A letter to Michelle Obama in light of military sex assault epidemic

Dear First Lady Michelle Obama,

I am sitting at my desk in Bangor, Maine, trying to find words that will carry weight for you. This is as good a time as there will ever be to change how the military responds to sexual assault. You do not have the executive authority to demand changes in the U.S. Armed Forces. But you have the ear of your husband, and you have shown you understand the need with your initiative Joining Forces.

It’s good the president is outraged about the recent report from the Pentagon that an estimated 26,000 people in the armed forces were sexually assaulted last year, an increase from 19,000 in 2010. It’s good he’s told the generals to address the problem. At least our country’s top officials are no longer refuting or downplaying the military’s troubles.

There’s something else he can do. Focusing on prevention and the venue for judicial proceedings is important, but he shouldn’t forget the thousands of male and female veterans, from World War II through the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, who have already suffered the degradation of sexual assault. Part of their healing will come from knowing that their country, for which they signed over their lives, will support them as they deal with post-traumatic stress disorder and other diagnoses.

Your husband should direct the Department of Veterans Affairs to relax standards currently required to determine disability compensation for veterans with mental health conditions related to sexual trauma. Sexual assault survivors should not have to meet the unreasonable burden of proving that a sexual assault occurred, such as by having the perpetrator convicted at a military trial. Most survivors do not report, and of those who do, few see a conviction. Yet they suffer. If a health professional diagnoses their mental health condition as being related to military sexual trauma and consistent with the circumstances of service, that should be enough to warrant disability benefits.

There is a bill with significant bipartisan support currently making its way through Congress called the Ruth Moore Act, sponsored by Maine Rep. Chellie Pingree, that would make this change, as it was made for veterans with PTSD a couple years ago. The House is scheduled to vote on it Monday, and the Senate will take up the matter later. But your husband doesn’t have to wait for Congress. He could issue the order on his own. It could take effect immediately.

Ruth Moore is from Milbridge, a town of about 1,300, located in Washington County where the Narraguagus River meets the Atlantic Ocean. More than 25 years ago, she was sexually assaulted once by her immediate supervisor in the Navy when she was stationed in the Azores and again in retaliation when she tried to get help. She tried to commit suicide. Her superiors denied the rapes happened, and her attacker was not punished.

The struggle continued. It was difficult then, as it can be difficult now, for veterans to get the disability benefits they are due. Moore was discharged with a mental health diagnosis, and her first applications for disability benefits were denied. She fought for years to get the benefits she knew, and eventually the military came to understand, were hers.

I talked to Pingree this week, and she reiterated a point she has been making for several years: “The fact is, we say to people who serve in the military: ‘You serve in the military, and we will take care of you.’ … It’s our job to say, ‘We’ll help you put your life back together.’”

Over the last six weeks, I have been taking a class to learn how to become an advocate with an organization in Bangor called Rape Response Services. Advocates may accompany sexual assault victims through their stay at a hospital. Their role is to support victims and provide them with options. On Tuesday, I had my last class.

After 40 hours of listening to other advocates, police, nurses, doctors and legal professionals share their knowledge of how to assist sexual assault survivors, I better understand just how important it is for victims to know their communities will help them through their pain and let them choose the route most fitting for their individual healing process.

There are many things I still don’t know. I don’t really understand why perpetrators feel they need to exert their power over another human being in such a horrific way. I don’t fully understand what it takes to heal after abuse. What about the woman I learned of who had her skull broken before being raped? The children who were molested by their mother? The woman who depended on her rapist husband because she had a disability and used a wheelchair? Recovering takes such strength.

What I did learn: So many people are working every day to both prevent sexual assault and make a difference in the lives of victims. The president wants to be, I believe, and should become, one of them. I tell this to you because Pingree and Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., have already asked your husband to take immediate steps. A little more reminding might be all it takes.

Erin Rhoda

About Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is editor of Maine Focus, a journalism and community engagement initiative by the Bangor Daily News.