Transcript - 9.7.07
BRANCACCIO: Welcome to NOW.
Consider the situation of American women in the military in Iraq and Afghanistan —roughly 25,000 in all. There has never been a larger deployment of women soldiers to combat areas. A now investigation has found they are in danger - but not just from the war. Women soldiers are being assaulted and raped by their fellow soldiers—even by their commanding officers. Department of Defense records show last year, worldwide, there were almost three thousand reports of sexual assault and rape in the U.S. military. Many more go unreported—women are often worried making a report will wreck their military career. Stay with us to meet several courageous women, speaking out for the first time. Senior correspondent Maria Hinojosa and producer Karla Murthy have our exclusive story.
ROBBINS: This one is of my mom and I—she came to visit me at graduation after boot camp.
HINOJOSA: These photographs are a personal timeline of Natalie Robbins experiences in the military. She was an army reservist, and was deployed to Iraq in 2003.
ROBBINS: This is on the way to Iraq on the convoy. I was scared for the first time
HINOJOSA: Iraq was like nothing Natalie had experienced. The oppressive heat. The constant sandstorms. The looming threat of attack. That summer, her camp came under heavy mortar fire, wounding over a dozen soldiers. Natalie wasn't one of them. But make no mistake, she is a casualty of war.
ROBBINS: They're in chronological order and think that, boy, here, here and here, nothing really horrible had happened yet.
HINOJOSA: The horrible thing that happened to Natalie didn't come at the hands of a foreign enemy, but by a fellow American solider.
One night, she woke up, and a solider was on her bed... trying to get on top of her.. He smelled of alcohol.
ROBBINS: My—my heart was pounding very fast. I had no idea what he was capable of. No idea.
HINOJOSA: She was terrified. She knew this man, played sports with him, and was even friends with his girlfriend. Natalie wasn't strong enough to fight him off, so she tried talking him out of assaulting her.
ROBBINS: What are you doing? This isn't like you. What about your girlfriend? What—where is she? Why aren't you with her right now?
HINOJOSA: She was able to coax him out of her room. But tragically, it didn't end there. Before Natalie would leave Iraq, she would be raped by another soldier. It's a shocking story, but more shocking is that what happened to her is far from unique.
Women attacked during basic training... raped in the barracks in the theater of war... by their fellow soldiers. It sounds incredible, but the numbers are there to prove it. Over 1100 cases of sexual assault and rape reported in the military last year, - but many more go unreported. It's known as MST—Military Sexual Trauma.
As more and more women like Natalie Robbins courageously speak out, many wonder what's being done to protect our female soldiers and to prevent these hidden casualties of war?
Ever since she was a little girl, Michelle Nagle dreamed of being a solider.
HINOJOSA: Why did you wanna join the military?
NAGLE: Patriotic. (LAUGHS)
HINOJOSA: What does patriotism mean to you?
NAGLE: Protecting everyone in my country who can't protect themselves.
HINOJOSA: Michelle's desire to protect others led her straight to the military. In 2000, she joined the army and set her goals high...
NAGLE: I wanted to see if I could meet the male standards or surpass them. I wanted to see if I could hang with the guys.
HINOJOSA: She ran the required 6 minute mile and could do 42 push-ups, even though the male standard called for just 41.
HINOJOSA: So you're feeling strong at first in the military.
NAGLE: Invincible almost. (LAUGHS)
HINOJOSA: At 6 feet, and 185 pounds, Michelle thought she was just as tough as her fellow male soldiers. But one event would change all that. Michelle was in her room .. Alone with a fellow soldier she knew and trusted.
NAGLE: It was just me and him in there watching football. And we—you flirt back and forth in the military. Like almost innocent flirting even with your guy friends. In—well, in my eyes, it was innocent flirting. And I guess he took it as an invitation. And—he—he attacked me one day. And I couldn't get him off of me. He's trying to go up my shirt. And trying to get my pants off. (starts crying) And I just—he got my arm pinned down. And there was nothing I could do. And I'm a big girl. I mean, and there—I'm a big girl. I—should be able to handle myself is what—I kept telling myself. "You're stronger than this. You're stronger than this." But I couldn't do anything.
HINOJOSA: Michelle had recently dislocated her shoulder, and her arm was in a sling—making it even harder to fight back. Her next door neighbor heard her scream for help.
NAGLE: He came in and got the guy off of me. And if it hadn't been for him I would have been raped.
HINOJOSA: Like many sexual assault victims, Michele was confused, ashamed and scared. She never reported the incident... but word spread.
NAGLE: Somehow his—people in his command, not his command, but his unit, found out about it. And then I got called names, derogatory names—like, "There goes the tease." But it was more vulgar than that. Or, "Don't mess with her. She just leads you on." And comments like that from people I didn't even know.
HINOJOSA: And at that moment when you're realizing now that you're no longer an equal to your fellow soldier—
NAGLE: That's when you start distancing yourself from the men. And you start seeing the men as enemies almost. Because you don't know which one's gonna turn on you.
HINOJOSA: Dr. Patricia Resick is a psychologist at the Veterans Administration in Boston, and has been working with sexual assault and rape victims for over 30 years.
HINOJOSA: When you realized that female soldiers, who have been going through basic training, who are tough women, were getting sexually assaulted within the military, were you surprised by that?
RESICK: No, I would be surprised if they hadn't been. Women get raped in every environment. Just because somebody's got some kind of training, it doesn't mean they were given training on how to fend off a rapist. That's a different kind of combat.
HINOJOSA: Dr. Resick says sexual assault and rape in the military has been going on for decades.
HINOJOSA: So what do we know right now about the numbers—in terms of military sexual trauma in a time of war?
RESICK: We know from the first Gulf War that about—15 percent of the women were raped. And that was a very short war. That was a period of—you know, a few months.
HINOJOSA: It's an alarming statistic. One out of seven female soldiers was raped during the Gulf War.
In 2005, the VA released another study, this time, on the National Guard and Reserves. The results were even more shocking. It found that almost one in four women were sexually assaulted during their active duty.
Numbers like these could not be ignored... congress mandated the Department of Defense to deal with the issue.
In 2005 the DOD created a new office to deal specifically with sexual assaults. Now, they have a toll -free hotline to report incidents. And they've placed trained victim advocates in every military installation. But our investigations has shown that the military has done far too little to prevent rape and sexual assault in the military and has been alarmingly slow to act.
Case in point—the DOD is has been working on a database that tracks criminal incidents including sexual assault.... Victim advocates say that information could be used to help prevent sexual assaults. But, after 15 years, it's still not complete.
Another example... in 2004, congress mandated that the DOD form a task force to study sexual assault in the military services. But three years later, that task force has not met once.
For victims like Natalie Robbins, that lack of action speaks volumes.
ROBBINS: People don't wanna hear truth when it's so ugly, when the reality is so disgusting, I think we all have the tendency to turn our heads. It's easier.
HINOJOSA: But what happened to Natalie in Iraq raises even more questions. She came forward and reported that first sexual assault in her room, thinking that would help ... but that's not what happened.
ROBBINS: It's a—a very vulnerable process. And it's a process that if everyone's not behind you it can fall apart.
HINOJOSA: Her report led to an investigation and then a hearing. The solider was demoted and had to pay fine.
ROBBINS: I —I had the impression at the hearing like; Wow, this is great. I don't have to deal with him. And—and people will know the truth. And—and it didn't turn out that way.
HINOJOSA: The solider had been ordered to stay out of her area. But, that wasn't enforced. She says having to see him again and again made Natalie angry but also deeply afraid. Then, things got even worse. A superior officer began harassing her... showing up unexpectedly.. everywhere she turned.
ROBBINS: He is stalking me. He won't leave me alone. He keeps coming to my places of work. And I would say, "Leave me the heck alone." "Get out of here." And I did things above and beyond my comfort level because of his position of authority. And still, he would—he would show up everywhere.
HINOJOSA: She reported him to the Chaplin, but that started a chain reaction Natalie wasn't prepared for...
ROBBINS: As soon as I told him it was all over. He—he had to tell this person, that person, this person. That's when my—the highest person in my unit found out.
HINOJOSA: They started an investigation... But she says, they just kept asking her the same questions over and over again. Natalie became terrified that because he was a superior officer nothing would happen to him.
ROBBINS: I felt worn down by not only the perpetrator but by the people who were supposed to be helping me.
HINOJOSA: The stalking never stopped. Instead, it turned into Natalie's worst nightmare.
One night, while everyone else was asleep, she says that superior officer snuck into the barracks. In the pitch black, he found her cot, and forced himself on top of her. She was so afraid, she couldn't even scream. And then he raped her.
ROBBINS: And when he actually raped me, I—I disconnected. I—it was not like a fight. It—it was just this is the last step of surrender. I mean, he got me. He got me, and now what?
HINOJOSA: Rape involving a superior officer has a name... it's known as command rape. Natalie felt powerless. Eventually—she dropped the investigation, never brought forth any rape charges and her offender was never prosecuted.
Dr. Patricia Resick says, in the military many victims of sexual assault and rape like Natalie, do not report the incident because they are afraid of the consequences.
RESICK: Fear of not being believed. Fear of being blamed. Fear that nothing will happen. —if they report it and nothing happens, then where are they? You know, the—the perpetrator's been brought in and now you're still stuck with the perpetrator. So it's—it's a very vulnerable position to be in.
HINOJOSA: She says victims in the military feel trapped. If it happened in the civilian world, like at work, you could change jobs.. Or leave town. But if you're in a war zone, where do you go?
RESICK: Rape in the military is much like rape in the family. It's where—it's where you live. It's not just—where you work. You're—you're surrounded by—the people who could be the perpetrators. And so you may have nowhere to turn.
HINOJOSA: With so many victims of sexual assault, the military is trying to encourage them to come forward. Now the option of what's called "restricted reporting." Victims can get medical care, and the assault is kept confidential. But no investigation is immediately triggered. Since restricted reporting was introduced, the numbers of reports from 2004 to 2006 almost doubled.
But, out of 1400 investigations last year... so far, only 72 people have received court-martials.
But whether or not those offenders are ever brought to justice, the victims are scarred for life and carry invisible wounds. They're forced to live with the memory of their attack. And that trauma can have lasting psychological consequences. We've come to think of post traumatic stress disorder as being associated with combat, but that's not the only kind of trauma that can cause PTSD.
RESICK: A lot of people don't develop post traumatic stress disorder.. But of all the traumatic events, sexual assault, particularly rape, is more likely to lead to PTSD than any other cause.
HINOJOSA: In fact, Dr. Resick says you are four times more likely to develop PTSD from sexual assault than from combat. She says, it often takes years for sexual assault victims who are suffering from PTSD to finally seek the treatment they need.
RESICK: They're haunted by an event. As much as they try to push it away, they're having flashbacks. They're having nightmares. They're having trouble sleeping. How many days can you go without getting much sleep?
HINOJOSA: After Michele Nagle left the military, her life slowly began to unravel. She became extremely paranoid and fearful and couldn't get the attack out of her head.
NAGLE: I'm not that strong person that I was seven years ago. I set up my room like a barricade to where if someone tries to get in—I can push objects in front of it to where the door won't open at all. That's how I—that's how I sleep. Because I'm scared all the time. And that's no way to be.
HINOJOSA: Her fear has kept from having a normal life. She hasn't been able to hold down job. And hasn't been able to go on a date in years. Michelle has been diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder.
6 years after her assault, Michelle Nagle has come to the Cincinnati VA at Fort Thomas in hopes of getting her life back. We met up with her during her first week of treatment with psychologist, Dr. Kathleen Chard.
CHARD: Michelle is a pretty classic case of post-traumatic stress disorder. She—is someone who's a very strong woman, she has a lot of good coping skills, but those coping skills were not enough to keep her from having PTSD.
HINOJOSA: Dr. Chard runs a women's only PTSD clinic here, one of only six in the country. Now has been given extraordinary access to follow Michelle throughout her treatment which will last 7 weeks.
CHARD: This is a women's program. There are mostly women staff. And they don't share any of their space with male veterans.
HINOJOSA: When Dr. Chard began working here three years ago, there was only a program to treat male veterans. So, she designed a program just for women.
CHARD: We found that the women actually feel safer here. That they're more willing to address the traumas that created their PTSD if we provide them with a space that's just theirs.
HINOJOSA: The patients live here for seven weeks while they get treatment. Not everyone here experienced military sexual trauma, some have seen combat. But they all suffer from PTSD. While we were visiting the clinic, we met women dealing with Military Sexual Trauma not just from the Iraq war—but as far back as Vietnam.
FEMALE PATIENT 1: I have all those same issues, the same pains with my PTSD as anybody else had. Only I've had 'em a lot longer. I had 'em a lot longer.
HINOJOSA: When you first heard the term, MST, Military Sexual Trauma, what did you think about that?
FEMALE PATIENT 2: We have suffered. But we heard that, and we say, "Wow. They do acknowledge us."
HINOJOSA: Almost every day, the vets go through hours of group and individual therapy, a type treatment called "cognitive processing therapy." The goal is to change the way they think about their trauma, and that will change the way they feel.
The first step is for patients to recognize what are called their "stuck points" patterns of thinking related to their trauma that have kept them "stuck."
HINOJOSA: What is the sign that you notice, that this is a woman who's not only dealing with PTSD, but it's a woman who's dealing with MST, Military Sexual Trauma?
CHARD: Well, I think what we hear when we're dealing with PTSD and MST, is a lot of stuck points around the perpetrator. So, there's stuck points about, often, men. "Men can't be trusted. I'm never safe around men." With MST, we'll also hear thoughts of self-blame. Like "It was my fault. I am to blame. I am guilty."
HINOJOSA: It's seven days in. And Michelle feels like she has a long way to go.
NAGLE: I—like I wanna be optimistic about it, but I'm so afraid that I'm gonna leave here the same person I came.
HINOJOSA: Michelle is confronting one of her big stuck points. She continues to blame herself for failing to prevent the attack.
NAGLE: In my mind, part of it wa—is my fault in my mind. It's like my—my heart knows it wasn't. But there's something wrong in between. It's not clicking. That's why I'm here to get over that hump, so that I can change that way of thinking, so that I don't blame myself. That it's not my fault. I did deserve it. There's nothing I did—for—that that should have happened. That's even hard for me to say that. I mean, that it's not my fault.
HINOJOSA: Where do you see yourself now?
NAGLE: I'm still—I—I have a hard—I have big trust issues. I have a lot of work
HINOJOSA: In the end, you wanna be powerful?
NAGLE : Yeah. Closer to the person I was before this happened. I'd like to—at least be able to see a glimpse of that person again. I miss her. I really do.
HINOJOSA: Three weeks later, Michelle is meeting with one of her therapists. She's learning that needs to let go of her fear, and to start trusting others
THERAPIST: It's good to help from other people.
NAGLE: It's so hard to let that thought go...
HINOJOSA: Michelle is already changing...
THERAPIST: So now the dominant emotion here is hopeful as opposed to afraid and worried. Great job Michelle.
HINOJOSA: It's now seven weeks since Michelle first arrived. Graduation day is finally here.
CHARD: I know this was a hard program for you all. And I know you had to go through a lot just to stay some nights.
HINOJOSA: All the women here have made leaps and bounds in dealing with their PTSD, including Michelle Nagle.
NAGLE: I'd like to thank all the staff for helping me. And Holly and Cynthia for always picking me up when I was down. Cuz you were always there when I needed you. I hate to go.
HINOJOSA: It's a difficult goodbye. But Michelle says she feels like she can finally start living again.
NAGLE: The way I always describe it is, they gave me the building blocks to rebuild the life that was taken away from me. So it's like starting all over new.
HINOJOSA: After all those hours of therapy, Michelle says she can finally accepted that the attack was not her fault. Some of that fear she's been living with is gone too.
NAGLE: For the first time I have options. I don't feel scared about it. My fear and stuff isn't controlling me.
HINOJOSA: Michelle Nagle can now start a new life. But these kinds of treatment programs for women are few and far between. When the troops do finally come home from Iraq, there could be thousands more cases of Military Sexual Trauma.
RESICK: When they first come back, they're not gonna go run to a VA hospital and get services right away. I'm expecting the big—the big bullas of cases are gonna come in—five years after the war is after. Ten years after the war is over.
HINOJOSA: If you think about, you know, hundreds, perhaps thousands of women vets who are walking around without dealing with their post traumatic shock, with the fact that they were sexually assaulted in the military, what does that look like?
RESICK: Well, it looks like—you know, we've failed the very people that stepped up to protect our country and to serve our country. That, to me, would be a very sad thing.
BRANCACCIO: For more info on what the pentagon is calling Military Sexual Trauma, follow the links we've put up on our website... pbs.org is the jumping off place for that....and next week on now, an on the ground view of the war in Iraq....soldiers sent to fight for the third time...
"I'll put it like this, I'll reenlist if someone can find me a reason for this ****"
BRANCACCIO: The homemade bombs...the shifting enemy...and the painful separation from families.
"The price is that I become a single mother. The price is that my husband doesn't get to see his daughter be a baby."
BRANCACCIO: That's next week, in a special hour-long edition. And that's it for now. From New York, I'm David Brancaccio. We'll see you next week.