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Sexual Assault And Harassment Are Widespread In The Military

CAUTION: This story contains language some may find objectionable.

A high percentage of women in the military are subject to sexual harassment and assault. Survivors are at high risk for developing PTSD.

— There’s a problem in the armed forces that military officials don’t want to talk about: sexual harassment and assault are widespread. The latest report from the Veterans Administration is disturbing.

At first, Andriele Stodden liked being a Marine.

She joined the Corps in 2000 and quickly advanced to staff sergeant.

Stodden served two stints on the USS Constellation in the Persian Gulf. She was one of only 50 women aboard the aircraft carrier. And it was there when the harassment started.

"And every time like a week before we’d be going to a port to pull in," Stodden remembered, "I get all kinds of emails from strangers like, hey, I saw you in the chow hall and you smiled in my direction. You want to get a hotel when we pull into port? And I’m like, who the hell are you?"

Sometimes, her shipmates were right up in her face.

"Some guys," Stodden said, "try to pull me aside and be like, hey, you know, can I get a blow job or something? And I was like really, seriously?"

In 2006, Stodden went to a special weapons training program in Yuma, Arizona.

One night during the training, she was partying with a fellow sergeant she didn’t know. They got drunk. Then she said he raped her.

All veterans who enter the VA system are screened for military sexual trauma, or MST. And the latest report is troubling: nearly one in four women report suffering MST during their service, and about one out of 100 men. Women make up nearly 14 percent of the armed forces.

Dr. Carolyn Allard directs the Military Sexual Trauma Clinic at the VA Center in Mission Valley. It’s one of only handful of such VA clinics nationwide.

"Not only does sexual trauma seem more prevalent in the military as opposed to in the civilian world, it seems to be more traumatizing." Dr. Allard said.

Allard pointed out in general, about 20 percent of people who experience any kind of trauma go onto develop PTSD.

"If you look at specifically for rape, that rate jumps up to about 45 to 65 percent of people," Allard explained. "With MST it’s even a little higher than that. So if they experience a sexual trauma in the military, they even have a greater risk for developing PTSD."

Allard said the reasons for this are unclear. But there are a number of theories.

"In the military," she said, "the context is such that you’re even more dependent on the people around you than you are in regular social life, that you have even less choices available to you as to what to do about it, ¬and if you do decide to report, that the stigma is even higher than outside the military, and that the response is more negative."

Marine officials at Camp Pendleton refused to comment for this story.

Marine officials in Washington also declined, but said they might be able to do an interview in six months.

So we turned to an ex-Marine infantry officer named Greg Jacob. He’s with the non-profit Service Women’s Action Network, a group that advocates for equal opportunity for women in the military.

Jacob said sexual harassment and assault is a problem in all of the armed forces. He said in general, men just don’t view their female comrades as equals.

"They don’t see them as part of the team," Jacob said, "they see them as others, or they see them as these objects, which are to be derided and to be hated."

Jacob said the military tolerates pornography in the workplace and other behavior that would get you fired in the outside world. And he said the top brass just don’t seem to care about MST.

"With sexual assault and sexual harassment," Jacob said, "people who perpetrate these crimes aren’t being punished, investigations are not happening, court martials are not being convened. So they need to change the culture by making sexual assault a showstopper."

Military survivors of sexual assault don’t have universal access to legal help. There are also no guarantees that private counseling sessions won’t be used against them in court.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that the Pentagon estimates less than 14 percent of these crimes are reported.

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