“A poison in the system”: The epidemic of sexual assault in the military
In 2011, the Veterans Benefits Administration lowered the detection threshold for veterans to âproveâ that they were sexually assaulted, which will help them qualify for PTSD-related disability benefits. A 2018 report by the VA Inspector General found that the agency nonetheless denied 46 percent of all medical claims related to military sexually traumatized PTSD, and that nearly half of those denied claims were improperly handled.
For the women at the Omega retreat, the military had won their trust and loyalty and then kept betraying them, which fueled doubt and shame and made them question their self-esteem. “When the organization lets you down so profoundly – I think that’s one of the reasons the trauma is so strong because it hits the very core of identity,” said Thomas.
When veterans gain access to VA treatment, they often improve, although some sexual assault survivors find recommended therapies difficult. One popular approach used by the VA to treat PTSD is long-term therapy, where veterans repeatedly revisit the trauma memory and tell it out loud in detail, which can be challenging for sexual assault survivors. Another common treatment is cognitive processing therapy, or CPT, which teaches veterans to recognize and change inaccurate and stressful thoughts about each of their trauma. But Shuble found CPT appalling because the therapy focused on trauma after trauma and she’d gone through countless numbers between her sexual trauma and her combat experiences. “It was awful,” she said. “It wasn’t effective for me.”
The women of the Omega Institute received a form of therapy that was developed by the psychologist Lori S. Katz, an energetic woman who has worked for the VA since 1991 and has held this retreat at the institute every year since 2015 (except during the pandemic), which Offers grants for accommodation, meals and tuition fees, but not travel expenses. Their program, called Warrior Renew, is based in part on the idea that people process information both rationally and emotionally, and that lasting healing requires tapping into that emotional side through metaphors and images. Through this holistic approach, veterans learn to deal with their trauma symptoms, to resolve anger, self-blame and injustice, to recognize problematic patterns in their life (such as harmful relationships) and to deal with feelings of loss.
All trauma survivors, Katz explained to the women at the retreat, come back to the questions: Why did this happen to me? What have I done? âYou look back at the event and say: ‘I should never have driven this car. I should never have agreed to that. What’s wrong with me I’m so stupid.’ And we blame ourselves. We inevitably get to that, âsaid Katz. The women in the room, some of whom were crying, all nodded along. Military commanders also sometimes blame victims for their attacks, which makes the problem worse. âThe focus is on ‘Well, what did she do? What did she wear? ‘ And that has nothing to do with what happened, âsaid Katz.
Perhaps most importantly, the Warrior Renew program takes place in a group setting where the women can connect and build relationships that will help them not feel isolated enough to respond to thoughts of suicide. âOne of the things that can thwart this risk is the connection,â Katz said to the women at the retreat. âYou have a connection and you have a new family and people who understand. It’s a really important part of healing. âAs one of the women on the retreat who called herself Awesome once said to the group,â We’re queens and we’re here to fix each other’s crowns. â
Shuble had never shared her attacks with any group before, and when she finished she could barely speak. The room hummed with grief, with pride, with anger. All the women in the room believed her – it was as if for the first time they were giving Shuble a solid foundation on which to rest her heavy and unsteady pain. With tears down her face, Shuble turned to Katz and thanked her. “It was the first real healing I experienced,” she said.