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We discuss Military Sexual Trauma (MST) and find out what's being done locally and in Washington to combat abuse.

June 27, 2012 1:04 p.m.

GUESTS:

Jackie Speier, (D-CA), US Representative 12th District

Dr. Carolyn Allard, Military Sexual Trauma Coordinator, VA San Diego Healthcare System, Department of Veterans Affairs

Related Story: Marine Sexual Assault In San Diego County: 76 Reports In 2011

Transcript:

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

ST. JOHN: Today is Wednesday, June 27th. I'm Alison St. John in for Maureen ST. JOHN. Today on Midday Edition, sexual trauma in the military is emerging as a major issue. Women become accepted as equals even in combat rolls, but the dynamic that allowed sexual abuse to remain hidden is changing. And the military is trying to face up to it. But even the Pentagon admit there is is massive under estimation of the number of cases. In a new Marine Corps report, General James Amos says "despite our efforts we have been ineffective at eliminating sexual assault." He suggests reforms, but are they tough enough? Congresswoman Jacky Speier, who is with California's 12th district up in the bay area, and she has addressed Congress extensively about sexual assault in the military. Thank you so much for joining us.

SPEIER: It's my pleasure to be with you.

ST. JOHN: This new report found that there were more than 300 sexual assault cases at Marine Corps cases, 76 of them here in San Diego County. And there is concern that national and local numbers may be higher than that because a lot of cases go unreported. What's your take on these numbers?

SPEIER: Well, the numbers are much greater than that. By Department of Defense's own figures, they estimate that there are 19,000 cases of rape and sexual assault a year. And the travesty upon travesties is that only 13% report because of the track record the military has created where those who report are ostracized, are labeled as personality disorders, having some kind of defect, and are typically removed from service. They are honorably but involuntarily discharged. And these -- because we have a volunteer army and military service is on your own volition today, those who join do so because they want to make a career of it. So it's destroying careers and lives. So many times they don't report for fear of reprivately.

ST. JOHN: How does the military culture play into this?

SPEIER: Oh, it's a huge impact. Just this week the national media is taking note of another travesty at lack land airforce base in Texas that really came to the fore about a month and a half ago where there are now 35 instructor/trainers that have been relieved of their duties. There are probably a minimum of 24 victims that have been sexually assaulted by their trainers, by their instructors in a setting where as you know unit commanders are the be all and end will all. When you're recruited, you're told you do everything your unit commander says whether you think it's silly or not. So when your commander says you're going to have sex with me --

ST. JOHN: That would be a major disobeying of orders to resist.

SPEIER: Correct.

ST. JOHN: It's a tough one. Now, you've spoken before Congress 21 times on this issue. Have you seen any progress being made?

SPEIER: I started telling the stories of victims on the house floor about a year ago. There have been a number of lawsuits that have been filed on behalf of victims, and after reading the first complaint and reading these horrific stories, I thought this has to be aired. We have got to be put faces on these numbers. So I started sharing the stories on the house floor. It's had a chilling effect on many members who had no idea. I have since introduced a bill called the Stop act, which would take the reporting of these crimes, these violent crimes, out of the chain of command and create instead a special victims' unit in which those who work in the unit would be prosecutors and investigators with expertise, and they would make the final decision as to whether or not a case moves forward.

ST. JOHN: And that's not included in the new report from general James Amos, is it?

SPEIER: No, everything is maintained in the chain of command.

ST. JOHN: Sorry, go ahead.

SPEIER: Much like everything else that has happened on this issue over 25 years, and that's how long Congress has known about it, there's a little window dressing here and there, and some legitimately I think genuine effects by Leon Panetta, but my belief is in the end, you're not going to change the culture. And you can't change the culture, this kind of obscene criminal behavior will continue.

ST. JOHN: There's a lot in the report about training and data collection, but not much about holding perpetrators accountable. Do you feel like we're moving toward that?

SPEIER: Well, we had a meeting not so long ago with the Secretary of Defense, Panetta, and joint chiefs of staff, director, chairman demesy, and in the course of that meeting, the secretary turned to me and said Jacky, what do you think is going to change things? And I said Mr. Secretary, you're going to have to do more prosecutions and have more convictions. Because unfortunately even with all the spotlight, the number of court martials have declined, and the number of convictions have declined.

ST. JOHN: Well, thank you so much for joining us. Bringing us up-to-date.

SPEIER: Thank you.

ST. JOHN: So we have in studio with us also a guest, doctor Carolyn Allard, who is the sexual coordinator at the VA healthcare system here in San Diego. Thanks for being with us.

ALLARD: My pleasure. Thanks.

ST. JOHN: So what do you think about the numbers? Are the numbers coming into your clinic reflecting the increase? Or do you think they're an under estimation?

ALLARD: It's really tough to get actual numbers of the actual rates. What I can tell you is that at the VA we screen everybody who comes in. And of our veterans who are enrolled, we have rates of 24% of our women and 1.2% of our men reporting having experienced MST. And this may be the very first provider they have been assigned. So you can imagine it's probably an underreporting. And the research whichute Lizes more confidential more anonymous gathering of information does support that this is an underreporting, and we have much, much higher rates coming in from research reports.

ST. JOHN: So they're talking about this, but are they coming to your clinic to actually face the issues?

ALLARD: And that's a secondary issue. We have an underreporting issue, then once they do report it, they will be offered services by their provider, they'll be informed of our clinic, and whether they follow up on that or not is another issue.

ST. JOHN: And what's the reason for that?

ALLARD: It's really tough for people to talk about sexual assault. It's really tough for people to talk about sexual assault in the military when they're already probably had experiences of having been told to not say anything, having it swept under the rug. Maybe having been negatively impacted by making a report such as congresswoman Spears talked about. And so after years and years of being sort of negatively impacted, responded to, it's easy to come to believe that nobody is going to be positively reacting to you disclosing. It's easy to internalize anything that's gone wrong, and sort of blame yourself. And it's really easy to try and push it away and pretend it never happened.

ST. JOHN: From what I've understood from people I've spoken to, this is an almost epidemic proportion. And we all know what PTSD means now. Is this kind of the new PTSD?

ALLARD: Well, interesting you should say that, MST, it's -- the term MST, or military sexual trauma just refers to the event. And PTSD is definitely one of the most common outcomes of having experienced military sexual trauma. And in fact it's the highest risk trauma for developing PTSD. So it's higher than combat trauma, it's higher than sexual trauma outside of the military because of some of these issues that we've been talking about, how disclosing you get negative responses because you're in this unit cohesion which is your family and your workplace, and there are all these dynamics that feed into your own way of looking at yourself and the world and other people.

ST. JOHN: It sounds like it's almost the exception to the rule that people actually would report it and get it dealt with.

ALLARD: Uh-huh, yeah.

ST. JOHN: So what are the signs and symptoms of somebody suffering from military sexual trauma?

ALLARD: Excellent question. The key features are reexperiencing or reliving the trauma. And that could be in flashbacks, it could be in vivid memories, thought intrusions, nightmares. Another key feature is avoiding, wanting to talk about thinking, feeling anything, activities, people, places. So people who have had PTSD for a long time will hold up at home and stop doing anything of interest to them, and finally just chronically anxious, difficulty sleeping, feeling paranoid. Like you can't trust anybody.

ST. JOHN: Is this something that is only women? Do men suffer from it too?

ALLARD: Men and women both are at high risk for developing PTSD when they experience a sexual trauma, and in fact men are at higher risk. It seems to be more traumatic for men. And when you think about it, it kind of makes sense because -- your question actually alludes to the key here, it's more normal for us to think that women get assaulted. Not so much for men. So you can see how it's actually more stigmatizing and more devastating to the masculine identity, and certainly the warrior masculine identity that comes with being in the military.

ST. JOHN: This is an issue that has been talked about, even in Congress several years ago. Do you see that there is a change happening now that is different in the culture?

ALLARD: What I see that is happening is that there's increased awareness. And we see decreased child abuse through increased awareness, and I'm hopeful this is what's going to happen. So I'm very thankful for this opportunity. I don't think that we're seeing change yet. But I think the increased awareness is heading in the right direction. Of

ST. JOHN: And is there a long-term effect? Are we talking about a huge backlog of people who have not been treated for this? Or not even admitted to it that are emerging now?

ALLARD: Right. So we're seeing both an increase in numbers because of the returning of veterans from our current conflicts. And through the increased awareness, we are seeing an increase in older veterans who have dealt with this, lived with PTSD for a long time, being increasingly aware of the services and then coming in now maybe 50 years later.

ST. JOHN: What's your sense? Did you read the report from the Marine Corps general as to how effective this will be?

ALLARD: I read the highlights. I think that definitely the push should be in the direction of prevention. So certainly at the VA, we have wonderful PTSD treatments. We can treat PTSD regardless of how long the trauma occurred. But if I can be -- if I can say ten years from now that I'm out of a job because we've successfully prevented this from even happening, I will be a happy woman. And I think that's where our energy should be focused.

ST. JOHN: I understand that your clinic is one of the few around the country; is that right?

ALLARD: Yes, every VA has an MST coordinator, every VA has providers who are dedicated to treating distress related to MST. But our clinic, we are very lucky. We have several providers and fully dedicated to treated MST-related distress, and we are one of very few.

ST. JOHN: And for someone who may be listening for whom this relates if for personally, what is the process of screening, and what can you do to help heal this condition?

ALLARD: The quickest thing I would say is to get in touch with me. And hopefully we'll make my contact information available on your website.

ST. JOHN: Yes, I think we can do that.

ALLARD: They can also Google military sexual trauma San Diego, they'll get my name and number. And that will be the quickest way. And I will lead them through getting them enrolled at the VA if they're not already, getting a referral to our clinic, and we go from there, go through an assessment, and providing all of the information about the treatments we have that are available the

ST. JOHN: You are with the VA, and I don't know if this is true to say that the threat of retaliation, does that still exist for people who are in active duty?

ALLARD: We sort of minimize that at the VA. We can treat folks who are still in active duty, about to be discharged. And so we actually have had a few patients come into the VA specifically so that they didn't have to have reports of their therapy handed to whomever, you know, ranking officers might want access to them.

ST. JOHN: Okay. So at the moment, roughly, what percentage of the people that you think could use your help are actually coming to your clinic?

ALLARD: That's a really tough question to answer. I would say based on what I know from the rates from the literature, from research, I would say not half of them.

ST. JOHN: Huh, yeah, so there's a lot more education to be done.

ALLARD: Definitely.

ST. JOHN: Okay, I'd like to thank you so much for coming in, and at least broaching this subject.

ALLARD: Thank you so much, I really appreciate your time.