Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Chair of the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel, delivered the following opening statement at Wednesday’s Subcommittee hearing to examine the impact of military sexual assault as it links to PTSD and suicide:
The Subcommittee meets today to receive testimony about the relationships between military sexual assault, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicides, and the DoD and VA medical treatment and management of victims of sexual trauma.
There is zero doubt that sexual violence is occurring at an unacceptable rate in our military. Too often, our service men and women find themselves in the fight of their lives – not in the theater of war, but in their own ranks, among their own brothers and sisters. While Congress is not in full agreement on the extent of the reforms required to solve this crisis, last year’s National Defense Authorization Act took positive steps forward, including 36 separate provisions to address sexual assault in the military, which were supported unanimously, and additional important legislation is still under consideration, including my bill, The Military Justice Improvement Act. No matter where you fall on that debate, we can all agree that we must fully understand the long-term psychological toll on the survivors of sexual trauma in the military, and the best practices for effective treatment.
Sexual assaults are obviously very traumatic events for victims – traumatic events that have long-lasting, frequently life-long, consequences, including post-traumatic stress disorder and suicides. Heath Phillips, a constituent of mine, shared his experience with me recently. Heath grew up in a family that was devoted to the military. He joined the Navy shortly after he turned 17 and was excited to be part of the Navy family. When he reported to his duty station after boot camp, there was no one there to register him so they told him he’d have to come back. He met a couple of other sailors from the ship and went into New York City with them. They went out drinking and he blacked out, and when he came to, the other sailors were sexually assaulting him. They threatened him and told him no one would believe him. He went back to the ship, where he reported the assault, only to be told that it was his fault because he had been drinking and that he was lucky to not be in trouble for underage drinking. The sexual assaults continued aboard the ship – and when his commanders allowed these assaults by his shipmates to continue without any repercussions, Heath went AWOL. Ultimately, he accepted an other-than-honorable discharge to end his torture. Not only was he suffering from PTSD, which led him to flee the ship, but he now is not eligible for VA benefits. It is stories like these that motivated me to hold this hearing.
I want to make sure that this does not happen to anyone else, and that people like Heath aren’t forced to choose between their mental health, and the benefits they have earned from the United States government.
This is not just an issue of anecdotal evidence. One study of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans found that, “Female veterans with a history of [military sexual assault or harassment] were five to eight times more likely to have current PTSD, three times more likely to be diagnosed with depressive disorders, and two times more likely to be diagnosed with alcohol use disorders, compared with female veterans without MST.”
Another study of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans seen at the VA found that both, “Women and men who reported a history of military sexual trauma were significantly more likely than those who did not to receive a mental health diagnosis, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), other anxiety disorders, depression, and substance use disorders.”
I also want us to address today how DoD and VA handling of sexual assault reports impacts survivors’ mental health. The VA’s own website says that how the military handles military sexual assault has actually made PTSD worse. Quote: “… many victims are reluctant to report sexual trauma and many victims say that there were no available methods for reporting their experiences to those in authority. Many indicate that if they did report the harassment they were not believed or encouraged to keep silent about the experience. They may have had their reports ignored, or even worse, have been themselves blamed for the experience. Having this type of invalidating experience following a sexual trauma is likely to have a significant negative impact on the victim’s post-trauma adjustment.”
I am alarmed by the following statistic, as should every person in this room: an estimated 22 veterans commit suicide every day. Listen to that again, an estimated 22 brave men and women commit suicide every single day. It is critical that we look at the links between sexual assault and harassment…and related PTSD and its role in this intolerable number of suicides. Today, this Subcommittee meets to discuss these links, their consequences and how they are addressed.
On our first panel, we have two survivors of sexual assault, Lance Corporal Jeremiah Arbogast, who is medically retired from the Marine Corps, and Jessica Kenyon, who served as a Private First Class in the U.S. Army. We have invited them to tell us about their experience as survivors of sexual assaults that occurred while they served in the military. Did they suffer from PTSD? Did they consider suicide? If so, what kind of help did they receive to address these conditions? We hope to learn what worked – as well as what didn’t work – and what we in the U.S. Senate can do to improve the care for survivors when sexual assaults unfortunately occur.
On the second panel, DoD and VA officials will testify about the programs DoD and VA have in place to address the needs of sexual assault survivors, including medical therapies for PTSD and suicide prevention efforts of these Departments. We understand that DoD and the VA maintain an evidence-based joint clinical practice guideline on the management of PTSD. We would like to learn more about how this works in practice, and how DoD and VA ensure continuity of care when victims transition from active military service to veterans status.
From DoD, we have Dr. Karen Guice, the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs, Ms. Jacqueline Garrick, Director of the Department of Defense Suicide Prevention and Response Office, and Dr. Nathan W. Galbreath, Senior Executive Advisor, Department of Defense Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office. From the Department of Veterans Affairs, we have Dr. Susan McCutcheon, National Mental Health Director, Family Services, Women’s Mental Health and Military Sexual Trauma; and Dr. Margret Bell, Director of Education and Training, National Military Sexual Trauma Support Team. I would like to thank all of you in advance for your dedication on behalf of our servicemembers, these are not easy issues to deal with, but they are real consequences of the horrific crimes that are far too common in our military. Thank you for your testimony.
There is no greater responsibility for Congress and military leaders than to care and provide for our service members and their families. The Nation entrusts their sons and daughters to our military, and we must ensure that their service is safe from sexual assaults, and if they are assaulted, that they receive the best care and treatment possible while, at the same time, holding perpetrators accountable for their criminal actions.
I look forward to the testimony of our witnesses on this first panel. I encourage you to express your views candidly and to tell us what is working and what is not working. Help us to understand what we can do to address this unacceptable problem of sexual assaults in the military.
I would also like to thank Senator Graham. It has been a privilege to work with him as Ranking Member of this Subcommittee, I have great admiration for Senator Graham’s passion on behalf of our military servicemembers and families. I will now turn it over to Senator Graham.