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

Partial transcript of Sen. Kelly Ayotte’s (R-New Hampshire) 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. Kelly Ayotte (R-New Hampshire):
…I want to thank both of you for being here and for your courage in coming forward before us and so sorry for everything you have been through, but to come here before us it’s really important because this issue is obviously one that we want to work together to stop the occurrence of military sexual assaults in the military but also to make sure that the victims get the full support that they need.

And I think this of Special Victims Counsel that Sen. McCaskill and I and Sen. Gillibrand and others on the committee have worked on is going to be a very important reform. You know one of the things the reforms have too as well is making retaliation a crime under the UCMJ. And I think as we go forward implementing the Special Victims Counsel, this is something we should look at to make sure that it is clear that any kind of action against a victim’s counsel that is helping a sexual assault victim should also be actionable. So I think that’s an important thing so that everyone understands that retaliation against a victim is a crime under the UCMJ because we’ve just made it so but also any retaliation against someone acting on his or her behalf should be as well, and I think that’s something we can make sure as we look at this going forward.

The other issue that Sen. McCaskill and I have – and others on the committee have thought as really important is this idea of eliminating the good soldier defense. So I’m hoping we do that this year. We’ve done a whole host of reforms, including the Special Victims Counsel, but this good soldier defense has no place in determining the outcome of these cases in the sense that your conduct should determine the outcome. And if you have committed a crime and have committed horrible acts, just because you were a good soldier doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be held accountable and fully accountable and have the appropriate sentence to go with the crime that you’ve committed and I think that in the civilian we’ve eliminated a lot of those things and those reforms now I’m hoping we’ll have some agreement on that. I think there is a lot of agreement to get that passed this year as well.

Finally, I just wanted to understand that as you talk about the over-medication issue and the transitions that you’ve made outside the military, so is there – how do we improve that transition process? What can DOD and the VA do to improve that transition process from your perspective and to make sure that you have the support system in place if you choose to leave the military and have been a victim of sexual assault?

Last week, I was up in New Hampshire visiting one of our veterans centers and one of their charges is to treat victims of sexual assault and I think it’s obviously how do we make sure that that care is there, and I just want to get your thoughts on what can we do better on even the transition from DOD those who are leaving out to the VA? And obviously, I’ve heard what you said about the over-medication issue within the VA system so that we’re working – even though the veteran’s committee will work on that, we can work on this in this committee too. So just wanted to get your thoughts on how we can do a better job?

Lance Corporal Jeremiah J. Arbogast, USMC (Ret.):
Thank you, Senator. I’ve worked closely with…the Wounded Warriors for the Marine Corps. They have district injured support coordinators. I think the Marine Corps has made a huge step when it comes to that because not only do they follow from the time they’re in the wounded warrior regiment there to the civilian world, these district injured support coordinators that are still active duty check in on the veterans and I think that’s crucial, and it’s also an awesome concept, you know, when it comes to that. So that way, the veteran can pick up the phone and say, “Hey, look, this is going on.” That desk officer or enlisted whatever can contact their resources and, you know, make things move along so the Marine Corps has done tremendously when it comes to taking care of their wounded.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-New Hampshire):
So maybe that’s a model we can look at also to make sure that’s across services.

Lance Corporal Jeremiah J. Arbogast, USMC (Ret.):
I believe so, ma’am. Like I said, it’s been pretty effective.

Ms. Jessica Kenyon, Former Private First Class, U.S. Army:
I would say…the ability for the VA to talk to the DOD – that’s something that is very broken right now. The records and the database in which they both work do not communicate at all, and that would go a long way…Something as simple as a records transfer that will help as well as affording opportunities outside the VA, and I would almost say a grace period in which PTSD sufferers could have proper assistance in getting themselves to a well-being to navigate that complex system.

As I’ve said, there’s no right way to have PTSD and so there’s no real “Here’s my recommendation and it’ll work for everybody. However, I think catering and having enough support even if it was just a single counselor for one individual to help with paperwork to see that he or she receives the proper medications, that they are able to make appointments with one phone number and not sit on hold as opposed to for days –

Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-New Hampshire):
Days really?

Ms. Jessica Kenyon, Former Private First Class, U.S. Army:
For hours and hours and most of the time you give up and you try again tomorrow.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-New Hampshire):

Ms. Jessica Kenyon, Former Private First Class, U.S. Army:
And so that does happen quite a bit.

If it’s okay, I’d like to make a comment on the retaliation…

You said you want to make retaliation a crime, and currently in regulations it is. However, it is usually the command who does it, and as it currently stands, it is the command who would prosecute themselves. So that’s a clear conflict of interest, and how would you pursue that? How are you proposing – you know, say I was retaliated against, who would I go to and who would handle that case as well as who would be in charge of making that charge and deciding what was really retaliation and what might have just been a bad night out or any other number of things that the command could downplay it as?

Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-New Hampshire):
I think that we have furthered with what we’ve passed in the legislation further emphasized that retaliation in particular for these types of crimes is a clear crime under the UCMJ to further give teeth to that crime under the UCMJ. And you know, one of the proposals that is on the table allows a really going beyond the chain of command – up the chain beyond – if there’s a conflict at the level of the chain of command. So I think that’s one way to deal with it where you’re taking it up beyond that person and really upping the issue within so that there’s a huge emphasis on it.

But obviously, one thing that we want to get at with everything that we’re doing is that we continue to have oversight of this. I mean, I think what you’re hearing from everyone here is that whatever we pass – I mean, we passed some incredibly important reforms in the defense authorization and we may pass further reforms, that we’re going to continue not just to have this be the year where we’re emphasizing it but that we have regular oversight over this. So I think that’s an important aspect too so that we can further pass whatever needs to be done and also hold people publicly accountable, particularly for those who are leaders to understand that this is part of their responsibility to have a zero tolerance policy and to support victims and that if a leader in our military is found to be retaliating against someone who is a victim or someone helping a victim that they’re going to have a lot of problems, and we will hold them publicly accountable here too.

So I want you both to know this isn’t you come here once and we’re just going to have this year of issues, because I think all of us on this table are committed to a continuing oversight function next year and each month. Because I think that’s what in the past we sort of had this issue where we’re all focusing on it and it goes away but you’re all dealing with the problems still. So we, I think, are committed to remaining continuously engaged on this issue on a bipartisan basis. So thank you for raising the issue on the retaliation.


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