It didn’t take long for Jenny McClendon, a sonar operator in the Navy, to experience sexual harassment when she joined the military in 1997. Immediately subjected to verbal attacks by her male counterparts, when she refused sexual advances, she was told she wasn’t “tough enough to be in the military.”
Finally, she complained to superiors, who said that being harassed was part of training. An enlisted officer called her “a lesbian, a feminist, and a Democrat” and said she should be thrown overboard.
McClendon’s experience is not unusual. The kind of abuse she describes is widely reported, and probably under-reported, by female veterans.
It gets worse. McClendon was raped by a superior while on watch aboard her ship one night. It was the first of two rapes, or “military sexual trauma” (MST), that she suffered while in the service.
When she reported the rape, McClendon was accused of lying and told to “shut up” about the incident. That’s when she “began to lose it and to come apart as a person.”
Back in Norfolk, Va., forced to leave her ship and attend anger management counseling, she was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) on the basis of one 15-minute assessment. Later, when she asked for a woman therapist, she was told to stop resisting treatment.
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Approximately 15 percent of soldiers and Marines serving in America’s armed forces are women. More than 282,000 of them have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan during a decade of war.
Twenty percent of the women who’ve returned home have been identified by the Department of Veterans Affairs as having experienced MST, and 80 percent have reported sexual harassment.
Those figures are likely low. In 2011 alone, nearly 3,200 cases of MST were reported. Experts estimate the number as closer to 19,000, given the large number of unreported cases.
From 2000 to 2010, more than 31,000 veterans were discharged with a diagnosis of “personality disorder.” Anu Bhagwati, a former Marine and now executive director of the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN), told CNN that she sees “a pattern of the military using psychiatric diagnoses to get rid of women who report sexual assaults.”
A diagnosis of BPD, described as a longstanding, inflexible pattern of maladaptive behavior, is considered a pre-existing condition, not a service-related disability. That means the military can dismiss rather than treat vets.
According to military records obtained by Yale Law School, the diagnosis of personality disorder is used disproportionately on women.
The betrayal is profound, says Mary Ellen Salzano, mother of a Marine and founder of a statewide collaborative for military families in California.
“The first thing you learn in the military is ‘I don’t need help,’” she says. “So when a soldier or Marine asks for help themselves, they are revealing a vulnerability that it is hard to acknowledge. And if they can’t trust their own to help them, they suffer ‘institutional trauma.’ They feel crushed.”
Salzano adds that sexuality and spirituality are not discussed during military service or after arriving home.
“So if you come home with no sex drive or a genital injury, post-traumatic stress, or a traumatic brain injury that affects both your sexuality and your capacity for intimacy, who do you turn to for help?” she says.
Women are particularly confused by expectations on returning home.
“How can you behave lovingly with your kids when you’ve had to push kids off your Humvee and watch them be run over because they could be the enemy?” Salvano asks rhetorically. “Riddled with guilt and shame, how do you get to the point of forgiving yourself so that you can begin to heal?”
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Paula J. Caplan, a research psychologist, addresses many of these issues in her 2011 book, When Johnny and Jane Come Marching Home: How All of Us Can Help Veterans.
She points out, for example, that women vets often experience complex states of anxiety “because striving to act in traditionally masculine ways in order to prove they deserve to be in the military can conflict with any wish they have to act in traditionally feminine ways.”
Kari Granger, formerly in the Air Force and now a consultant with Sunergos, a global performance and leadership development firm, understood these issues and wanted to do something to support returning women vets.
With three other former military women, she developed a program, Leading with Resiliency and Grace, which supports military women as they envision a meaningful future and helps them “bring their full capacity to whatever they are dealing with in the present.”
Other women are also helping returning female vets. New York filmmakers Marcia Rock and Patricia Stotter produced a multi-platform documentary, Service: When Women Come Marching Home, which offers an intimate view of women vets returning home through narratives shared in their own words.
In a legislative attempt to help all vets traumatized by MST, U.S. Representative Jackie Speier (D-CA) has introduced legislation designed to combat sexual assault in the military.
“As increasing numbers of women join the military and enter combat zones, the sexism that pervades our entire society helps shape what happens to them,” Paula Caplan says.
The Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense are beginning to realize the extent of this reality and seem poised to take steps to address the complex needs of military women and women veterans.
But much work remains.
The bulk of it, it seems, will fall to grassroots women’s organizations and individuals who understand the experience of “Janes” who come marching home.