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Psychiatrist Discusses Abuse, Harassment, Violence Against Military Women

By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, May 15, 2003 – In the past dozen years, sex scandals have rocked the military services, going back to the Navy's Tailhook and the Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground in the 1990's, and most recently, the Air Force Academy.

But DoD psychiatrist Army Dr. (Lt. Col.) Elspeth Cameron Ritchie emphasizes that sexual trauma and domestic violence aren't common experiences among women in the military.

"However," she said, "it does occur," adding that any such situation "is a problem and something we should try to eliminate." She also stresses that there are different dynamics and different statistics on sexual harassment, sexual trauma or assault, and domestic violence.

When it does surface, some civilian "experts" try to make it sound like there's an epidemic in the military. But Ritchie pointed out that it's an unfair comparison between the incidence of cases in the military and those in the civilian sector. The military is mainly young men, and domestic violence is higher in that age group.

In addition, she said, the military does more surveys on the prevalence on sexual trauma and abuse. It is also better at the detection of domestic violence, and getting the perpetrators either into treatment, or getting punished, whichever is appropriate." In the civilian world, data collection on domestic violence may not be centralized or shared across states to the extent it is in the military environment, which makes it harder to compare the two rates.

Women in both the civilian and military worlds may be reluctant to report domestic violence, either because of fear of the batterer or concerns about the impact of reporting on his career.

On the other hand, military women have other concerns. For example, many don't report being raped, because there are so many barriers to disclosure in the military," said Ritchie, program director for DoD's mental health policy and women's issues.

"Often women this is true for military and civilian may feel embarrassed or ashamed," she noted. "She may think nobody would believe her. She may worry that she will be further hurt if she reports somebody that will retaliate on her."

Military women also worry about being ostracized by other unit members, Ritchie said. "Often if there is some allegations of rape, it really pulls the unit apart with people falling into two camps as to what they think really happened.

"Some alleged victims may worry about the effects on their military career," the psychiatrist said. "A common scenario is people going out drinking together coming back to the barracks room and something happens where she says, 'He forced me.' He says, 'No, it was consensual.'

"In those situations, she may think, 'Well, I'll never have any way to prove it, so why should I say what happened,'" Ritchie said. "In sexual cases there is very often no physical evidence. If there is physical evidence of intercourse, there might not be evidence of rape."

Power imbalance in the military also becomes an issue when sex scandals occur. For example, the scandal at Aberdeen involved drill instructors and recruits. She couldn't ask a drill sergeant for time off to report a rape by a drill sergeant. And there was a perception that all the drill sergeants were involved.

Under those circumstances, who could the recruit tell? Thus the alleged victim can feel isolated and not know who to talk to, Ritchie noted.

However, there are many reasons to disclose a sexual assault as soon as possible, Ritchie stressed. One can get the appropriate intervention from the medical system and receive psychological support. The sooner the assault is reported, the more likely it is that forensic evidence can be detected.

For example, urine can be tested for so called "date-rape" drugs, if there is a question of their use by the perpetrator. Most importantly, reporting an assault reduces the chances of it happening again.

In the case of domestic violence, it's classically the husband beating the wife, but not always, she pointed out. Ritchie said there's a common cycle in domestic violence. One is the battering phase, where the wife's beaten and gets very upset.

"Then the husband apologizes, saying 'I'll never do it again,'" Ritchie said. "He brings flowers and there's kind of a honeymoon period and everything is fine for a while.

"Then, maybe the husband becomes more controlling and questioning the wife about what she's doing," she said. "He gets irritated and complains dinner is not cooked right, the kids aren't doing what they should and often the battering occurs again."

Ritchie added that sexual harassment is another entity.

For one, "sexual harassment is probably much more common and less likely to be reported," she noted.

Over the years, DoD has done a number of sexual abuse surveys, the doctor noted. "The best survey we have was done in 1999 where 8.6 percent of military women said they were sexually assaulted during their military service," Ritchie said.

She said any of these issues -- sexual abuse, domestic violence or sexual harassment -- can lead to depression. "A lot of work has been done with military veterans that have shown a correlation between sexual trauma and depression, anxiety and physical symptoms," Ritchie said.

The military has developed a number of programs designed to reduce both unintended pregnancies and sexual assault. Most emphasize common-sense precautions such as sticking with a buddy both going to and leaving a party.

It is also critical for men to receive education. "No one wants to wake up in the morning to a loud knock on the door, and being accused of rape," Ritchie said.

The services have learned a lot since Tailhook and Aberdeen, she pointed out. The Navy now has a sexual assault victim intervention program. The Army has sexual assault review boards at each major medical facility. In addition, the Department of Veterans Affairs now offers treatment for sexual trauma suffered while in the military.

DoD and VA held a joint conference last year on military and veterans' health concerns, where these issues were highlighted. In addition, DoD hosted a conference on doing research in domestic violence.

In short, Ritchie concluded, the military is committed to education to prevent sexual assault, to provide sympathetic support for victims, to prosecute the accused, and to punish those found guilty.

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