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Veterans, Pentagon contend with sexual assault in military

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Chante Wolf
In 1991, Chante Wolf was deployed as part of Operation Desert Storm. Here she poses at King Fahd International Airport, Saudi Arabia as the smoke from burning oil wells rises behind her. Wolf, 55, said fellow airmen routinely touched sexually, harassed and threatened her during her service. One airman she knew pinned her down in a parking lot and then stalked her on base.
Photo courtesy of Chante Wolf

Trista Matascastillo served nearly two decades in the U.S. Navy, the Marine Corps and the Minnesota National Guard.

Toward the end of her career, her job included a difficult duty: responding to reports of sexual assault, an all-too-common occurrence in the military.

Matascastillo took the job seriously because she wanted to help victims of the assaults, but also because she wanted them to know that someone in authority was ready to listen. Years earlier, a fellow sailor raped her at her quarters, an attack Matascastillo didn't report because she didn't think anyone would take her seriously.

"Everyone that knew me knew that he was my friend and my brother," recalled Matascastillo, 38, of St. Paul. "If I said he raped me they would be like 'what, did you guys get into a fight?' It's this question of doubt."

Military officials say sexual assault in the armed services is dramatically underreported because most victims fear retribution.

At least a third of Minnesota's female veterans and more than two percent of male veterans were sexually assaulted while in the service, according to the Veterans Administration.

The Department of Defense received 3,192 reports of sexual assaults last year, a number that includes instances of rape, aggravated sexual assault, abusive sexual conduct and indecent assault.

Women veterans
Women veterans groom their horses as part of a horse therapy program for survivors of military sexual trauma at Freedom Farm, about an hour west of Minneapolis.
Photo courtesy of Sue Kyllonen

However, Defense Department officials estimate the actual number is closer to 19,000. While men also suffer sexual violence, advocates for women veterans say female service members are more likely to be raped by a comrade than killed in the line of duty.

When Matascastillo was raped, she was training to become an officer in the Marine Corps. She feared reporting her assault would jeopardize her chances for advancement.

"I was in a situation where my career was really on the line," she said. "It crushes your soul. I was in extreme depression only to find out three weeks later that I was pregnant. To me, the only solution at the time was suicide because the shame of it was so horrific."

Matascastillo decided not to kill herself.

Instead, about 14 years ago she gave birth to a special needs son who still lives with her. She kept silent about the identity of her son's father and carried on with her career, eventually becoming a commander in the Minnesota National Guard.

About four years ago she left the military and founded a group called the Minnesota Women Veterans Initiative Working Group to advocate for women veterans.

Matascastillo compares sexual attacks in the military to incest, because victims are betrayed by those they were taught to trust.

The Department of Veterans Affairs finds that because victims of sexual assaults in the military must often continue to work with their assailant, the trauma continues, making it hard to heal.

At least a third of Minnesota's female veterans and more than two percent of male veterans were sexually assaulted while in the service.

"You want to believe that the military culture is that we have each others' back, that we are respectful [and] that we behave with honor," said Linda Van Egeren, military sexual trauma coordinator for the Minneapolis VA Medical Center and the Upper Midwest. "And that really is part of the culture.

"So it's sometimes hard to accept that that is not what is going on in your unit."

Research shows that when authorities do not believe someone's report of sexual assault that can impede the victim's ability to recover, said Van Egeren, a clinical psychologist.

Still struggling from the trauma they've lived with after enduring sexual assault or abuse, half a dozen women veterans are learning new ways to recover at a horse farm west of the Twin Cities.

After a group therapy session, instructor Susie Bjorkland recently led the women through riding exercises in an indoor ring, calling out tips as the women guided their horses in a trot.

                                                      Bjorkland said learning to manage a horse helps these women regain their confidence and gives them relief from traumatic memories.

"Being around that large of an animal you have to be mindful and that is really hard to do," she said "So for those that have been working on being mindful, being in the moment, not letting flitting thoughts overtake every moment of every day, it's happening naturally because of what they are having to do."

Among those at the farm is Air Force veteran Chante Wolf, who served in the Persian Gulf War.

Military veteran Chante Wolf
Military veteran Chante Wolf is recovering from the years of military sexual trauma she experienced during her service with the US Air Force. Wolf appears in this photograph taken in January 1991 during Operation Desert Shield at King Fahd International Airport, Saudi Arabia.
Photo courtesy of Chante Wolf

Wolf, 55, said fellow airmen routinely touched sexually, harassed and threatened her during her service. One airman she knew pinned her down in a parking lot and then stalked her on base.

Wolf said female recruits on her base were systematically targeted for abuse by officers and enlisted troops alike. She is still traumatized by the abuse of a superior officer.

"He brushed across my breasts and he grabbed the door and before he released it, looking at me ... he said, 'it's your word against mine,' " she recalled, noting that she had a "slick sleeve," or one without an officer's insignia.  "So I had no rank. And he said it again as he got in closer, 'nobody is going to believe you. It's your word against mine.' '' 

It took more than two decades before Wolf began to deal with her memories and the symptoms they caused. She suffered nightmares and repeated flashbacks.

"I slept with a loaded .357 Magnum under my pillow," she said. "I carried weapons with me when I'd go outside of my little comfort zone. So yeah, I was screwed up."

By working with horses, Wolf is learning to trust again.

"It's made a difference, definitely, a difference in opening my heart," she said. "There is so much that I've just shut off because I didn't want to go there."

The problem of sexual abuse in the military is not new. But there is growing recognition at the Pentagon that the problem threatens to undermine the armed forces' combat readiness.

The Department of Defense recently announced stepped-up prevention efforts including increased training for officers and enlisted personnel. The Pentagon is establishing special new units to investigate sexual assaults.

Defense department officials also pledged to maintain case records on assaults. In the past, the department disposed of the records after a few years.

Once service members who are the victims of sexual assaults leave the military, they can obtain help from the Veterans Administration, which asks all veterans if they were subjected to sexual abuse during their military service. The VA also offers free treatment to victims, regardless of whether they reported an attack.

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In Minnesota, where there are no active duty military bases, most troops serve in the National Guard or reserves, which handle sexual assault cases differently than the active duty military. State local law enforcement has jurisdiction over sexual misconduct investigations.

When a person reports a sexual assault or abuse, top National Guard officials decide whether to also launch an internal investigation. To prevent conflicts of interest, commanders are now excluded from assault investigations involving their own units, Guard officials say.

The Minnesota National Guard has 165 trained victim advocates around the state to help respond to reports, said Chief Master Sgt. Kelly Wilkinson, sexual assault response coordinator.

Wilkinson describes the Guard's policy as "victim-focused."

"So all of our focus really in this office is to focus on the victim, the service member, the survivor who is getting help," she said.

National Guard officials say they have a zero tolerance policy on sexual assault.

Critics charge the victim-centered approach to the problem too often leaves perpetrators unpunished. This is especially true in the active duty military where cases are handled by the military itself and known perpetrators are often allowed to remain in the service or resign.

Wilkinson said the investigation and any prosecution is handled by civilian law enforcement, but the Guard may take its own action based on the civilian and any internal findings.

"When it comes to the accountability for any alleged offenders it's really outside of my realm here," she said.

A 2011 bill in Congress would give jurisdiction over assault investigations involving active duty service members to a special authority independent of the Pentagon's chain of command. The legislation has 133 co-sponsors in the house including most Minnesota democrats, but it's stalled in committee.

Advocates like veteran Trista Matascastillo support taking investigations out of the hands of the military to ensure service members who commit crimes are held accountable.

"The program can't just be victim focused," she said. "We also have to take care of the perpetrators. We need to remove them from our ranks before they bring our whole reputation down."

Matascastillo said doing so would go a long way toward reducing the number of sexual assaults and encouraging victims to report those that do happen.