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

Partial transcript of Sen. Tim Kaine’s (D-Virginia) 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. Tim Kaine (D-Virginia):
…Questions in sort of two areas that have been raised by just listening to your testimonies and answers to questions. And first of all, just thank you for being here today. This is hard to do and I appreciate your courage in coming and letting us ask questions so we can understand the situation and better decide how to improve it.

Ms. Kenyon, you raised a point in your testimony – I want to make sure I understood what you meant. You said that you think to some degree sexual assault in the military gets treated like any other sexual assault to citizens sexual assault. And you said that you thought the better analogy was an incest analogy. I just want to make sure I understood kind of what you meant when you said that.

Ms. Jessica Kenyon, Former Private First Class, U.S. Army:
…Talking about this in regards to how I even talk to my survivors who contact me…The betrayal aspect that is completely very uncommon in the civilian sexual assault is one of the feelings that I left the military feeling almost crushingly the betrayal of my command. I mean, we’re talking at this point an all volunteer military. So they go in and there’s an inherent trust. There’s a trust in the system. You know, you’re fighting next to your brothers, your sisters. You know, these guys are in charge of your well-being, your food, your exercise, your clothes. Everything. Everything in the same psychological aspects as an adult that it would be as a child. I mean, boot camp is literally there to break you down to build you back up as a soldier, airman, et cetera.

And that being said, if – say, you were assaulted by your brother, which in many cases psychologically it’s quite similar, you go to your father – your commander. And say, he didn’t want to report it, how would you deal with that? So it’s quite psychologically similar.

As well as the fact that it’s very easy for victims – and this happens in the civilian world – but it’s very easy for victims to start blaming themselves because they don’t know the perpetrator. So I teach them about the perpetrator so they can put the blame where it belongs and process that correctly. Both of those go a long way into getting into the right headspace long enough so they can work through this bureaucratic system, which is extremely difficult, and it is like a safe – you know, if you get it wrong, you have to start over.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Virginia):
So that’s very helpful to understand the analogy, the environment creates a bond that’s not only a crime of violence but it is also a betrayal of a relationship. So whether in the civilian context, whether it’s incest or whether it’s sexual assault by someone you know, which a huge percentage of sexual assaults in the civilian context are – you know, the survivors know the perpetrator, there’s an additional betrayal. That helps me understand what you meant.

Both of you – I think, Ms. Kenyon in your testimony and Corporal Arbogast in one of your answer to the question – you touched upon a topic that I want each of you to address a little bit. This issue of in the treatment phase concerns that you both have about over-medication. And I just was curious – is that a concern that you have about the way PTSD is treated from sexual assaults or a more general concern you’re sharing with us about the way the DOD or the VA approaches mental health issues. You know, this is part of a much larger discussion obviously about the way we as a society tackle mental health issues. Are we too heavy into just take this prescription and then take two or three more? But I’m curious as to whether you think that this might be really focused on the PTSD issue or is it a more general kind of complaint about the way we do mental health in the military context?

Lance Corporal Jeremiah J. Arbogast, USMC (Ret.):
Thank you, Senator. That context not only goes with combat related PTSD to military sexual trauma PTSD. You hear from both groups that they’re overly medicated. Overly medicated and you’ve got severe side effects to all these medications. So you’re pretty much – like I said, when you go to these appointments – and this is a flaw also is that when you get these medications, you’ve got six months gaps before you see a psychologist or psychiatrist. So there’s too many long gaps there. And then when you go there, you spend five minutes in their office. So if you live far away, you know, you travel 90 miles just to spend five minutes in an office and they’re “Oh, we’ll throw this drug at you and we’re going to throw that one at you.” And like I said before, it’s – you know, the side effects are just astronomical of what they can cause.

Ms. Jessica Kenyon, Former Private First Class, U.S. Army:
I think Senator this definitely – I can speak personally in the PTSD realm in the survivors I’ve dealt with it. It does bleed over into other…any sort of personality disorders, any diagnosed depression. All of these just get – any sort of pain even. Even if you say “Oh, I hurt my foot”, they will throw a pill at you – at least one. What happens is it usually starts with one or two “Oh, let’s try this out.” And like Jeremiah pointed out, there are very long spans in getting back in, to take yourself off some of these drugs is extremely dangerous, and to mix and match is also even worse. And then you come up with new symptoms saying “Well, I dealt with this. But I still now feel like I’m underwater all the time”, they’ll throw another pill at you instead of fixing the one that they previously gave you.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Virginia):
We’re seeing – and I know obviously you follow this too – a huge epidemic like heroin addiction these days in the broader society that often begins with prescription drug addiction, and prescription drugs are more expensive than heroin now. So this prescription drug thing is a significant issue.

And if I hear you correctly as you describe it, you worry a little bit this over-medication is driven by “We don’t have enough counselors to meet with you now. So if it’s six months to have an appointment, we got to do something. So, here try this.” It’s kind of a stop gap. Probably isn’t the best diagnosis. Probably isn’t the best strategy but we got to do something because there are not enough counselors to deal with your mental health needs. So there’s an issue of probably the number of counselors, the kind of training they get, and you worry that the medications are just being, you know, kind of “Here’s something to get you by for a while.”

Ms. Jessica Kenyon, Former Private First Class, U.S. Army:
Yeah, a Band-Aid basically, and even then it’s a Band-Aid that could kill you. Some of them – the medications snowball. And I don’t – I personally have looked this up but I can’t find accurate correlations with civilian versus military treatment in medications and how they’re doled out, and I think that would be important to study…The survivors who have contacted me out of curiosity the ones who have volunteered their lists of medications and my husband being a neuroscientist, I hand them over and he says, “How are they still alive?” You know, it’s amazing to read just the side effects in some of these things.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Virginia):
Well, my time is up but I think this raises an interesting area that we probably should explore. If we were able to determine, for example, that folks in the military who are seeking treatment for mental health issues – PTSD or other – were dramatically more medicated than those who were seeking mental health services in the civilian world, that would really strike a big alarm. That would suggest to us that maybe something’s not being done right and the way you made that testimony, you pointed at a potential problem that we ought to explore further. Thank you for your testimony today.

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