reported a sexual assault prior to entering the military rose from 132 to 621, said Nathan Galbreath, senior executive adviser for the Pentagon’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office. The reason, he added, is that veterans who were assaulted before they joined the military are also eligible for treatment, and many service members want to avail themselves of it. 

That said, VA officials also testified that they are improving their outreach to male veterans. Some 57,000 men have told the VA they experienced sexual trauma while in the military, compared with 77,000 women.

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