Amber Yeager walked into a recruiter’s office 15 years ago in Sacramento and enlisted in the Army. She was 24, the mother of a toddler and desperate to escape violence and abuse at home, first as a young girl then as a wife. College was the only way she saw out and the Army was the only way to pay for it. The military barred single mothers so she stayed married. “I wanted a better life for my daughter,” Yeager said.
Yet instead of finding safety in the Army, she soon learned to be wary of her fellow soldiers. In 2001, she was raped by a commander, according to a lawsuit she joined in 2011 with 27 other plaintiffs against the Pentagon’s top leaders.
Her experience resembles the growing number of women and men breaking the silence about sexual violence in the Armed Forces and illuminates a troubling dimension whose impact on the military and society has not yet been acknowledged: That more than half of female veterans experienced some type of trauma or abuse before joining the military and, as a result, were at risk of repeated violence.
Violence against women is so pervasive in the United States that one in five women report having been sexually assaulted. The same rate of women — one in five — reported experiencing military sexual trauma to the Veterans Administration. There are more than 200,000 women on active duty and sexual harassment and assault are so prevalent that serving in the military is considered an occupational hazard for women.
Domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women in the U.S. Women who have been abused have been subjected to violence including beatings, sexual abuse, harassment and stalking. Women with a history of abuse are also more likely to face intimate and domestic violence in the future.
And women with a history of trauma are even more common among military women than the general population, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, with one in four women veterans under the age of 50 reporting that they have experienced domestic violence in the past year.
Given the way repeated trauma accumulates and ossifies into PTSD, depression, eating disorders, substance abuse and homelessness, the National Sexual Violence Resource Center says that it is especially important for military and civilian advocates to work together in sexual violence prevention and response efforts.
“This is an ignored problem,” said Lindsey Sin, deputy secretary of Women Veterans Affairs for the California Department of Veterans Affairs. “Many of the women who I have worked with are homeless female veterans coming to need assistance because of a history involving battering,” she said.
The question is whether the Pentagon and Department of Veterans Affairs are being asked to find solutions to a problem whose roots reach much deeper into our culture.
Speaking on April 1, the first day of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, Gen. Ray Odierno, Army Chief of Staff, called sexual assault “an insider threat that has been perpetrated by all ranks.” He said it threatens the very core of the military. But when Yeager joined the Army it was 1999 and bases still had neighborhood brothels. Women let each other know which men to stay away from. Otherwise men and women kept quiet about being harassed or raped and the words military sexual trauma were part of no one’s vocabulary.
The crude jokes, sexual innuendos and insults hit Yeager from the day she landed at her first post in Germany. A staff sergeant talked about sex shops and told her that he and his wife had an open relationship. She didn’t know what to do. She was young, she had been abused before and this was someone who outranked her.
She was also lonely and sometimes the attention from other soldiers felt good. “They make you feel beautiful. They make you feel wanted,” Yeager said. That was not the case when she was raped by a different commander. “I said no and I kept saying no,” she said. “And he decided he was going to do it anyway.”
Yeager considered going to the major in charge of her battalion afterwards. She passed him on her way back to her room. Then she saw the bottle of beer in his hand and two junior enlisted women in his room, which went against army regulations. It was “like a house of horrors,” she said. The chaplain was her boss and she could not go to the second in command, the acting sergeant, because, she said, he was the man who attacked her. “So I went back to my room and showered. And cried.”
She did not report the attack for two months.
All branches of the Armed Services now assign coordinators to respond to sexual assault. But this was 2001. Yeager’s battalion was off-base, in Italy. “Of course, if we were in the United States, I would have gone to the police,” she said. Eventually her report was turned over to the Criminal Investigation Command, which investigates allegations and decides which should go to a commander for adjudication. “And that’s where it stopped,” she said. She said two investigators, both men, told her, “If you didn’t feel like your life was threatened then it wasn’t rape.”
An Army psychiatrist tried to diagnose her with personality disorder. Relationships she had with fellow soldiers surfaced that could have hurt her career. “So I shut up,” she said. Instead she took the antidepressants prescribed to her. “The worst was Effexor,” she said. She left the Army in 2007. The man who attacked her re-enlisted, she said. He sent her a Facebook message several years ago, she said. “It was awful.”
“It’s a power dynamic”
Yeager remembered a drill sergeant who had warned her and other young women to expect the sexual attention from men — wanted or unwanted. She told the women they had to be “stronger” and protect themselves. It is a message veterans said was pervasive when women began serving regular military units in the 1970s and one that persists in the trainings the Department of Defense requires of their personnel today.
“We keep doing training for women to protect themselves,” Yeager said. “But who’s doing training for men to stop being inappropriate?”
The problem is that frequently people don’t see what they were doing as sexual harassment.
The commanders often don’t either, even though pornography, harassment and sexually degrading language fall into the range of what the Centers for Disease and Control defines as sexual violence. “They’re more or less accepted as harmless,” according to Sarah McMahon, the associate director of the Center on Violence Against Women and Children. But they are important because they contribute to, as McMahon put it, “a culture of violence that supports and tolerates the more severe forms of violence against women.” And people tend to blame the perpetrators of sexual violence for “individual moral failings” and the victims for not protecting themselves, according to the media research think tank, FrameWorks Institute.
College students, whose age mirrors that of most active duty personnel, surveyed in one study knew that forced sex was rape and that the victim should not be blamed. But they were confused about how accountable the perpetrator should be. Those attitudes can get magnified in the military where young men and women are trained to be aggressive and trained to go to war. By the Pentagon’s own count, the number of reported incidents multiplied between 2011 and 2012, reaching a total of 3,374. If the Pentagon is right and another 26,000 assaults during that same time went unreported, the real number is 29,374 — ten times higher than what was reported. And that’s only a snapshot of one year. Prosecutions are extremely rare and one in three convicted military sex offenders remain in the military, according to Pentagon figures.
“It’s an issue of equality not just of being demoralized,” said Star Lara, an Army veteran and program manager for Swords to Plowshares. “It’s a power dynamic.”
Jenny Yandell, a psychotherapist who has worked with abuse survivors for nearly three decades, said sexual assault is “about proving you can dominate someone else and it’s also about doing intentional psychological damage.”
Women and men are equally resilient to the effects of combat stress, according to researchers affiliated with the Boston University School of Medicine. But the added stress of combat and sexual harassment and attacks changes the equation.
Veterans, women and men, should be able to celebrate successful military careers and be embraced for the qualities they bring from their service, said Lisa Skier, who served in Air Force from 1976 until 1992 and is the program director for Grace After Fire.
“If you know you need help and get it, you’ll come out on the other side,” she said.
Yeager found support through the V.A. Today she is an advocate for Service Women’s Action Network and is completing a master’s degree in counseling. She said she wants to work with teenage girls to develop the kind of esteem and confidence that she lacked at that age.