Flickr image By The U.S. Army
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, 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), 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 fifteen minute assessment. Later, when she asked for a woman therapist, she was told to stop resisting treatment.
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 Veteran's Affairs as having experienced MST, and 80 percent have reported sexual harassment. Those figures are likely low. In 2011 alone nearly 3200 cases of MST were reported. Experts estimate that given the large number of unreported cases, the number is probably closer to 19,000.
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 long-standing, 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?"