After hearing more than an hour of "gut-wrenching testimony" from four veterans who were raped during their service, members of a House subcommittee said that military sexual trauma is an emergency and demanded that the Department of Veterans Affairs and Department of Defense improve the way they protect and treat troops and veterans.
"According to the Department of Defense, there were roughly 38 incidents of sexual assault among male service members and 33 incidents of sexual assault among female service members per day last fiscal year," said Rep. Dan Benishek, R.-Mich., chairman of the Health Subcommittee of the House Veterans Affairs Committee. "To say that this is unacceptable does not adequately describe the terrible reality of military sexual assault and the lasting effects it can have on the lives of those who experience it."
The sometimes graphic testimony included statements from a veteran treated at the Bay Pines VA Medical Center in St. Petersburg and the director of the center's post-traumatic stress disorder program. The victims' testimony elicited frustration and anger from committee members and prompted promises by the VA's office of inspector general to review how the VA and Defense Department work together on military sexual trauma.
"I hope the testimony affects all in the zeal of your ability to make things better," Benishek said. "I hope it inspires you to work harder in making it happen."
Benishek, calling military sexual trauma "an emergency," was reacting to the emotional testimony of three women and one man who talked about their rapes, how their chains of command failed to take action and how the VA failed to provide adequate care.
"The perpetrator used a weapon to obtain compliance," Brian Lewis told the committee about his 2000 rape in Guam, when he was a Navy petty officer 3rd class. "He used a knife. Had I resisted, I would not be here. I would be six feet under. I knew that looking into his eyes."
Lewis said his chain of command ordered him not to file a report.
Another witness, Victoria Sanders, was raped in 1975 and said that "not being backed up by commanders is the hardest betrayal of all."
Only one of the four rape victims who testified Friday filed a report and, according to the Department of Defense, a little more than one in 10 victims come forward.
Lewis, who was treated at Bay Pines groundbreaking residential treatment program in 2009, complained that having men and women in the same residential program impeded his recovery. In written testimony, he said that men and women at the program were engaged in "romantic liaisons" which he found distracting.
Lewis, who lives in Baltimore, also testified about a wide range of system problems. The VA, he said, has students, interns and trainees interacting with patients. And the military gets rid of rape survivors, he said, by diagnosing victims with personality, adjustment and bipolar disorders, which he said were errant and used as a weapon.
Lisa Wilken, an Air Force veteran who was raped in 1993, said one of the biggest problems is that the VA does not have enough programs and personnel in place to help victims, yet it won't pay for outside care.
Tara Johnson, a Marine Corps major who was discharged in 2010, said that her chain of command responded to complaints of repeated incidents of military sexual trauma with harassment.
Approaching her command "was not a positive experience for me to say the least," Johnson testified. "My statements were dismissed by my chain of command. Because I had approached my command, and nothing was done, I endured more harassment and abuse."
Her efforts to receive treatment were stymied, she said, because the VA failed repeatedly to ask about whether she had been raped.
The hearing also offered a chance for VA officials to respond.
Rape victims have a complex combination of mental and physical ailments, said Carol O'Brien, chief of post-traumatic stress programs at Bay Pines. She said "96 percent of victims of military sexual trauma had two or more mental health diagnoses, in addition to multiple physical diagnoses." Also, 8 percent, she said, had eating disorders.
"The real takeaway is that effective treatment is not a linear, intensive program and done," O'Brien said. "It is a continuous effort.
Bay Pines, she said, is the fourth-busiest VA system in the nation, with 3,500 employees serving more than 100,000 men and women annually
O'Brien said that the Bay Pines residential treatment program was designed to treat an equal number of men and women at the same time to help each other "establish trust again" but that there are separate treatment regimens for men and women there as well.
When pressed by Benishek on Lewis' testimony about his treatment at Bay Pines, O'Brien said, "I, like you, reacted with a great deal of concern and compassion for the testimony of not only the male victim, but the entire panel and as we move forward ... we have to talk with veterans, to listen to other concerns."
Karen McGoff-Yost, associate director of the Bay Pines Office of Healthcare Inspections, which is part of the VA office of inspector general, said that another problem facing victims of military sexual trauma at Bay Pines, and elsewhere, is the lack of dedicated military sexual trauma coordinators.
Although each VA facility is required to have someone coordinating care of military sexual trauma, or MST, patients, the rules don't state how much time coordinators spend on that function, McGoff-Yost said.
Systemwide, the coordinators only spend about 10 percent of their time in that role.
"At Bay Pines, the MST coordinator is very busy," she said. "More outreach and a lot more focus up front on coordination and reaching out to patients might ameliorate some of the issues."
After hearing the testimony of the four victims, Michael Shepherd, representing the VA's office of inspector general was asked to look into how the VA and Department of Defense can do a better job of working together to "service the men and women who have been sexually assaulted.
"In light of all the heartfelt concerns, I would be honored to work on that," he said.
VA and Defense Department officials who testified toward the end of the more than three-hour hearing said they too would see what they could do to improve the situation.
"There are many points the veterans made in terms of suggestions to go back and review," said Rajiv Jain, an assistant deputy undersecretary with the VA. "There are significant gaps."