Posts Tagged ‘MST’

Serving the Women Who Served

March 25, 2014

The other day I wrote about the Coordinated Entry System serving people coming out of jail who could be homeless. The same system now also serves veterans as I learned at the Women Veterans Summit. Here’s my account of that event as it appears today in LA Progressive.

Yolanda Shelton came out of the Army after 8 years service and found herself in Los Angeles down to her last $7 with no place to go. Shelters and facilities that house women won’t accept a male child over the age of 12 so she and her son spent months in the street.

Mika Montoya joined the National Guard at 17 thinking she would defend the nation. Six months later she found herself in Iraq. On her return she had another surprise: her child is a daughter, but she found programs for vets rarely if ever accommodate mothers.

Both women told their stories at the Women Veterans Summit held on March 19 on the campus of the VA West Los Angeles Medical Center.
Callie Wight, the Women Veterans Program Manager Greater Los Angeles, agreed. She has a long list of providers of residential treatment centers but can’t name a single one that takes women with their children. How many beds are there in permanent supportive housing for women with kids? None.

A year ago when Julie De La Mora of the CA Employment Development Department brought servicewomen together, Wight told of vast improvements in women’s access to necessary health services. The day was a celebration of military women’s accomplishments. This year, Wight and De La Mora were hosts of the event but so was Tracy Satterfield Tordella of the Homeless Women Veteran’s Collaborative. Along with recognition and celebration, they joined forces to put the focus on the most vulnerable military sisters.

All day, panelists representing agencies and service providers discussed housing, law, health, employment and education, their best practices, gaps in service, and future plans. If your priority is not the full report but rather in knowing what you can do now to address homelessness among women veterans, please feel free to skip to the end of the article for an Action Alert.

Women Attend Marine Boot Camp At Parris Island, South Carolina

Military Sexual Trauma as a Barrier to Being Served

A high percentage of homeless women vets suffer from Military Sexual Trauma (MST) or are survivors of domestic violence, said Cacilia Kim, an attorney with the California Women’s Law Center. Because male veterans so outnumber females, a woman may find herself alone and isolated in the settings intended to help her. If a woman doesn’t feel safe in transitional housing or permanent supportive housing, Kim said, “she won’t see it as a viable option.”

Similarly, Dr. Jeanette Lantz, VA psychologist, noted that a woman with MST severe enough to require treatment on an inpatient psychiatric ward may find herself housed on a floor with men. Anne Hudson-Price of Public Counsel is concerned when MST survivors in Family Court seeking to regain or keep custody are stuck in a waiting room for hours with men charged with domestic violence. When women are placed in trigger situations like these, they are unlikely to access possible services.

But specifically, when it comes to housing, government programs as well as private landlords fear violating the Fair Housing Act if they provide gender-segregated facilities. Kim, however, interprets the law to ask whether women have equal access to housing under conditions which feel unsafe or can retraumatize.

In the meantime, providers can be urged to assign women quarters near the security office, or on separate floors of a shared building. Kim would like to see separate facilities for women vets, but for an exception to be made, you need a “damn good reason,” and anecdotal accounts won’t cut it. Right now, data isn’t being collected, and Kim says empirical evidence is needed to make an effective argument.

“If there’s a survey, even if it takes 45 minutes or an hour, fill it out,” requested Stephanie Stone of the LA County Department of Veterans Affairs.

“Register with the VA even if you have other insurance,” Wight said. Funding for programs depends on enrollment. “Even if you won’t use all the services, enroll so that your sisters can.”

One service on the West LA VA campus is Naomi House, said Natalie Wells of VA housing programs. The Salvation Army operates this all-woman bungalow but as Congress has cut funding, its future is uncertain. Sharon McLendon of the New Directions Women’s Program told of their two houses in Mar Vista, home to 14 women who receive wraparound services:
clinical support, tutors to prepare for a return to school, employment preparation including vocational certificate programs, assistance with family visitation and reunification and
moving expenses.

Los Angeles does have programs that work but not enough of them. More units will open in the next year or two but need will still far exceed supply.

Discriminatory Effect of Existing Law

“My personal point of view?” said Wight. “Women need their own membership-based veterans organization with clout to lobby Congress.”
Federal law regulating HUD funds, including Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (VASH) vouchers use definitions of eligibility that tend to work against the needs of women, and so laws and regulations need to be challenged, amended, or reinterpreted. (see the Action Alert)

One example of creative interpretation was obvious upon entering the conference room. The VA is legally banned from providing “child care” but some women vets could not have attended at all unless they could bring their young children. An area in the back of the room was set aside for “children’s activities” where volunteers kept the kids occupied. The mothers had seating in the back of the room too as they were required to keep their kids in their line of sight.

In many cases, change can only come through the state legislature or Congress and sometimes that’s what happens. For example, Congress has now authorized the VA to cover the first seven days of a baby’s life instead of having to stop care upon the baby’s delivery.

Existing law too often fails to take into account the special needs of mothers, but it ignores the needs of women who want to have children. An audience member told of undergoing 14 surgeries due to what she suffered in Iraq. Her injuries and surgeries left her infertile. Today, she’s happily pregnant, but she and her husband had to come up with $12,000 on their own to cover in vitro fertilization because the VA is not allowed by law to treat infertility–even when the condition is recognized as service-connected.

One-Stop Shopping

Vets are a priority population for the new Coordinated Entry Systems-Access to Housing initiative through which an LA County applicant registers only once to search all appropriate housing available through multiple programs and nonprofit providers. Where to register depends on neighborhood. Veterans can learn where to go by contacting outreach manager Michelle O’Neil at 310.478.3711 ext. 40261 or Michelle.O’ (Outside of LA County, try 877-4AID-VET or

One-stop shopping is now the goal to correct years of vets getting the runaround or being sent from one office to another. There will still be multiple locations for services, but getting help will be more coordinated and streamlined.

Stone reported that the county-owned building, Bob Hope Patriotic Hall at 1816 South Figueroa Street, will soon offer “all things veteran,” – nonmedical, that is – from help with the VA claims process to a place to meet with a wide range of agencies and nonprofits. (As for existing long-delayed VA claims, Linda Benoit, California Department of Veterans Affairs said California has now established three regional offices–one in Los Angeles–to expedite paperwork and get through the backlog.)

By the time everyone has moved into Patriotic Hall–probably in May–a list of providers and a calendar will be available. Not every provider will be on-site every day, however, so once the program is fully operational, vets should check the calendar schedule before making the trip.

Having a central location for services makes a huge difference. When it comes to supportive housing, Dr. Lantz pointed out how much it matters to have services co-located with the residential area. Women who are stressed enough to need support, she said, can’t always be expected to follow up when told “go over there.” At the very least, a case manager or trusted service provider should arrange a “warm handoff” to a second provider.

According to Dr. Fatma Batuman, Medical Director of the Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System, Women’s Health for the VA, women can now have all their appointments (except for some specialties) scheduled at the same place for the same day so they no longer have to travel repeatedly back and forth to get care.

Gaps remain, including the relative paucity of resources in rural and outlying areas such as Kern County. Veronica Lira of FOCUS (Families OverComing Under Stress) resiliency training for service families said the program tries to bridge that gap the best it can be offering sessions via Skype and through other computer technology.

Caring for transgender clients remains new and sometimes confusing both to clinical staff and other vets like the woman in the audience who expressed her discomfort at having a male-to-female transgender vet participate in an MST support group. Policies to ensure sensitivity and the rights of all are still a work-in-progress. Dr. Susan Steinberg of the VA Ambulatory Care Center on Temple Street reported on the individual, couples, and group counseling afforded LGBT veterans as well as referrals for endocrinology, hormone treatment and speech therapy for transgender vets.


Veterans and the Courts

“Your best outcome is to be represented by a licensed, experienced attorney, which is what our court system was designed for,” said Margaret Little of the LA County Superior Court. In reality, access to legal representation is woefully inadequate not just for veterans but for all Americans of limited economic means. According to Little, in the court that handles probate and family issues, 80-90% of people have to represent themselves.

Many of women vets’ legal problems can be traced back to MST. While the diagnosis is widely recognized now, for years women suffering from PTSD related to sexual violence rather than combat received medical or administrative discharges that disqualified them from receiving VA services and other benefits. (Many men fell into this trap as well, having their PTSD falsely attributed to a preexisting “personality disorder.”) This is one of the reasons about 15% of the homeless vets on Los Angeles street are ineligible for VA benefits according to Dr. Carl McKnight of the LA County Department of Mental Health. The county and many nonprofits try to pick up the slack and do provide free services to any and all veterans, no matter the length of service or type of discharge. Lawyers including Kim have been able to represent some women in getting their discharges upgraded.

When MST or PTSD causes homelessness or substance abuse or other behavioral issues, it too often leads as well to loss of child custody. Vets go to Family Court to retain custody of their kids or to arrange visitation or get their children back. Stone cites the Valor Guide, which lists organizations that provide free legal assistance to veterans. When it comes down to it, however, a woman in need may end up making dozens of phone calls only to find out not one organization has sufficient staff and resources to help her. Despite the crucial nature of custody proceedings, women vets often have no choice but to represent themselves.

Recognizing that it’s not enough but better than nothing, Little hired Kathleen Dixon to set up self-help services and family law facilitator offices in county courthouses. As court employees, facilitators have to remain neutral and advise both parties if asked. They can’t accompany a person into court, but they can provide explanations and guidance in navigating the process. Some of the organizations in the Valor Guide may provide higher levels of guidance when they lack funding to offer full representation. Family law facilitators are a presence in selected courthouses and will offer legal guidance at Patriotic Hall the fourth Friday of each month in the afternoon.

Hudson-Price wants all veterans to be aware of special protections they receive in criminal court–but only if the judge is made aware of the defendant’s military status. For example, under CA Penal Code 1170.9, veterans are eligible for probation or alternative sentencing if they can show their criminal act stemmed from a trauma-related condition such as PTSD. They can claim this benefit in any criminal proceeding, even if they aren’t docketed in the special veterans treatment court. If the court assigns treatment instead of jail or prison, veterans can get the charges entirely dismissed upon successful completion of that treatment. In addition, veterans picked up in the street should identify themselves as such to police or deputies who may in some cases be able to take the vet to the VA instead of to jail.

Hudson-Price drew attention to another legal problem homeless people face. When people are ticketed for minor quality-of-life offenses, due to their complicated lives they are likely to miss or not even know about a scheduled court date. This turns a small ticket into a $10,000 penalty and an arrest warrant. At HALO Citation Clinics, people can find out if they have warrants and can quickly clear any outstanding tickets. Clinics are held periodically at New Directions on the VA campus and at different nonprofits. Vets can find out more at Patriotic Hall.
“Whenever you go to court,” Dixon said, “identify yourself as a veteran” because new laws have increased a number of legal protections. There is now a statewide court form, the MIL-100, which officially notifies the court of military service. Anyone can file it–the veteran, a family member or friend or anyone else acting on her behalf.

All lawyers are required to donate at least 20 hours of pro bono (free) time, said Hudson-Price. She thinks we need to tell more personal stories about women vets, for example, how they desperately need help to be reunited with their children, in order to win the attention–and pro bono hours–of private attorneys.

Jobs Jobs Jobs

When it came time for the Employment and Education panel, Yolanda Shelton who had already told of her anger and frustration when being given the runaround was now able to express her gratitude. “I just want to hug her neck every time I see her,” she said, referring to panelist Maxine Anderson of the CA Employment Development Department.

“I have a passion for my job,” said Anderson who added that in her office, all staff have been trained so they can step in and help even if a veterans service navigator isn’t available. “We work on the whole person,” she said. If a vet isn’t ready for employment, her office doesn’t turn her away but figures out what services she needs and makes the referral. When someone is ready to work, Anderson doesn’t want to see vets stuck in $8/hour security and warehouse jobs. “We come out of the service with more skills than that.” She urges veterans to register with CalJobs where new listings are held up for 48 hours so that vets can see them a day before anyone else.

The Hero 2 Hired website lists openings from 30,000 military-friendly employers. (Don’t confuse it with any of the Hero 4 Hire sites that provide actors dressed as superheroes for parties.) This service initially served only National Guard and reservists but, regardless of what the website may still say, any vet can now register, add her MOS, and then see what jobs are available that match her skill set, said Ilka Davidson. “We don’t do rent-a-cop,” she added. “A vet who’s been a machinist should get $31/hour.” Applications are filed online. “Tech,” said Davidson. “You need to embrace it and utilize it no matter how much you hate it.” And an advantage to filing online instead of in person: they don’t know your age or what you look like.

But when everything is online, Lisa McGlory admits it can be hard to get in-person meetings with HR managers which is what she does as part of the 1,000 vets initiative of the small nonprofit America ICARE. She works with potential employers who express willingness to hire veterans but also say they aren’t sure where to find them or even how to act around them. She’s been asked, “Do I address a Marine differently than Army?” So she offers workshops to be sure employers are ready for vets as well as workshops in resume writing, interviewing, and other job preparation to be sure veterans are ready for employment from Day One.

College for Family Members

The children, spouse or domestic partner of a veteran may be eligible for a full tuition fee waiver at any California state college, according to Benoit, but will still pay for books and fees. There are four different categories of help with different eligibility requirements which can be checked here.

For all the serious content, this year’s summit ended on a celebratory note: letters of commendation from the governor, a gala dinner with music, dancing, and a fashion show. Women vets got to strut their stuff in professional outfits and accessories provided through the Working Wardrobe program that dresses vets for success when they go to job interviews and start new employment.

What Can You Do?

See the letter, below, prepared by Laura Lake of the Coalition for Veterans Land. Her Action Alert is California-specific but includes information that can be adapted to other states and for advocacy at the federal level.

Take the advice of Maricela Guzman who shared her personal experience. Guzman was raped during her Navy service and still copes, years later, with PTSD. She was always known for being highly responsible and driven to achieve but following her discharge, she spent years unable to function, not working, not going to school. She lost a marriage. She made a suicide attempt. Today, Guzman remains affected by the trauma and still receives treatment although she is in graduate school, and employed, and is well known as a speaker and advocate on the subject of MST. One interview didn’t go so well. Guzman walked out of the room and soon broke down in tears after being told, “You look normal. Are you sure you have PTSD?”

When you talk to survivors, she says, remember that “we are the experts. We are the voices.” People shouldn’t speak assuming they know best and without being self-critical. So here’s what everyone can do: “Listen,” Guzman says, “and stand in solidarity.”

ACTION ALERT! California AB 639

Eliminate Barriers to Permanent Supportive Housing For Veteran Families and Female Veterans with MST

Please send this by April 1, 2014 on your organization’s letterhead (or slightly revised to come from an individual).

TO: CalVet Undersecretary Lindsey Sin (

FROM: [name of organization]

RE: Veterans Housing and Homeless Prevention Bond Act of 2014

As members of the veterans’ advocacy community, we wish to commend Undersecretary Sin for working with the Legislature to address the housing needs of veterans. In anticipation of the passage of this historic bond act, we seek to eliminate barriers to safe supportive housing for veteran families and for female veterans suffering from Military Sexual Trauma (in Los Angeles, more than half the homeless female veterans have experienced sexual trauma) through the regulations that will implement AB 639.

Most veteran housing has so far catered to the needs of single male veterans, not veteran families or the growing number of female veterans suffering from Military Sexual Trauma. California can once again lead the way by addressing this special need population by:

Including in the NOFA (Notice of Funding Availability) veteran families at risk of homelessness or homeless rather than mandating chronic homelessness as defined by HUD. Currently, to qualify for VASH Vouchers (tenant or project-based) or Section 8 operating subsidies, a veteran must have a year of homelessness. Requiring chronic homelessness to qualify veteran families exposes children to a year of homelessness, a trauma that can scar a child and place him/her in foster care. We therefore ask that new guidelines be adopted that eliminate the chronic homeless requirement and add at-risk of homelessness, couch-surfing and homelessness to qualify for bond funds and VASH vouchers. As Housing First has demonstrated, getting these families into safe, supportive housing saves them added trauma and taxpayers additional costs.

Fair Housing: Currently over 50 percent of homeless women veterans are victims of Military Sexual Trauma. Their recovery from PTSD requires that they and their children live in safe, secure female veteran housing (similar to domestic violence shelters). Since no clear legal precedent exists permitting female-only housing for victims of military sexual trauma for permanent supportive housing, it is necessary that regulations implementing veteran housing funds authorize female-only permanent supportive housing as disability-based and in compliance with fair housing laws.

Designate female veterans with children and MST victims, as a special need community. Currently there is no permanent supportive housing for female veterans with children in Los Angeles County. Housing developers need certainty that serving this population will be on a level playing field with traditional veteran housing. These developers need eligibility for state bond funds and/or VASH vouchers due to the high price of land in California and construction costs.

Women Veterans: Celebrating Service and Fighting for Change

March 23, 2013

From writing about nonviolence, here’s a segue to the military. In Today’s LA Progressive

The Women Veterans Symposium, held March 21 at the Carson Community Center, celebrated military women and vets while military chaplain Brenda J. Threatt, the LA mayor’s veterans outreach coordinator, spoke out about the continued challenges they face.

“This is the active combat uniform,” she said. “Everything on this uniform means something.”

Chaplain Brenda J. ThreattChaplain Brenda J. Threatt

So what does it mean, she then asked, that military uniforms are not designed for the female body? Though “I’d give my life, I’d give my all for America,” she declared, “we become a part of machinery that has no gender. But we have suffered because of our gender inside our uniform.”

Women’s bodies have indeed been a mystery–or maybe annoying inconvenience–to the US military. VA health centers are now required to have a department focused on women’s health, including treatment for Military Sexual Trauma (MST), a sad necessity given the well documented and horrific rate of sexual assault in the uniformed services. Callie Wight, MA, RN, manager of GLAHS (Greater Los Angeles Health Care Systems) Women Veterans Program offers counseling and psychotherapy to address MST. She also noted that the VA only recently began to offer pre-natal care to pregnant servicewomen in addition to other gynecological services. “We wanted to do that for years,” she said, but the VA had to wait (and wait) for Congressional approval.

Callie Wight MA, RNCallie Wight MA, RN

It’s about time. According to the California Department of Veterans Affairs, women account for 20% of military recruits in the US and the percentage is rising. As of October 2010, California had the highest number of women vets in the country and of the estimated 1.8 million women veterans nationwide, only a fraction–255,000–use VA healthcare services. CalVet further notes that minority vets are less likely than whites to access the benefits due them. This certainly indicates a failure of outreach to women of color or a failure of trust, and so networking was an important part of the Carson event.

Theresa Brunella came from Oxford Health Care to let people know that help exists for low-income vets in need of home nursing and home health care. She connects vets with organizations that help them file VA paperwork and negotiate red tape while Oxford provides the needed services during the many months it takes for a claim to be processed–particularly important given the scandalous delays recently reported that are causing so much hardship to male as well as female vets.

Theresa BrunellaTheresa Brunelle

Helen Brewer, retired from the Air Force, attended with an eye toward moving beyond her current job in security. Her long range entrepreneurial dream is to own and manage her own construction company and she wants to learn about training opportunities in the trades and support for small business initiatives.
Helen BrewerHelen Brewer

Yvette Tucker, veterans representative in the admissions office at Los Angeles Southwest College, is interested in outreach. She helps women vets access tuition benefits and housing and is concerned that more women don’t take advantage of benefits to which they have earned the right. What she sees too often is that women don’t look to veterans programs or get involved because the male culture makes them feel excluded. In addition, some of the vets she assists suffer from MST or PTSD while the nearest VA center with specialized PTSD treatment is in Palo Alto. Locally, if women need specialized help, “it has to be referred out.”

Yvette TuckerYvette Tucker

But other help is available, as Wight explained before leading a guided meditation. In addition to locally based counseling and psychotherapy, the VA is now embracing some surprising treatment modalities. At the Sepulveda Ambulatory Care Center, Wight offers programs to women vets who–like anyone–can benefit from stress and tension reduction. You don’t need a diagnosis to participate in and benefit from meditation, Tai Chi, and yoga-based breathing, stretching, and relaxation. Call her for information at 818-895-9555.

Of course there’s another issue that preoccupies everyone today: Jobs, jobs, jobs.

Thursday’s symposium was organized by Julie De La Mora of the California Employment Development Department (EDD) which has many services specifically for veterans.

Her boss, Carolyn Anderson, Deputy Division Chief of LA’s EDD proclaimed, “At EDD, every day is Veterans Day,” and recalled the too often forgotten service and sacrifice of women dating back to the Revolutionary War. She paid special tribute to Army nurse Carol Ann Drazba who died in Vietnam only days after saving the life of Anderson’s father-in-law. Drazba, the war’s first female military casualty, was denied the Purple Heart and only recently honored with a monument funded by private donations.

Carolyn Anderson of EDDCarolyn Anderson

How can the contributions of women become more visible? Eric Brubaker of the Red Cross attended to let people know about the Veterans History Project which since 2000 has been collecting audio and video oral histories from veterans as well as civilian workers who were actively involved in war efforts. Interviews are archived by the Library of Congress and some have been made available to the public at the website []. A visit there shows that California women are not well (if at all!) represented. To be written into the history they helped make, women can schedule an interview or ask about the project by contacting Mike Farrar at 562-490-4003 or

Keynote speaker, Brigadier General (Ret) Ruth Wong, and the many highly motivated women in attendance were living examples of the positive strengths and attributes employers can find in women vets.

Brigadier General (Ret.) Ruth WongRuth Wong

Wong, now Acting Director, LA County Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, served in the theater of operations during the first Gulf War, leading troops and carrying weapons to protect herself and her patients as she cared for them during aeromedical evacuations. In other words, she served in a combat zone long before the recent decision to make women’s combat role official–and appropriately compensated.

In the military, she learned she could adapt to most situations. By commanding troops from all over the country, she tested her leadership skills and ability to understand people. “There’s always more ways than one way to get the job done,” and so she learned how and when to delegate responsibility. “Did combat experience change me?” In sharp contrast to negative stereotypes of combat vets she said, “It gave me added strength and compassion and gave me a road map for the future.”

For all the positive outcomes and outlooks at the symposium, no one forgot the sister vets struggling with poverty, hunger, and the results of trauma.

“Don’t ever let another sister down,” said Threatt.

As for the future of women in the military, she reminded all in attendance, “We can fight this fight against discrimination because we are in America. There are places around the world where women struggle to show their faces. We have the opportunity to fight.”


We all-–active military, veteran, or civilian-–have the opportunity to spread the word to help women vets connect with the programs cited in this article as well as services listed below:

Need a copy of your DD214 (separation from service form) to access benefits but you’re getting stuck in red tape? It can be requested from Military Service Records but a Statement of Service on Veterans Benefits Administration letterhead is also acceptable proof and can be obtained from the VBA on the fifth floor of the Federal Building in Westwood (11000 Wilshire Blvd.)

For active service members and vets returning from Iraq and/or Afghanistan and their loved ones, The Coming Home Project provides free and confidential services addressing emotional, psychological, spiritual and relationship challenges of deployment and reintegration: 415-353-5363.

Licensed mental health professionals throughout California offer free psychological treatment to military service members who have served in or expect deployment to Afghanistan or Iraq and would prefer not to be seen by the VA: 818-761-7498 for a referral.

Are there women out there who would like contact with other vets but don’t want to join the local American Legion post? Irene Cruz, a Marines vet and co-chair of the SEIU Veteran Caucus, is building up an all-woman virtual post and invites interested vets to contact her at

Irene Cruz (left) and Julie De La MoraIrene Cruz (left) and Julie De La Mora

Rock for Vets, a music therapy program based at the Long Beach VA, gets veterans together for sing-alongs and for instrumental music lessons. For information or to join the group, vets are encouraged to contact Frank McIlquham at

Rock for Vets

New Directions Women’s Program, the first residential program in the US specifically for female veterans confronting homelessness, substance abuse, PTSD and other mental health issues, offers both emergency and transitional housing and a wide range of support services, including assistance in family reunification and regaining custody of children. For more information, please contact Renee Banton, program supervisor, at 310-709-5871. For immediate 24-hour assistance: 310-914-5966.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a 24-hour hotline for anyone in distress. Call 1-800-273-8255 to be connected to a civilian California crisis center or press 1 to be routed to a VA counselor at the Veteran Suicide Prevention Hotline.

The Lifeline also offers online chat, in English or Spanish, through which veterans, their families and friends can connect anonymously to either a civilian or trained VA counselor.

Diane Lefer
Friday, 22 March 2013

The Invisible War: Combating Military Sexual Trauma

October 15, 2012

My article published Oct. 14th in Hollywood Progressive

After The Invisible War, a documentary about sexual assault in the US military, screened Thursday evening, a woman stood up from the audience to say she had just celebrated her 80th birthday and that, as a young woman, she’d been raped by a stranger. She wanted everyone to know that today she’s a happy person. Yes, she said to loud applause, “it is possible to heal.”

Healing, being able to move forward with their own lives, is surely what everyone wishes for survivors of sexual violence. But as documentary producer Amy Ziering suggested to the audience during the post-film discussion, in the military, it’s a lot harder to recover if you are far from home, have no support, are called a liar and threatened with retaliation or even death if you tell, and surely worst of all, have to report to your job the next day to the very person who raped you.

Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick

Kori Cioca was stalked and harassed by her commanding officer in the Coast Guard for weeks before he attacked her. He’d call her at 3:00 AM. She’d come in from training and find him waiting in her bed. Then, in 2005, he smashed her jaw during the violent rape. By the time The Invisible War screened at the Sundance Film Festival this year and won the Audience Award, Cioca was still in pain, still unable to eat anything but soft food, and had still not been able to get the VA to approve the jaw surgery she needed. An audience member stepped forward and footed the bill for her at last.

Hers is only one of many stories. The Department of Defense itself estimates that in 2011 there were 19,000 violent sex crimes in which a military service member was assaulted by other military personnel.

The Invisible War brings us close into the lives of survivors, letting us see not only the long lasting damage of Military Sexual Assault (MST) but the toll on families struggling through recovery along with them as they deal with suicide attempts, physical and psychological consequences.

Kori Cioca and her husband

Over the years, I have known several women vets from around the country who were raped while serving. What I didn’t know till I watched The Invisible War was how widespread the crime has become and how the system of military justice in its very structure fails to address it. I learned a woman serving in Iraq or Afghanistan is more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire. And that almost half of the survivors of military rape are men.

Men tend to be even less willing than women to speak openly about what they endured. But Ziering and director Kirby Dick were able to include brief interviews with several male survivors, including Amando Javier for whom the seven Marines who gang raped him still “live in my head.” Michael Matthews kept silent for 30 years after he was knocked to the ground en route to the mess hall and then raped by two fellow soldiers. He struggled alone with the demons born of his trauma, fearing his wife would leave him if she knew. When he told his story at last to her and the filmmakers, his wife put her arms around him and, he says now, “this great weight had been lifted off me.”

These male-on-male assaults are not about sexual orientation. The perpetrators aren’t gay. The men aren’t targeted as gay. It’s about dominance, about predators going after targets they believe they can prey upon.

The majority of men in the military are not predators. But a recent US Navy survey which assured anonymity found that 15% of incoming recruits reported committing rape or attempted rape in civilian life–a frightening statistic especially if Russell Strand, Chief of the US Army Family Advocacy Law Enforcement Training Division, is right when he states that the average sex offender is a repeat offender with about 300 victims.

And the military is “a target-rich environment for a predator,” according to Brigadier General (Ret.) Loree Sutton, M.D., who served as the highest ranking psychiatrist in the US Army. New recruits must obey the orders of commanding officers, the only people to whom an assault can be reported are often themselves perpetrators or close friends of the perpetrators. How do you think Jessica Hinves felt when she reported she’d been raped and her accused assailant was named Airman of the Year while the investigation was ongoing? Taliban-worthy logic often prevails as women including Andrea Werner and Elle Helman were charged with adultery when they reported being raped.

Another woman had doubts about the effectiveness of military justice when she served as a Special Agent in the Army Criminal Investigation Command. In investigating a rape complaint, instead of treating the men as suspects, she was ordered to interrogate the women, seeking to prove they were making false statements. Then she herself was raped by a serial rapist. When she reported it, she was administratively discharged without benefits after 9-1/2 years of service.

In their interviews on-screen, the survivors talk about their love for the military, their pride in serving, but when asked if they would want a daughter to serve, the answer was No.
Several years ago, I met a bright, self-possessed, and self-confident high school senior who intended to join up after graduation. Admittedly, I didn’t want to see any young person enlist and go to war, but this was a young woman and I knew the additional risk. I gave her scholarship and loan information and warned her about sexual assault. She remained determined to pursue a military career but I was relieved she decided to go to college first and enter the military service with officer rank. I hoped this would, at least, make her less vulnerable.

But at the prestigious Marine Barracks Washington–which handles security for the White House–both Ariana Klay–back from service in Iraq, and Elle Helmer had the rank of lieutenant and this did not protect them from being harassed and later raped by superior officers. The culture of the unit was one of partying, drinking, and misogyny. The women were called “walking mattresses” and “sluts.” According to Klay, a senior officer in her command, the very first time he spoke to her, said, “Female Marines here are nothing but objects for Marines to fuck.”

Lt. Ariana Klay

The attitude of the post commander can make all the difference. As Ziering pointed out, most of the women in the film had entirely positive experiences for most of their military careers. “Everything I wanted to be,” said Cioca, “they taught you that.” “Everything about the military inspired me,” said Klay who cited the challenges of being smart and fit, and her love of the professionalism and camaraderie. Indeed, the powerful sense of camaraderie, once it’s turned against you, makes the women feel all the more betrayed. Cioca enjoyed the discipline of military life, till she encountered an undisciplined superior.

Trina McDonald breezed through basic training in the Navy but was then sent to an isolated post in Alaska where she was immediately made to feel “like a piece of meat on a slab.” She was raped soon after. After separation from the Navy, McDonald went through a period of homelessness and addiction before finding a stable life with marriage and children. But she is not free of the effects of the trauma. Says her wife, “The biggest hurdle was not taking PTSD personally.”

Trina McDonald (right) and wife

McDonald’s account made me think of a friend who loved the military life but received transfer orders to a post with a reputation for violent misogyny. “I knew I couldn’t go there,” she said and so she outed herself during the era of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell in order to be discharged from the Army.

After Thursday’s screening, an audience member told Ziering, “I hope you made money on this so more work like this can be made.” Money? No. But Ziering and Dick are now so committed to serving those who served their country that Ziering paid her own way to LA to speak and waived the payment of an honorarium. The filmmakers have created a second website, Invisible No More, which offers lists of resources for veterans, a petition to the Pentagon to advocate for new policies, discussion guides and information about hosting a screening. Ziering and Dick are now setting up a fund to assist vets whose PTSD/MST and physical needs aren’t being adequately addressed.

Since the Sundance screening, the invisible war has become much more visible. The major networks have–coincidentally?–aired brief segments about the issue, even when the documentary isn’t mentioned. Ziering first learned about MST through the work of Columbia journalism professor Helen Benedict. Now Benedict’s Salon article from 2007 and her books are getting deserved attention. Veterans interviewed in the film are now subjects of feature articles in print around the country. The scandals that have occasionally made the news over the last decades are no longer seen as isolated incidents. The Invisible War has received almost entirely laudatory coverage in the media–except for some voices in the blogosphere. Because of my great respect for the filmmakers, I want to address some of the negative responses, including the charge of “demagoguery,” that can be found on-line.

• The confessed and alleged perpetrators weren’t given screen time to respond. True. But would they want to appear? The documentary shielded their identities. Each one of us can judge whether this was the right call or not.

• The film shows women vets going to court and having their case dismissed because rape is considered an occupational hazard in the military. This claim gets called “demagoguery” because the court decision in question never cites anything like “occupational hazard.” So I looked this up and find the filmmakers did simplify the legal situation. I don’t fault them for this. If you care to read more than could easily fit into the documentary, keep reading this paragraph and see what you think. Otherwise, please skip ahead. A case that went up to the Supreme Court in 1950, Feres v. the United States, established a doctrine that persons in military service are barred from suing the government for any injury that occurs “incident to military service” — i.e., in laymen’s terms, an occupational hazard. The Feres doctrine has so far precluded women (and men) from bringing suit over rapes and assaults in which the Department of Justice or branches of service were negligent or complicit. Attorney Susan Burke has been trying to make a strategic end run around Feres by asserting Constitutional arguments, filing cases and appeals in different jurisdictions. As for the US District Court case we see being filed in The Invisible War, yes, the judge’s eventual decision to dismiss came down on other grounds and didn’t mention occupational hazards. But when the women’s case was not allowed to proceed, this left the Feres language about “incident to military service” still standing as an obstacle in the way of access to the civilian justice system.

• The claim is that contrary to the what the film says, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta did not announce a policy change two days after seeing the film because accusations of rape were always handled up the chain of command and not resolved at the unit level. In fact, Panetta made it mandatory that unit commanders refer all complaints up the chain of command. As the documentary shows, in the problem units, commanders used their own discretion to close down investigations or bury complaints instead of moving them up.

Unlike some bloggers, the Pentagon is taking the film seriously. Ziering and Dick have been invited to offer a two-day training session at a major base. Their program is surely more likely to have an impact than past anti-rape initiatives undertaken by the military, including the informational poster: Don’t risk it! Ask her when she’s sober! which merely perpetuates the myth that women cry rape the morning after consensual sex. A better approach would be to tell soldiers they have a duty to intervene when they hear a woman like Navy recruit Hannah Sewell screaming for help. No one within earshot responded to her calls for help during the violent attack that took her virginity, injured her back, and left her bruised and bleeding. Oh, by the way, her rape kit and the photos of her injuries were “lost.” Her father, Sgt. Major Jerry Sewell was serving in Afghanistan during part of the time The Invisible War was being filmed but, back in the States, he decided to appear on-camera. He resigned his commission and gave up his military career in order to speak freely, at times in tears, about what happened to his daughter.

The Sewells, father and daughter

MST and the military’s failure to stop it is all very visible now. And with this visibility, Ziering is hopeful. As she told the audience, “When the military takes on an issue, they really can effect change more effectively than in civilian life. The military led the way in racial equality. If the military can take this on and model non-misogynistic behavior, maybe it will make a difference” not just for people in uniform but eventually in civilian life as well.

* * * *
Thursday’s screening and Q&A was hold at the National Council of Jewish Women/Los Angeles, 543 N. Fairfax, LA 90036. Due to public interest, a second screening is scheduled for Wednesday, November 7th from noon till 2:30. School groups are welcome, but as seating is limited, please inquire and reserve your places by contacting Ruth Williams, Director of Advocacy at 323-852-8503 or As of this writing, it’s not known whether Amy Ziering will be able to attend.

To learn about hosting your own screening, please go to:

Hollywood Progressive, October 15, 2012