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'We Do Not Have Equity’: Women in the Military Speak Out on Sexual Trauma

Female veterans often deal with sexism and sexualized violence during their service. A lack of resources and support prolong their fight for justice and peace.

by Diana Tourjée
Nov 11 2016, 6:05pm

Film still courtesy of Brittany Huckabee

Some studies estimate that one out of every five people who join the United States military will develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). For women, the trauma associated with combat can be compounded by the trauma of sexual violence; one in four women who obtain medical services at the VA report that they were sexually victimized in the military. After they're attacked, like many survivors of sexual assault, these women face difficulties both personal and systematic. In After Fire, a documentary about women living with Military Sexual Trauma (MST) in Texas, Emmy-nominated filmmaker Brittany Huckabee shows a group of women trying to find peace, if not justice, years later.

"The statistics don't even begin to capture how many women are actually sexually assaulted," Huckabee says in an interview with Broadly. She describes military culture as being mission-oriented, a place where complaints aren't welcome or encouraged. "That makes it especially hard, when women come out, to feel like they can admit that this stuff even happened to them."

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But reporting is incredibly important, Huckabee says, especially because women who have been victimized often need services to help them achieve wellness. "They need counseling, they need benefits potentially," she notes, adding that it can be difficult for women to have their condition taken seriously. Women living with MST are entitled to health care benefits by the VA, up to and including monthly disability compensation for those whose trauma is so significant that it impairs their functioning. But first you have to prove the problem is real. "You have to show that it's a result of something that happened in the military. It can't be a pre-existing condition, but that that condition is interfering with your ability to go about your normal life and therefore you're entitled to some level of monetary compensation."

The impact of MST on a woman's ability to function can be difficult to measure. One of the women in Huckabee's film was victimized in the military in the 1990s, and Huckabee says that she overcompensated in her career as a result of that abuse, which means that she was high-functioning despite dealing with trauma. "They look like they don't need any help, but really they're having to try that much harder to keep it together," she explains.

Additionally, it is very hard to obtain the health coverage or disability compensation that women who were raped in the military are entitled to, because it is difficult to prove that you've been raped, "especially if it happened years ago and there's no evidence and no prosecution." So women who are dealing with MST must try to obtain treatment by demonstrating the consequence of the abuse: symptoms such as "behavior changes, depression, anxiety, PTSD."

"I have been in the VA system of dysfunction for 35 years," said Valerie, one of the subjects of Huckabee's film, in an on-camera interview. "If it was not for the Texas Veteran's Commission, Women's Veteran Division, my claim would still be in the VA oblivion. We do not have equity as female veterans."

According to Huckabee, the majority of veteran's services do not have divisions that are specifically designed for women. "A lot of time they'll have a woman appointed as the women's veteran coordinator but they also have a million other duties. It's kind of a token position," Huckabee says. This is a problem, she adds, because the male-centric military system is not designed to understand or care for the needs of women. Because of this, many women who have been traumatized by sexual abuse in the military are later victimized by a dispassionate bureaucracy, which can cause them to be distrustful of the system itself. This is why it's so important for women's veteran divisions to exist.

Huckabee says that women in the military experience sexism every day, from serious acts of violence to casual but meaningful sexist remarks. "They get good at laughing it off. Only, when they get out, everything comes at them 90 miles an hour." The culture was designed for and by men, Huckabee says, but that is beginning to be challenged, as more and more women are joining the armed forces and are now allowed to take on any combat role than used to be reserved for male soldiers.

"Someone told me at one point in this process that the military tends to attract some of the most conventional kind of men and some of the most unconventional kind of women," Huckabee says. She feels this might help contextualize the environment but also says that "there's a lot of really great men who are really supportive of women who are in the military who might shudder at being called conventional."