(and Female) Rape in the Military
Vietnam veteran Greg Helle kept his secret for 32 years until he reached a crossroads in life: He was going to kill himself or he was going to get help.
In 2001, the lifelong Iowan came to Florida to save his life. Helle entered a one-of-a-kind U.S. Veterans Affairs program in St. Petersburg designed exclusively to counsel men who were raped or sodomized in the armed services. At the Bay Pines VA Medical Center, Helle learned during his daily sessions that many other men had been sexually assaulted by peers or superiors in the military.
Helle never reported his rape. He didn't think his officers in Vietnam would believe him. And even if he did report the rape, he was certain the friends of the attacker -- another GI who bunked across the hall -- would kill him.
"The rape ruined my life," said Helle, 52, today the administrator of a 400-student veterinary teaching hospital at Iowa State University.
Greg Helle, a veterinary hospital administrator from Ankeny, Iowa, says he was raped during his tour in Vietnam by fellow soldiers. A Florida Today investigation uncovered thousands of veterans who say they suffered sex abuse in the military.
Now, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has quietly begun collecting nationwide data on the extent to which men like Helle have been sexually traumatized in the armed services.
The preliminary results put the projections of sexual trauma cases in the tens of thousands, including hundreds of men now living in Central Florida.
"This is a national crisis, but nobody will listen to me," said mental health counselor Roger Girard, a 22-year military veteran who treated dozens of sexually assaulted men, including Helle, at Bay Pines. "The brass of the military don't want to admit this happens because it's a black eye."
To uncover the extent of the problem, Florida Today obtained the VA's preliminary findings from its sexual trauma survey of 1.67 million veterans enrolled in 1,300 VA health care facilities across the country. It examined VA records and interviewed government and private psychologists across the United States. And it used the Freedom of Information Act to seek reports and prosecution information from the military. It found: Thousands of victims. Nearly 22,500 male veterans -- more than one of every 100 former soldiers, sailors and airmen treated by the VA -- reported being sexually "traumatized" by peers or superiors during their military careers, VA survey records show. That includes 769 men in the VA's Central Florida Health Care System, which includes Brevard County, Orlando and the Tampa Bay area. Most men who answer, "yes," to sexual trauma are being treated for other ailments by the VA, and only a small fraction are being treated exclusively for their military sexual abuse.
With the survey only half over and another 1.7 million male VA patients still to question, administrators say the final number of victims will be much higher. "This is a sleeping phenomenon. . . . We're acknowledging it's not just a women's problem," said Carole Turner, a VA director who oversees the computer software collecting the sexual trauma data.
No tracking of circumstances. Sexual trauma, as the VA defines it, includes rape, sodomy, molestation, harassment and unwanted sexual attention such as "touching, cornering, pressure for sexual favors, verbal remarks." However, neither the VA survey nor the military has categorized or counted the types of male sex abuse cases, meaning no one fully understands the extent of the problem. The VA also does not know how many male sexual trauma victims it treats every year. That lack of detail makes comparisons between the VA figures and sexual trauma rates in the active military nearly impossible. The military experience of VA patients spans more than 60 years, so there's no conclusive way to determine whether the prevalence of male sexual trauma among veterans reflects rates in today's active military.
Two military services do not comply with sex abuse reporting rules. Despite a congressional mandate that the military keep statistics on violent crimes, including sexual assaults, just two of the four major services -- the Army and the Air Force – could provide any statistics on sex crimes, and only the Army tracked the victims' gender. The Navy and Marine Corps could provide no information. The Army, the biggest service with about 1 million active and reserve personnel, reported 78 cases of sexual assault on men in the past 12 years -- about seven per year -- a number that struck veterans, criminologists and psychologists as low.
Military unaware or unconvinced of a problem. A Marine Corps spokesman dismissed the male sexual trauma subject as an "off-the-wall topic" when asked to arrange an interview with a senior Marine officer. An Army spokeswoman called the reported cases in her service "statistically insignificant." Another Army spokeswoman, when asked about sexual assaults on men, began explaining the military's policy on homosexuality. Lack of reporting by men could be a major reason why military leaders know little of the problem.
Domination the prime motive. Veterans Affairs psychologists who are treating sexually assaulted vets described most male victims as the youngest, lowest-ranking enlistees in the military, and the sexual assaults were carried out to humiliate or demean the victims. Such attacks are not homosexual acts, but efforts to assert power over others, the VA psychologists stressed. These nationwide counselors interviewed by Florida Today said most of the VA's treatment cases involved physical abuse, not insults or harassment. "It's pretty clear that we're discussing unwanted sexual activity that's coercive in nature," said Art Rosenblatt, coordinator of the VA's military sexual trauma program in Central Florida.
Florida Today asked all four major armed services and the Department of Defense for interviews with officers or policymakers to discuss its findings on military sexual trauma involving men. All four and the Pentagon rejected those requests.
But in an e-mail, Marine spokesman Lt. Col. Stephen H. Kay wrote from his Pentagon office, "I can tell you that the Marine Corps takes any allegation of sexual assault very seriously, regardless of the genders involved. Such matters are thoroughly investigated when reported, and appropriate disciplinary action is taken when warranted."
Army spokeswoman Elaine Kanellis said from the Pentagon, "When the Army is made aware of it, we'll go after it. . . . I don't think it's an epidemic."
The Air Force, which has 612,984 active and reserve personnel, reported 136 sexual assault cases on men and women in the past five years. However, it declined to review those cases to determine how many of the victims were men. "When an accusation is made, things are looked into," Air Force spokeswoman Valerie Burkes said from the Pentagon. "If there is evidence to substantiate the allegations, the next step is prosecution."
In December, Florida Today formally requested information on cases at Florida military installations such as Eglin Air Force Base near Pensacola and the Navy's air and ship bases in Jacksonville. Patrick Air Force Base in Brevard County reported no sexual assault cases involving men as the victim during the past 20 years.
"It's an issue that clearly no one in the military wants to discuss," said an ex-Marine from Brevard County who was sexually attacked by his commanding officer in Vietnam in 1969. The former Marine, now in his 50s and a counselor treating trauma survivors in Central Florida, asked not to be named. Florida Today agreed, in keeping with its normal policy on sexual abuse victims.
"Sexual assaults on military men is much more prevalent than people imagine," said VA psychologist David Sutton, a former Air Force pilot and Vietnam vet who counsels male sexual assault victims at a VA hospital in Big Spring, Texas. "In basic training, it's easy to exert one's power over a young recruit. And even if they do report it, there is an attempt to disregard it or an attempt to cover it up."
While the VA survey counted 22,486 cases of male sexual trauma, it also showed 19,463 cases of female sexual trauma – validating the reports of sexual abuse rates among women that made news throughout the 1990s.
The VA survey showed 22 percent of female vets said they suffered sexual trauma during their armed services careers. That roughly matches an earlier, national survey of women veterans in 1996. That survey found 23 percent of women reported sexual assault in the military and 55 percent reported harassment.
Abuse of women in the military became a mainstream news media topic in the 1990s. Attention focused primarily on the Navy's Tailhook scandal of 1991, which involved Navy and Marine aviators forming a sexual harassment gantlet at a Las Vegas convention, and the Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground sex abuse cases of 1996.
The thousands of sexual trauma cases that involved men in the armed forces, however, has caught everyone off guard, from military leaders to members of Congress who sit on Senate and House committees that oversee the military. Nearly every federal official interviewed for this story was unaware the VA had even begun a survey of male veterans -- or female vets.
Psychologist Terri Spahr Nelson, a decorated Army veteran from Ohio who wrote a book last year on sex abuse in the armed forces, said the attention now focused on male military sexual trauma is similar to the public spotlight cast on the plight of sexually abused military women 10 to 15 years ago.
'I felt dirty'
Among the men being treated by the VA, sexual trauma victims have described officers or older enlisted men gang raping recruits, soldiers sodomizing victims with gunbarrels and forcing young enlistees to perform oral sex.
Paul Branesky, a retired Navy diver from St. Petersburg, said four sailors raped him in the summer of 1967 at submarine training school in Groton, Conn.
"I didn't report anything. . . . They told me if I said anything I was dead. After I got up off the floor, I stood in the shower for three hours trying to wash the way I felt. I felt dirty and shameful," Branesky said. "Anybody who has reported anything, the military classified them with a section 8 that they were homosexual and got them out of the military."
Branesky, 55, has been treated for the sexual trauma at Bay Pines VA Medical Center in St. Petersburg since 2001.
"I know my life was hell and my wives' lives were hell," he said, referring to four marriages. "I still have friends in the military and I know it's still going on today."
Branesky's case is consistent with many others, psychologists said.
"The military is a macho organization, and if a man is sexually assaulted, there is a stigma that means the man was weak in some way or homosexual or he did something to warrant the rape," said Maria Crane, a VA psychologist who works on trauma cases in St. Petersburg.
The Department of Veterans Affairs survey comes in response to a 1999 federal law designed to improve sexual trauma treatment for veterans. Just as other doctors' offices ask patients about their prescription drugs or supplements, VA clinicians routinely ask veterans whether they were ever sexually traumatized during their military careers. By simply counting the "yes" responses, VA officials hope to grasp the extent of the problem.
"Men have not been asked before," said Sarah Ullman, a University of Chicago criminologist who has studied rape victims.
Mental health counselor Girard, who left Bay Pines two months ago, said the veterans he counseled for sexual assaults ranged in age from men in their early 20s to an 87-year-old World War II vet. His patients included victims from every war era who were based at domestic and overseas installations. The modest counseling facility at Bay Pines has treated more than 100 men since 1994.
Out of 1,300 VA health sites nationwide, the Bay Pines center has the only residential treatment program designed exclusively for daily treatment for male sexual trauma victims. Modeled after the facility's program for women, the men's program is being
restructured and will treat six to eight male vets during four-week sessions starting in April.
Most sexual trauma patients reported being attacked as young enlistees. But Girard said few assaults were carried out as hazing rituals. The only initiation-style sexual assaults patients reported were when sailors fondled victims' genitals or sodomized them with broomsticks when they sailed across the equator or the international date line, he said.
A more typical case involved a young Navy shipping clerk at a base in Adack, Alaska, in 1970. The clerk, Nelson Alvarez of Abilene, Texas, was ordered by a supervisor into a metal building, kicked viciously in the back and raped.
"I was a 20-year-old kid. There was no way I would report this. If I reported it, I would have been labeled a homosexual," said Alvarez, a 52-year-old father of two who said the incident happened on Sept. 28, 1970. "The pain was so intense that I became literally numb. It felt as if my spirit had left me."
Another case involved a 20-year-old Marine who visited what he thought was the house of new military friends in the Camp Pendleton area outside San Diego in the summer of 1972. But he said he was raped. The former Marine recalled the base psychiatrist referred him to a Pendleton counselor for treatment.
The former Marine, now 50 and living in northwest Ohio, recalled his counselor's words: "His advice was to get a six-pack and get on the hill."
Healing via telling
The painful experiences resonated with Vietnam veteran Helle, who was treated at Bay Pines in St. Petersburg during a 31/2-month period in 2001. The trauma described by men there ranged from gang rape to one-on-one penetration, he said.
"There were all services there. There were Marines there. Marines are tough as nails," Helle said. "These guys were not unemotional about it. One guy was a massive guy, a tough guy. He said the healing was in the telling."
"I do not hold the government responsible for what happened to me. I'm a patriot. I'd be over in Afghanistan, but I'm too damn old," said Helle, who volunteered to serve in Vietnam after being a high school wrestler in Iowa. "I'm not here to destroy the government. I'm not here to destroy the VA."
Most members of Congress who sit on veterans affairs and armed forces committees contacted by Florida Today declined to comment. Their press representatives said they first wanted to see the VA's military sexual trauma report. U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson,
D-Tallahassee, who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee, did not return phone calls to comment.
But U.S. Rep. John McHugh, an upstate New York Republican who chairs an Armed Services Committee's subcommittee, said, "My intention is to sit down and see how much of a disconnect there is between the VA numbers and the number of reported incidents in the active military." McHugh's district includes the Fort Drum Army base near the Canadian border.
A wider problem?
The VA's military sexual trauma survey may indicate an even wider problem, system psychologists said. Considering that 18 million of the 24.5 million veterans in the United States have never used the VA's health system, there could be thousands more male sexual trauma cases the survey won't account for, VA psychologists such as St. Petersburg's Crane pointed out.
It's possible that veterans who have been sexually traumatized are more likely to use the VA system than those who have not, meaning the rates could be lower for the overall veteran population. However, the lack of reliable crime information from the military makes such a comparison impossible. And even if all armed services kept such statistics, they might not accurately reflect the problem. Most sexual assaults on men go unreported, VA psychologist John Carracher of West Palm Beach said.
Military men do not report the attacks because they fear no one will believe them, their careers will be damaged, they will be labeled homosexual or they will suffer retribution from the attackers or their commanders, VA psychologists said.
Criminologist Nathan Pino of Georgia Southern University, could not believe the Army had only 78 male-on-male sexual assaults since 1990, as the service reports.
"The military is geared toward being hyper-masculine. And if you said you were gang-raped, it would be a blow to your manhood," said Pino, who recently published an article on the differences between men and women reporting sexual assaults. "The military is like any closed society, like police departments. You don't rat on anyone. And if you did report it, you would fear retaliation."
In interviews with psychologists treating sexually assaulted men across the United States, one phrase -- "the military culture" -- came up again and again in explanations of why military leaders won't discuss the topic, why men are prone to keep their secrets. It's a culture far different from the civilian world; a culture of power and order where there are no confidential sessions with psychologists.
"To admit you were raped," Helle said, "is so far against what you're trained for."
Women's abuse drew spotlight 10 years ago
Sexual assault rate higher for female enlistees
By Alan Snel FLORIDA TODAY
The focus on men sexually assaulted in the military comes about 10 to 20 years after the first major efforts to help women in the armed forces.
Attacks and harassment of military women got earlier attention because the rate is so much higher. An Ohio therapist who served in the Army and wrote a book on the subject last year says sexual abuse against women in the military is an "epidemic." In Terri Spahr Nelson's book, "For Love of Country: Confronting Rape and Sexual Harassment in the U.S. Military," she cited a 1995 Department of Defense study that showed 47 percent of women received "unwanted sexual attention."
The study also showed 9 percent of women in the Marines, 8 percent of women in the Army, 6 percent of women in the Navy and 4 percent of women in the Air Force were victims of rape or attempted rape in 1995. Reported rates of sexual trauma of women in the military are twice as high as those in civilian life. A 1996 DOD study showed 55 percent of women reported experiencing sexual trauma -- ranging from harassment to rape -- compared to 24 percent of women in the civilian world. "Surveys of women in the military tell a story of rampant sexual abuse and harassment by their male counterparts amid concerns that the issues are being minimized or ignored by military leaders," Nelson wrote.
Treatment programs for sexually abused women increased as high-profile cases made national headlines: the Navy's Tailhook incident of 1991 and the Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground sex abuse cases of 1996.
"In the early 1990s, Tailhook was one of the spurring events that brought it the public eye," said Sherri Bauch, the Veterans Health Administration's western U.S. deputy field director in Tacoma, Wash., and co-chairwoman of the National Military Sexual
Trauma Work Group.
In 1992, Congress ordered the Department of Veterans Affairs to provide treatment to female veterans traumatized by sexual assault experienced during active military duty. VA medical centers now have a women's veterans program manager, Bauch said.
refusing to kill