Surviving sexual assault
(Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

First Sgt. Angela Isles hated the military for a long time. She was angry, bitter and scared because of a dark secret she tried to bury when she was an 18-year-old and in the Air Force-a secret that destroyed her life and ultimately drove her to join the Army, and make a rank she could use to protect other young servicemembers.

Thirty years ago, Isles was 17 and an airplane mechanic. It was a new era for women in the military and she looked forward to leaving home and getting an education. That dream turned into a nightmare within a year, when one night, according to Isles, one of her noncommissioned officers came to her off-base apartment and raped her.

The assaults went on for months, especially after Isles moved back on base, where she thought she would be safe. The NCO who attacked her assigned her to a room next to a stairwell and kept a copy of the key. She found herself partying, bar hopping and staying out at all hours to avoid her room. She even married a Sailor, knowing she would be able to transfer to another installation. But while she was married and waiting on paperwork, the NCO continued his attacks.

Isles said he would appear at her office during the day to intimidate her. She would shake and be physically ill whenever he was near. She didn't know where to turn for help. If she tried to report sexual harassment or unfair treatment to her chain of command, the response was always a variation of, "Well what did you expect' You signed up to come down here and be in a man's world. You get what you ask for." One captain cut her off when she started to tell him, and the other women in the unit avoided her attacker as much as she did, so Isles knew she wasn't his only victim.

According to the Department of Defense Report on Sexual Assault in the Military, there were 2,516 unrestricted reports and 714 restricted reports of servicemember-related sexual assaults in fiscal year 2009. This represents an overall increase of 11 percent from fiscal year 2008 and includes 1,338 servicemember-on-servicemember assaults and 215 assaults in Iraq and Afghanistan. These numbers do not reflect unreported assaults, and experts believe that the majority of victims, both civilian and military, never report their attacks, while the DOD report said only 20 percent of unwanted sexual contacts are reported to a military authority.

Dr. Kate Chard, director of the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Anxiety Disorders Division of the Cincinnati Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center, estimated that about 15 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans seen at the VA are victims of military sexual trauma, or MST. She added that civilian studies suggest 20 percent of people will experience sexual assault at some point in their lives.

And it's not just women. While the majority of victims were junior-enlisted women under 25, male servicemembers filed 11 percent of reports in 2009. The DOD defines sexual assault as "intentional sexual contact, characterized by use of force, threats, intimidation, abuse of authority or when the victim does not or cannot consent." Sexual assault, which changes to the Uniform Code of Military Justice expanded in 2007, includes, but is not limited to, rape, nonconsensual sodomy, indecent assault and aggravated or abusive sexual contact, as well as attempts to commit these acts. They can be perpetrated without regard to a victim's gender, spousal or prior relationship, or age.

A victim doesn't have to be physically assaulted to be sexually violated. During her deployment to Afghanistan from 2002 to 2003, former Spc. Karlene E. HemerlyFluck-Kroll visited the latrine late one night and after undressing, happened to glance at the floor and saw a camera under the stall. Another Soldier, a sergeant, was hiding in another stall, masturbating to the images.

"He violated me. He saw me. He saw parts of my body he would never have seen had he not had a camera. He raped me with a camera," she said.

HemerlyFluck-Kroll tackled the voyeur, screaming for help, but no one came. She had been inside so long that the friend who escorted her to the latrine had thought she left on her own and went to check her room. Another Soldier heard the commotion, but assumed it was a "catfight" between two women.

The sergeant escaped, but when HemerlyFluck-Kroll was at the military police station, she learned that he had a record. He had done the same thing to another female Soldier three months earlier, and got away with it when she dropped the charges and the sergeant's company commander covered up the incident.

That night was followed by two weeks of terror as the military police and other servicemembers looked for the sergeant. It wasn't until a female lieutenant colonel from the Judge Advocate General Corps heard about the voyeurism that anything actually happened.

The sergeant was arrested and was on a plane back to the States within hours. He was ultimately sentenced to only five months in prison.

Unfortunately, this outcome is all too common. Although experts discourage direct comparisons to civilian investigations, only a fraction of civilian sex crimes are ever brought to trial or successfully prosecuted either.

Depending on the complexity of allegations and amounts of evidence, sexual assault investigations can take weeks or months to complete and can cross reporting periods. According to the 2009 DOD report, 1,569 investigations were completed within the fiscal year, and 715 2008 cases were completed. Out of these cases, commanders had the jurisdiction and evidence to discipline 983 subjects, which included the preferral of 410 courts-martial charges, 351 nonjudicial punishments, 53 administrative discharges and 169 other adverse administrative actions. Another 997 subjects had their cases dismissed, usually because there was insufficient evidence or only probable cause for nonsexual-assault offenses, or because the victim declined to participate.

Today, DOD and Army policies regarding sexual assault and harassment have been updated and are top priorities for Army leaders. CID and JAG have hired special experts, investigators and prosecutors and have provided existing agents and prosecutors with specialized training. Any allegation of harassment or assault is immediately investigated, and assault cases must be elevated to the battalion level, so no one can sweep them under the carpet, Carolyn Collins, the chief of the Army's Sexual Harassment and Assault Response and Prevention Program explained. She added that the Army is also focusing on preventing assaults before they occur.

"It's affecting the safety and welfare of our Soldiers. That's paramount for us: taking care of our Soldiers. They should not have to deal with a harassing environment or deal with the effects of assault and personal injury. When it comes to taking care of Soldiers best, it's not just responding to the crimes, but preventing them in the first place, and setting the standard of conduct, behavior and command climate where we can best address that," she said.

As part of the I. A.M. Strong (Intervene-Act-Motivate) campaign, the Army is not only focusing on ways to stay safe, but also encouraging other Soldiers to intervene if they see a problem. For example, Soldiers should speak up when they hear inappropriate remarks, or make sure a fellow Soldier gets home safely if she seems too intoxicated to fend off unwanted advances. Commanders also have the option to delay punishment for a victim's misconduct, such as underage drinking, until after the sexual assault case is settled, and Collins said most commanders end up dismissing charges against a victim.

If a sexual assault does occur, both Collins and Chard said it's imperative that a victim gets help. Military OneSource has a crisis hotline at 1-800-342-9647. According to Collins, a Soldier can report an assault to anyone in the chain of command; call an installation sexual assault response coordinator or victim advocate, the military police or the CID, or report the crime at a hospital.

If Soldiers go to a hospital, they can choose between filing unrestricted or restricted reports. With a restricted report, a Soldier can still receive medical attention and a forensic exam, but no report is made to legal authorities. A victim can convert the report's status to unrestricted at any point up to a year following an exam, after which all evidence is destroyed. The 2009 DOD sexual assault report noted that 123 victims converted their reports from restricted to unrestricted, leading to full investigations.

"What it gives them is the opportunity to think about what they would like to do," Collins said. "It gives them options, but it also provides us with a better look at the problem out there, because previously we would never have known about cases that went unreported."

The sooner Soldiers get medical attention, the better, she added, pointing out that it's best not to shower or do anything that could destroy evidence before getting an exam. DNA examiners at the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Laboratory at Fort Gillem, Ga., have even extracted useable DNA from victims' bra cups, so victims should preserve everything, experts said. (See the June issue of Soldiers for more information on CID investigative techniques.)

Chard said that every veteran who visits the VA is asked if he or she has experienced MST. Isles burst into tears after a nurse asked her, and finally shared the secret she'd been keeping for 27 years. She said it brought everything back, all the pain she had repressed for decades, and she was able to receive counseling through the VA.

Chard said that the longer someone goes without counseling after an attack, the higher her chances are of developing disorders like PTSD, depression and substance abuse, and having the attack take over her life.

"We know that if people respond right away to a trauma-if we can intervene early and educate them about some of the healthy things they can do to prevent the disorder from developing-it's very effective. We really want people to come forward and (get help) right away," she said.

Isles said the rapes have affected every area of her life and led to her PTSD. Uncomfortable with trust or any kind of sexual relationship, she has been married four times. When one of her sons was in seventh grade he touched a girl's breasts on the school bus, and when Isles heard, she remembered how she was violated, and became very angry.

As a corrections officer, Isles went out of her way to treat the sex offenders in her prison harshly. She still has nightmares, and struggles to cope with stress and pain. Chard said people living with constant stress like PTSD often develop chronic conditions such as fibromyalgia or heart disease.

"When I first started seeing the counselor, I was a wreck," Isles remembered. "I was a mess. I had never talked about it before. I had tried to forget it. When you carry (something) around for so long, when you finally are able to let go of it and tell someone, it's just like a volcano erupts. I relived it and I am still reliving it now. I have nightmares about that man. I have daydreams that I see someone who remotely reminds me of him or a car that remotely reminds me of his and I have a panic attack. The nightmares are horrible.

"You carry it around with you," she continued. "All that guilt and the shame. You feel like, 'This is my fault.' There were days when I would lay in my bed at night and cry and pray to God that it would never happen again. I'm very much a people person, so I talk to everybody and try to get along with people. I thought, 'Maybe he mistook my friendliness as flirting.' I've realized it wasn't my fault. He took advantage of me, and now I have to learn that all men aren't like that, and I have to move on."

HemerlyFluck-Kroll reported her experience and started counseling while still deployed, but she was put in anger management. The weeks she lived in fear, and the knowledge that the sergeant is out there again have taken their toll. She has been diagnosed with PTSD, is often paranoid and depressed, avoids intimacy with her husband, and is afraid to take her kids out of the house. One of the employees at her local grocery store looks like the sergeant, and HemerlyFluck-Kroll is terrified whenever she goes shopping.

"I still, six years later, am checking stalls. I'm still looking under bathroom stalls making sure nobody's there, and if there is, I'm asking to hear a voice...and now I have children who I have to take in there and be even more vulnerable. I was a very free-spirited person. I would hop on the subways in New York City and the buses and just go, go, go. And now' I am so paranoid it's not even funny. I'm always watching my back...because this guy hid in a bathroom and he took a part of me with him," she said.

The treatment for sexual traumas is surprisingly short, Chard said, spanning an average of nine to 15 weekly sessions. Every VA has a counselor trained in MST, and other counselors who are experts on PTSD and depression. Patients can also choose in-patient therapy at one of the VA's numerous in-patient treatment programs nationwide. These programs typically last about seven weeks, with two sessions each week. The VA treats active-duty servicemembers as well as veterans, and Chard said several servicemembers were able to rejoin the military after undergoing therapy.

Counseling for both MST and PTSD typically involves two treatment methods: prolonged exposure and cognitive processing therapy. In PE, patients retell the trauma over and over again, using the present tense. "The idea is that if you stay with the memory long enough, the fear of the memory will decrease and therefore the symptoms will decrease," Chard said.

Cognitive processing therapy focuses on assumptions patients may be making about the trauma, such as an inability to trust all men after being raped by a man. "What we're trying to do is look at the beliefs that developed from the traumatic event and reality-test them to see if they're accurate or not," Chard said. "It is heavily focused on 'What are you telling yourself' What does that make you feel' Are those beliefs truly real and accurate based on your life''"

The VA has counselors trained in both therapies-Chard is an expert in CPT-and Chard and other experts are helping train new military clinicians as well. Patients and counselors typically work together to decide which therapy is the best fit for them. If one doesn't work, they'll try the other therapy, but Chard said that patients don't get worse. In fact, studies show that 70 percent of patients who undergo these treatments no longer meet the criteria for PTSD.

One thing HemerlyFluck-Kroll does not regret is reporting the sergeant, no matter how painful the process may have been. She said her first concern was that he be stopped before he could hurt another woman or graduate to physical assaults.

"You have to stick up for yourself because no one else is going to do it," she said. "If you don't step forward and try to help yourself put someone else away who has violated you, no one else is going to do it. No one else knows it happened."

Isles agreed, practically begging Soldiers to get help if they are sexually assaulted. "Go straight and tell it. Go to the chaplain. Go to the equal opportunity officer. If the equal opportunity officer is the one doing it to you, go above him (or her). Just keep going and keep going. It's got to stop. Do not allow this to happen to you. It will affect you for the rest of your life. Do not let it continue."

Preventing sexual assault

Army law enforcement officers have a message for sexual offenders: watch out because we're coming for you.

According to Russell W. Strand, the chief of the Family Advocacy Law Enforcement Training Division at the U.S. Army Military Police School, and one of the Army's top sexual assault experts, military police officers and Criminal Investigation Command agents undergo comprehensive, highly specialized training to handle sexual assault cases.

In addition to offering a two-week special victims unit course and two-day refresher training at USAMPS, CID brought on 27 civilian special investigators in 2009. They have extensive backgrounds in investigating sexual assaults and are assigned to the installations that have the highest rates of those cases-training posts like Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., and large installations like Fort Hood, Texas-and several are even deployed.

Strand, a retired CID agent and former MP, pointed out that unlike most civilian police officers and detectives, military police and CID special agents can't pick their cases.

If a victim wants to make a report, agents must document and investigate it, whether or not the case ever makes it to trial. This, Strand explained, is part of the reason that, on paper, the Army's sexual assault rates may appear high.

"If (a civilian detective) determines, in their own mind, that this isn't a real rape complaint, it's not going to hit any document, anywhere, and therefore it doesn't enter into their statistics. So it's really difficult to compare us with them because they might even show higher conviction rates, but it's filtered out at a much lower level. If we take every report that comes into us and document them, they're going to look like they have much higher conviction rates. The detective is only going to take a case at the beginning that he thinks, or she thinks, they're going to be able to prove. We take them whether we can prove them or not," Strand said.

The Army, he added, is also mostly made up of a subset of the population that traditionally has the highest rates of sexual assault, child abuse and domestic violence.

If anything, colleges and universities have a bigger problem, he explained, and those institutions try to solve sexual assault cases with student misconduct boards instead of education and leadership. Strand said one expert from academia told him how embarrassed he was at how they've been handling sexual assaults versus the Army's prevention programs.

In fact, Strand views the Army's rising sexual assault rates as a positive sign, because that means that more victims are coming forward rather than remaining silent. The resulting attention has also led to increased resources for education and training.

"Fortunately, (sexual assault) has come to the attention of Congress, of the media, of everything else, primarily because of our deployed mission," he said. "I think the chief of staff of the Army, Gen. (George W.) Casey (Jr.), articulates it very well: A Soldier has a better chance of being sexually assaulted than being shot or killed by the enemy.

"This is the last place we want a sexual offender to be, is (in) the Army. So as a result of some of the sexual assaults that have occurred overseas during deployments, we've been able to build a program since 2005 that I believe is second-to-none in the world." Strand added that his-and Army leadership's-goal is for the Army to lead the nation in handling sexual assault cases.

One of the biggest challenges is communicating to potential victims, potential offenders and leaders that they won't be able to guess who might or might not be a sexual offender or victim.

Anyone can be an offender, he said-even a model, decorated Soldier-just like anyone can be a victim. Serial offenders usually go out of their way to blend in, to be everyone's friend, to be trusted. At the same time, they pick victims who are vulnerable, might not fit in at the unit, or don't have great reputations; in other words, someone less likely to be believed.

"About 5 percent of any given male population is sex offenders. That means 95 percent isn't. But how do you tell which ones are and which ones aren't' It's not the ones who make the hair on the back of your neck raise. It's the ones that don't. They're the ones at the bar or the unit party...getting (someone) away from that horrible drunk. They've already got a good reputation with the people in that unit. They've already got a good reputation with some friends of that victim. Of course no one is going to say anything. 'Well, I'll make sure she gets home,' because everyone else has been drinking, because that's probably going to be the person who's drinking the least. Generally they're going to be the trusted one," Strand said, explaining that every person has three personas.

The first persona is the public persona, what people want others to believe-usually only the best things. The second is the uninhibited persona, where people relax and let their hair down.

Family members and close friends will generally know this second persona, but no one knows the third: the private persona. This is made up of the thoughts, ideas and feelings people know won't be acceptable to others.

"And that's where they also plan, manipulate, rehearse and practice committing their crimes," Strand said. "That's where we've got to get to. We've got to get people to understand that who you really think you know, you don't really know...and get away from that false sense of security that 'I've known this person for a year now and I'm going to trust him with everything,' because that doesn't happen. We also have to educate commanders in this belief because they think they know that Soldier. All they know is that first persona that the Soldier's thrown out there, and they're very good at it."

Another challenge is teaching people the meaning of consent, Strand added. Not only can a man or woman say "no" at any time, he or she doesn't have to actually say it. If he or she does not, or cannot, give permission every step of the way for sexual activity, that's assault. "But people really have a hard time understanding that." An offender might not set out to rape someone, Strand pointed out. He can end up committing a crime and ruining two lives because he misunderstood this basic concept. Even something as simple as one too many drinks can mean that a victim can't consent.

During the specialized training at the MP school, Strand and his instructors teach special agents that sexual harassment, including innuendos, often escalates to sexual assault. They also discuss common myths about sexual assault by gathering investigators in a room and talking about both their own and society's biases about rape: how a woman who visits a man's room must be asking for it, or that a woman who cries date rape really consented and changed her mind later. Then they debunk those myths.

"We have to continually get leader buy-in, because some of these biases are deeply ingrained. Just to talk about it once a not going to affect the problem. We have to hold leaders accountable for not holding people accountable," Strand said, explaining that it's often difficult for commanders, who after all are only human, to see past their biases and beyond a Soldier's first persona. He believes the best solution would be to turn the military justice system on its head, change a few laws and put civilian magistrates in charge of filing charges against servicemembers.

Strand is also one of the driving forces behind a new technique CID special agents are using to interview victims based on the principles of critical incident stress management, which Strand and his team used to help victims and responders of the Fort Hood, Texas, shooting in 2009. Instead of asking about the specifics of an attacker's appearance, investigators have victims retell their experiences. They ask them what they felt and also how it has affected them physically and emotionally.

"I've practiced this on child abuse victims and also adult victims since," he said. "We trained it last year, (and) it works so well. It takes the pressure off the agents to remember this stuff; it takes the pressure off the victims to remember all this stuff. And we're basically gaining the experience in collecting the physiological evidence, which makes for a better case.

"Then we have the agents practice this. We give them some real scenarios and we have them practice on each other. And on the first run-through, it's funny to watch. They go back immediately to their old habits. They start with a narrative and then they go into 'Why'd you do that' What were you doing' Was this consensual'' and all these other silly questions. But then I come in here and throw a little hissy fit and say, 'OK. You're here for training. Try doing this our way.'

"And they do. And it really changes their attitudes. Several of the hard-core, resistant members actually came back into the classroom after (portraying) victims, (in scenarios where) the agent actually used these new techniques. Some of them said things like, 'Man, yesterday I just wanted to give them the (answers to the) questions they were asking, and I didn't really care. Today, I wanted to give them everything. I really felt like I could open up,'" Strand continued, saying many senior agents, with decades of experience, said they wished they had these techniques 20 or 30 years ago.

"I believe within the next two or three years, we're going to be the finest criminal investigative agency working sexual assaults in the world," he concluded. "We're already almost there."