Transcript: Sen. Angus King’s Q&A w/ Jeremiah Arbogast & Jessica Kenyon on military sexual assault, PTSD & suicides

Partial transcript of Sen. Angus King’s (I-Maine) Q&A with Jeremiah Arbogast and Jessica Kenyon on the Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs handling of post traumatic stress disorders and suicides of service members who suffered military sexual assault. The hearing before the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel was held on Feb. 26, 2014:

Sen. Angus King (I-Maine):
…Like my colleagues, I want to thank you. I wouldn’t want to appear before a Senate committee under any circumstances and you’re doing it under particularly difficult circumstances. You are truly serving your country today and honoring the oath that you took when you joined the service, and I deeply appreciate it.

I want to focus on the issue of command and chain of command because that term’s been used repeatedly.

Ms. Kenyon, you said something about it’s the command who retaliates, how can they prosecute themselves, “My commander lied to me”. I don’t need a name but what rank person are you referring to when you say that?

Ms. Jessica Kenyon, Former Private First Class, U.S. Army:
I actually had multiple ranks retaliate as well as lie to me and make false promises and things of those nature. Everyone from my squad leader up to my command sergeant major and my lieutenant colonel. I mean, everyone in that rank who I came in contact with regarding my sexual assault somehow – some more severe than others – let me down or made false promises or made it – or outright made my life a living hell.

Sen. Angus King (I-Maine):
I understand that but I think one of the ways that this discussion that we’ve been having has been somewhat confusing is that we’re using the term chain of command as if it’s multiple people. In reality, as I understand it, under Department of Defense policy, nobody below O-6 makes the decision whether or not to go forward with a prosecution, and those people that you just mentioned all are below the O-6 level. In other words, when you say your commander, you’re not talking about a Navy Captain or Colonel or above, is that correct?

Ms. Jessica Kenyon, Former Private First Class, U.S. Army:
Yes, Senator, that’s correct. At that time that I served, it was the commander’s ability to lessen the charge so an O-6 never came across it their desk.

Sen. Angus King (I-Maine):
Okay, now that’s an issue. We have to be sure that the facts get to the O-6 level, because they’re the people making the decision. But I think it’s important to inform our discussion that when people say taking the decision out of the chain of command, you’re not taking it away from sergeants and majors, you’re taking it away from colonels and naval captain. That’s a higher level.

Let me change the subject for a moment. You talked eloquently about the deficiencies of the treatment system. Would one solution be to allow military personnel to use their benefits in the civilian system? In other words, to go outside the military system to get the counseling and the those if there’s more availability in the area that wherever you live?

For example, we have a program in northern Maine and under the VA it’s a pilot program where veterans are able to get their services not by going four hours to the VA hospital but by accessing local civilian services. Would that be something that might be helpful in this situation by broadening the field of available treatment possibilities?

Mr. Arbogast?

Lance Corporal Jeremiah J. Arbogast, USMC (Ret.):
Thank you, Senator. Like I stated before, I already use my Tricare and Medicare for that purpose because where the VA lacks. I think the VA – veterans would not have a problem traveling for good care. It’s the fact that they need to – I emphasize on how good I get my spinal injury care in Richmond, Virginia now. That’s a four-hour drive for us. So, you know, I would go there everyday if I –

Sen. Angus King (I-Maine):
If you were getting adequate care.

Lance Corporal Jeremiah J. Arbogast, USMC (Ret.):
I mean, I get adequate care there. I get superior care there.

Sen. Angus King (I-Maine):
But you mentioned the 90-mile drive –

Lance Corporal Jeremiah J. Arbogast, USMC (Ret.):
But that would be within my VA medical center which I try to avoid at all cost because they are just – they are out of the loop. They don’t have the resources. You know, they don’t even have a doctor that specializes in spinal cord injury care. He’s just an MD who thinks he just knows about it but really doesn’t. But the thing is if every VA have the resources to deal with every type of injury, illness, whatever, then it wouldn’t be a problem to use the VA. It’s the problem that each VA medical center is different in what their care is and I think it’s because they’re not being held accountable.

Sen. Angus King (I-Maine):
Ms. Kenyon, do you have thoughts about that?

Ms. Jessica Kenyon, Former Private First Class, U.S. Army:
I believe there are a lot of benefits especially in the ability to test-drive basically other counselors and caregivers whom you feel comfortable as well as being able to better specialize in what is actually affecting you…You know, there’s the PTSD, there’s the prescription, and over-prescribing problems, but then there’s also identity issues and other addictions that don’t fall under narcotics and alcohol – like even shopping addictions and things like that that are not treated in the VA – but if you went and saw outside help, I think there’s a lot of benefit to getting more specialized treatment. And I think it is – I would say – almost impossible for every VA to have every service, and so with that knowledge to have the ability to go outside of that would benefit them.

Sen. Angus King (I-Maine):
But given the rise of this – I don’t want to imply that it hasn’t existed before – PTSD goes back to the beginning of time – but the increasing awareness of it, the volume of it that we’re seeing in recent years, I suspect that you would agree that this is something that the VA should be gearing up for in a very serious way, and I’m gathering from your testimony that you don’t believe that they are.

Ms. Jessica Kenyon, Former Private First Class, U.S. Army:
I don’t believe the VA has the ability to move three moves ahead or to see that where the need is coming in, and so they have the problem, then they approach whomever, then the money comes in for the problem but by then it’s two years down the road and by then the problem is even bigger. So I don’t see that there’s an adequate system for the VA to apply certain foresight in seeing where they need help and being able to justify it effectively to whomever they have to to get the problem funding to get it. So I would consider looking into that system where you could encourage the individuals, the directors, to think three moves ahead and say, “Look what’s coming. You don’t necessarily have to obviously prove it with the numbers in regards to you already have these and this is what you’re funded for. You don’t have to have them on back-up to justify the need.”

Sen. Angus King (I-Maine):
Well, the VA isn’t within the purview of this committee but clearly, it’s a continuum of concerns that we have about our military people whether they’re in-service or veterans.

Thank you very much for your testimony. Thanks again for taking the time.

Yes, sir?

Lance Corporal Jeremiah J. Arbogast, USMC (Ret.):
There is a very big problem with VA’s retention rate with providers.

Sen. Angus King (I-Maine):
Retention rate?

Lance Corporal Jeremiah J. Arbogast, USMC (Ret.):
They can’t keep doctors, especially where I’m at…You know, I went through seeing a doctor, who I’ve seen for years. We’re talking about like medical doctor. You know, I’ve seen him for years, and then I come back in and find out he quits. Well, then it takes them six months to get a new doctor so I’m left without care for six months. They finally get a new doctor. I have to explain everything all over again, and come to find out “Well, I’ll see you in a month” or two weeks or whatever it may be. Well, come to find out he quits. So then I’m left without care for eight months.

Sen. Angus King (I-Maine):
Now, do you have a choice in all this? Do you have to go to the VA hospital or could you use Tricare to go anywhere?

Lance Corporal Jeremiah J. Arbogast, USMC (Ret.):
I could use Tricare to go anywhere but the fact is some civilian providers are just as bad as the VA providers. It’s the way –

Sen. Angus King (I-Maine):
Are you suggesting our health care system in this country is screwed up?

Lance Corporal Jeremiah J. Arbogast, USMC (Ret.):
[Laughter] It is true.

Sen. Angus King (I-Maine):
Shocking.

Lance Corporal Jeremiah J. Arbogast, USMC (Ret.):
You know, it’s quite disturbing that we more or less veterans have to go around and shop for, you know, “Is this doctor specialize in this care? What do they know?” So it is a very disturbing problem.

Sen. Angus King (I-Maine):
Thank you. Thank you, Madam Chair.

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