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Former Soldiers Testify On Link Between Military Sexual Assault And Suicide

By Hayes Brown  

"Former Soldiers Testify On Link Between Military Sexual Assault And Suicide"

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Retired Marine Corps Lance Corporal Jeremiah J. Arbogast sat before a Senate panel on Wednesday to tell the story of the time he was raped. He said a staff sergeant from a former assignment drugged him, rendered him unconscious, and took advantage of him sexually. And he said he attempted to take his life in the aftermath, leaving him in the wheelchair, from which he gave his statement.

“I am compelled by my oath to speak out about the injustices that have been done to survivors,” Arbogast told the members of the Senate Armed Services Committee’s subcommittee on Personnel at its hearing on the relationship between military sexual trauma (MST), post-traumatic stress disorder, and suicide. “The oath that I took has no expiration date,” he said. Arbogast was on active duty at the time of the incident, he said, and the help he was given from first the Department of Defense and then the Department of Veterans Affairs was nowhere near adequate for him to cope with the trauma.

“I was humiliated at the thought of my helplessness as a man and a fellow Marine took advantage of me sexually,” Arbogast said. Military investigators forced him to confront his rapist, having several recorded conversations in which the rapist confessed, one such instance requiring the former corporal to wear a body wire as he sat across from his tormentor. The staff sergeant was arrested and put before a trial that lasted a week. He was found guilty of lesser charges and discharged from the Marines with no jail time, refusing to sign up for the sex offenders tracking list, a choice that Arbogast says leaves him “looking over my shoulder for the rest of my life.”

Arbogast claims he was not given the same rights as civilian survivors during his ordeal. “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.” Veterans Affairs, he said, lacks in male specific survivor training and support groups to help deal with survivors with PTSD and other psychiatric consequences of MST. The American Psychiatric Association estimates that males who are denied proper counseling after rape will attempt suicide at least twice in their lifetime, a statistic that Arbogast said shows the need for Pentagon officials to have proper training in handling male victims.

Jessica Kenyon, a former private first class in the U.S. Army, joined Arbogast on the panel as a fellow survivor of assault. Kenyon joined the Army as an Apache helicopter crew chief in 2005, just one year after new sexual assault response recommendations were implemented. “During the initial training period, none of us were given training regarding what to do in a real sexual assault situation,” she said. “The truth was, at that point I had to Google what to do when it happened to me.”

The aftermath saw Kenyon ostracized and disciplined for getting treatment. In light of this response, she chose to leave the military to help other victims and since her honorable discharge she has worked with thousands of veterans, active duty members, and their families. But she suffers from a litany of mental scars, as she told the panel. “I 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,” Kenyon said.

On top of the lack of consequence for mishandling of cases or exploitation of loopholes by commanders, Kenyon said, the sheer amount of paperwork that Veterans Affairs requires before treatment can be approved is often a near insurmountable barrier. “Most of my scars are invisible, so my needs are treated as less than important,” she told the senators. A recent study from the ACLU backs Kenyon’s concerns, showing that military sexual assault survivors are less likely to receive PTSD benefits after they’ve left the armed services.

“It’s stories like these that led me to hold these hearings,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), chair of the subcommittee, said. Gillibrand is the author of one of two dueling bills currently in the Senate on reforming how the military justice system handles sexual assault cases. After neither garnered enough support to be attached to last year’s version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the two were scheduled for a vote on Monday. That vote was blocked by Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS), who demanded that a bill promoting new sanctions on Iran for its nuclear program also receive a vote over the objections of White House and Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV).

Last year saw a spike in interest — in the media, the Pentagon, and Congress — in the way the military handles sexual assault against the men and women who serve in uniform. That concern came on the heels of reports of officials leading sexual assault prevention programs being charged with assault and a Department of Defense report’s release that estimate 26,000 instances of sexual assault occurred throughout the military in 2012. That oft-cited number may in fact be too low, according to a Center for American Progress report released in November.

When the issue was reaching its peak, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel ordered “all the services to re-train, re-credential, and re-screen all sexual assault prevention and response personnel and military recruiters.” As a result of those efforts, USA Today reported on Wednesday, the U.S. Army “has disqualified 588 soldiers as sexual assault counselors, recruiters and drill sergeants for infractions ranging from sexual assault to child abuse to drunk driving” in the aftermath of their review. “The Army did not provide figures on how many of the disqualified soldiers have been kicked out of the service or reassigned to other jobs,” USA Today said. The results for the rest of the branches also remain to be seen.

Update

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Arbogast was serving in Afghanistan at the time of his rape.

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