Transcript: Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s opening statement on military sexual assault, PTSD & suicides

Partial transcript of opening remarks by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand 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:

The subcommittee meets today to receive testimony about the relationship between military sexual assault post-traumatic stress disorder and suicides and the DOD and VA medical treatment and management of victims of sexual trauma.

There is zero doubt that sexual violence is occurring in unacceptable rate within our military.

Too often, our service men and women find themselves in the fight of their lives not in the theater of war but in their own ranks among their own brothers and sisters.

While Congress is not in full agreement on the extent of the reforms required to solve this crisis, last year’s National Defense Authorization Act took positive steps forward, including 36 separate provisions to address sexual assault to the military, which were supported unanimously.

And additional important legislation is still under consideration, including my bill The Military Justice Improvement Act.

No matter where any one person falls in this debate, we can all agree that we must fully understand the long-term psychological toll on the survivors of sexual trauma in the military and the best practices for effective treatment.

Sexual assaults are obviously very traumatic events for victims – traumatic events that have long-lasting, frequently life-long, consequences, including post-traumatic stress disorders and suicides.

Keith Philips [sp], a constituent of mine, shared his experience with me recently. He grew up in a family that was devoted to the military. He joined the Navy shortly after he turned 17 and was excited to be part of the Navy family.

When he reported to his duty station after boot camp, there was no one there to register him. So they told him he’d have to come back. He met a couple of other sailors from the ship and went into New York City with them. They went out drinking, and he blacked out. And when he came to, the other sailors were sexually assaulting him. They threatened him and told him no one would believe him.

He went back to the ship where he reported the assault, only to be told that it was his own fault because he had been drinking and that he was lucky to not be in trouble for underaged drinking.

The sexual assaults continued abroad the ship. And when his commanders allow these assaults by his shipmates to continue without any repercussions, Keith went AWOL.

Ultimately, he accepted a dishonorable discharge to end his torture.

Not only was he suffering from PTSD, which led him to flee the ship, but now he’s not eligible for VA benefits.

It’s stories like these that motivated me to have this hearing.

I want to make sure that this doesn’t happen to anyone else and that people like Keith aren’t forced to choose between their mental health and the benefits they’ve earned from the United States government.

This is not just an issue of anecdotal evidence. One study of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans found that “female veterans with a history of sexual assault or harassment were five to eight times more likely to have current PTSD, three times more likely to be diagnosed with depressive disorders, and two times more likely to be diagnosed with alcohol use disorders compared to female veterans without military sexual trauma.”

Another study of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans seen at the VA found that both for women and men who reported a history of military sexual trauma were significantly more likely than those who did not to receive a mental health diagnosis, including post-traumatic stress disorder, other anxiety disorders, depression, and substance abuse disorders.

I also want to address today how the Department of Defense and the VA handling sexual assault reports impact survivors’ mental health.

The VA’s own website says that how the military handles military sexual assault has actually made PTSD worse. “Many victims are reluctant to report sexual trauma and many victims say that there were no available methods for reporting their experiences to those in authority. Many indicate that if they did report the harassment, they were not believed or encouraged to keep silent about the experience. They may have had their reports ignored or, even worse, have been themselves blamed for the experience. Having this type of invalidating experience following a sexual trauma is likely to have significant negative impact on the victims’ post-trauma adjustment.”

I’m alarmed by the following statistic as should every person in this room. On average, 22 veterans commit suicide every single day. 22 brave men and women commit suicide every single day.

It’s critical that we look at the links between sexual assault and harassment and related PTSD and its role in the intolerable number of suicides.

Today, this subcommittee meets to discuss these links, their consequences and how they’re addressed…

There’s no greater responsibility for Congress and the military leaders than to care and provide for our service members and their families. The nation entrusts their sons and daughters to our military and we must ensure that their service is safe from sexual assault, and if they are assaulted that they receive the best care and treatment possible while at the same time holding perpetrators accountable for their criminal actions…

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York):
…The first chart shows the likelihood of having PTSD as a result of each action. So, for example, placement in the U.S. Army, it’s one out of 10 – 10%. Enlistment – one out of 10. Active duty – one out of 10. Multiple deployment – slightly higher. But if you have military sexual trauma, your likelihood of PTSD is four out of 10. So that’s just the first chart.

The second chart shows the number of people who screen positive for military sexual trauma, the incident of PTSD is higher for both men and women. So if you have experienced military sexual trauma, it’s 52% of the time you’re going to get PTSD if you’re a man, and 51% of the time you’re going to get PTSD if you’re a woman.

The last two charts – if you screen positive for military sexual trauma, you have a higher incident rate of mental health condition. Meaning if you’ve been sexually assaulted, you’re 75% likely to have a mental health condition as a man, slightly higher for a woman, same for depressive disorders – post-traumatic stress disorder and other anxiety disorders…

It’s just the currently available data for veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan from April 1, 2002 through October 1, 2008.

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