Talking Out Military Sexual Trauma

Sexual abuse led one vet to a VA career counseling other MSA victims.

            Jennifer Sluga,  six-year veteran of the Wisconsin National Guard, originally participated in the VA’s new oral history program to help her caregivers understand her military sexual trauma, but her ordeal made her a strong advocate for others who had been assaulted.

“In the beginning, telling about my story helped me heal,” she told me recently. “But now I want everyone else who has ever experienced sexual trauma to know that they are not alone. By talking about it, we can get back the power that was taken from us.”

Now a psychotherapist at the Vet Center in Madison, Sluga estimates that 90 percent of her patient caseload also suffers from MST.

Sluga spent 17 months with the National Guard in Kosovo, but she told Thor Ringler, the “poet-in-residence” who runs the VA’s pilot “My Life, My Story” program in Madison, that her PTSD probably started well before her deployment from her military sexual trauma during her military training. (For more about the oral history program, see my previous blog, “An Oral History Program to Tell Veterans’ Stories.”)

“When he started that program, I told him it was the most amazing program ever,” she said. “Talking this trauma out of my system and using it to help others is just an amazing and powerful experience. It’s important for medical personnel to know that when I’m in those situations, I’m gonna be a little uptight, that I wonder whether I can trust that person, and that I’d prefer work with female doctor.”

Her ordeal started in boot camp when she and her “battle buddy” both reported to sick call. Her buddy was sent to the hospital, and that left her alone with the doctor.

“He had lot of rank on his chest and expected me do anything he said,” Sluga said. “He wanted me get undressed, then he began touching me and it became pretty obvious that this was nothing in the realm of anything medical.”

Sluga finally managed to push him away and ran to her barracks, only partially dressed.

“I ran to our barracks because I wanted to shower and cry, but another woman saw the marks on my body, asked about them, and then called the drill sergeant,” she said. “He ran over to sick call, and I thought he was going to kill the medic. It was really cool to be validated like that.”

But it didn’t stop there.

Several members of Sluga’s unit reported also sexual abuse during their deployment, and she began advocating for them.

Finally, the medic was charged with sexually assaulting his patients, and Sluga, her battle buddy and her drill sergeant were all required to testify at his court martial. “He finally admitted to sexually assaulting more than 70 soldiers and excused it by saying he had been raped as a child,” she said.

No wonder Sluga was severely traumatized. But she didn’t realize it until after she had left the National Guard and returned to college.

“I didn’t recognize that I wasn’t doing well until I went from an A student and I was failing all my classes, not attending classes, sleeping 20 hours a day,” she said. “I just wanted to go hide.”

Her breaking point came after she and her classmates got an exam back, and one of the girls was complaining about a bad grade.

“She said, ‘It really raped me,’” Sluga remembered.  “And I just wanted to jump over the chairs and scream at her: ‘Did it really rape you? Did it make you feel completely out of control?  Did it actually hurt you?’”

That led to counseling and therapy. It led to Ringler and the “My Life, My Story” program, which has now spread to six other VA facilities across the country. And it led Sluga to a career helping others as a psychotherapist.

More men than women are sexually assaulted in the military, she said.

“One of four women reports she has been sexually assaulted,” said Sluga. “The rate for men is one in ten, but since there are so many more men than women, the number of male victims is greater. Females are assaulted by men and other females, and males are assaulted by males and females as well.”

Rape and sexual assault are not about sexual gratification, she added. It’s all about power and control.

“In the military, you have no control over much of anything, so if you can find an area you can control, you take it,” Sluga explained. “A lot of people bully up and take advantage of other people—it’s almost like a sport.”

Now look at Sluga’s ordeal in light of our previous discussions on moral injury. She was betrayed by virtually everyone in her chain of command: the medical officer who sexually assaulted her, the officers who let such conduct go unchecked.  Those fellow soldiers who are supposed to save your life if necessary and have your back should be the last individuals anyone should need to protect themselves against.

VA psychologist Jonathan Shay argues that moral injury is present when there has been a betrayal of what is right by a person in a position of legitimate authority in a high-stakes situation. “Moral injury impairs the capacity for trust and elevates despair, suicidality and interpersonal violence,” he wrote in an article, “Moral Injury,” published last year in the journal of Psychoanalytic Psychology.

Sluga would agree that military sexual trauma can lead to PTSD.

When you lose your sense of self, especially from someone who’s supposed to be helping you, and they take your power and use it against you, to me that’s combat,” she said. And we all know that combat trauma leads to PTSD.

-Eric Newhouse

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