The military is still catching up to #MeToo –How one nonprofit is creating a safe space for survivors

This content is sponsored by Melwood.

In the aftermath of what happened to Spc. Vanessa Guillen, a U.S. Army soldier who was killed by another enlisted person in 2020, military sexual trauma (MST) is finally starting to receive long overdue attention in the public sphere. A U.S. Army investigation into the events of Guillen’s death concluded that she had been sexually harassed by another soldier, bringing the #MeToo movement for service men and women into the national spotlight.

Veteran Brooksi Bottari said much more than attention is needed to address the issue of military sexual trauma. Bottari is the director of Veteran & Wraparound Services for Melwood, and she said what’s needed to truly make an impact in helping survivors of MST is more investment, both in prevention strategies and care for survivors.

Melwood is a leading national employer and advocate for people with disabilities and injured veterans, serving the greater D.C. area for nearly 60 years.

In fiscal year 2020, the Defense Department received 7,816 reports of sexual assault from service members — 6,290 of which happened during military service.

Data from the Department of Veterans Affairs reveals that about 1 in 3 women and 1 in 50 men responded “yes” when asked by their VA provider whether they have experienced military sexual trauma.

Resources for veterans experiencing PTSD are already severely limited, and the resources for MST survivors are even more scarce. There are also significant barriers that make it difficult for survivors to access what little care is available.

To be eligible for treatment, the survivor must demonstrate that they have experienced PTSD as a result of being sexually assaulted. But it’s often difficult to get a service-connected disability diagnosis for military sexual trauma because the burden of proof is ultimately on the survivor.

“When someone is trying to get a PTSD for MST diagnosis, they’re going to ask things like, ‘Did you file a police report? Did you tell a peer? Did you journal about it? Did you tell your command?’ And all of these things are barriers within the military structure to be able to report. So, a lot of people don’t report,” Bottari said.

Aryanna Hunter is the chief operating officer for RISE: Rank and File and the director of the Office of Veteran Services for the University of Pittsburgh. Hunter enlisted in the U.S. Army after 9/11, serving until 2004.

“I joined because terrorism had struck our country, and at 18, I could go and help defend my nation,” she said.

Right before war was officially declared, Hunter was in Jordan in 2003, where a camp had been set up and operations were being prepared to establish communications, which was her responsibility.

It was while she was doing her job, making sure equipment was ready and working, that an NCO in her unit locked her in an equipment truck and raped her.

“Being so far away from home, and being in that environment, I was terrified – not only of what occurred and it happening again, but terrified to tell anybody because what if they didn’t believe me,” Hunter said.

There had already been reports of rapes in the camp, and Hunter saw how those reports were handled and the overall response throughout the camp.

“I didn’t feel safe, and I didn’t feel protected. And I was terrified the entire time I was there. So I didn’t report it. I didn’t say anything to anyone. I just did my best not to end up on shift with that NCO again. And it’s something that I carried with me until a few years ago, when I finally started to talk about it openly,” Hunter said.

Bottari said that military sexual trauma and childhood sexual trauma mimic each other very closely in that the person who is responsible for your well-being is also the person that could potentially be assaulting you.

“A survivor is thinking ‘This is my brother- or sister-in-arms. This is the person that I was taught has my back at all times, but I’m also experiencing this trauma. So it can get really cloudy for some people — I don’t want to turn this person in; I don’t want to say anything because that puts me at risk,’” Bottari said.

There’s also the mindset of “suck it up and move on,” which Bottari said is a very common phrase in the military.

That’s what Hunter did. The rest of the time while she was in the camp, she did her best not to end up on the same shift with her attacker. But when she came home from the war, she was put in a training exercise with him.

“I had a complete panic attack and hyperventilated, and they had to take me to the hospital on base because I thought I was having a heart attack. Turns out it was a panic attack,” Hunter said. She also experienced anxiety and depression, and she ended up seeking counseling in the military. Eventually, she was honorably discharged.

For her, moving on meant working harder than everybody else around her.

“I could not sit still. So I did everything. I ran for the United States Congress in 2012 at 29 years old. Like high-achieving, going after big dreams, like doing all the really big things that people are like, ‘Oh, that’s what we want for our transitional military members to have, right? Working for Fortune 500 companies, making six figures running for political office,’” Hunter said.

But she wasn’t working on herself; she was hiding and coping by striving for achievements.

“What more can I do to not think about anything else? And fear, you know, afraid to slow down,” Hunter said.

Hunter’s military sexual trauma also had an impact on her relationships. “I felt like I couldn’t maintain relationships with others. That I was the problem.”

Through years of therapy, she was able to start looking inwardly and talking about what happened to her during her service. She was 36 years old and had lived with the secrecy of her attack for years. Having given birth to her fourth child, she wondered how she would be able to guide her daughters.

“As they enter into high school and move on into college, and if these things were to ever happen to them, how would I hope that they would manage it? How would I hope that they would get help? And if I wasn’t willing to get help myself, maybe I wouldn’t be able to help them. So that’s really what the culmination was finally for me to say, ‘OK, I need help,’” Hunter said.

She connected with women veterans in the Pittsburgh region and developed a support network of women who had similar stories, and she started to feel less alone.

“I started to feel like ‘Oh, you don’t have to feel this shame around your service.’ You can still take pride in being a veteran,” Hunter said.

She found out about Melwood’s services from a group of veterans who had been working with Bottari.

At Melwood, the goal is to provide “no barriers” care – if a veteran has experienced military sexual trauma, the only thing they must demonstrate to get help is proof of military service.

“Once we get that information, then there are no barriers to our services,” which are open to anyone who needs help — men, women, active-duty or veterans — Bottari said.

One of the ways Melwood helps survivors is through Operation Tohidu®, an intensive, experiential retreat program, powered by the Wounded Warrior Project, that brings veterans out of isolation to heal from their trauma in community with one another.

Tohidu is a Cherokee word meaning “peace of mind, body and spirit,” the driving theme behind the retreat experience and therapeutic approach.

Bottari said studies have shown that five days of experiential learning has the same benefit as six months of talk therapy, and one of the foremost factors is the healing power of nature. There’s also the camaraderie and the team-building that bring people together to work on common goals and share common experiences throughout the healing journey.

“It’s weird because when I think back to the time that I was in counseling as a soldier. I remember none of it. They’d given me prescriptions for every drug you could think of. I never took them. I didn’t divulge any information in therapy when I was in the military. I just was scared and wanted out,” Hunter said.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Melwood has adapted its program to combine virtual and in-person elements. Participants engage in a five-week, interactive program online before coming together in person at Melwood’s 108-acre Retreat and Recreation Center in Nanjemoy, Maryland. Participants use ropes courses, zip lines, kayaks, equine therapy and other adventurous activities to augment educational sessions, periods of introspection and reflection, group discussions and spiritual reinforcement throughout the retreat.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the program was focused on the five-day, on-site experience. Bottari said they plan to continue the new hybrid style because it gives participants more time to connect and heal as a group, creating a strong foundation for continued relationships and support.

“Now when we get to the retreat center, we take all of these lessons and reflections, and we put them into practice,” Bottari said. “It’s even more powerful because you skip the awkward first day, where people are just getting comfortable with one another. At this point, our program participants have spent five weeks getting to know one another, and they are ready to dive in and start working together.”

Hunter said the hybrid approach allowed her group, made up of veterans in the western Pennsylvania area, to develop a community right in their own backyard. They’ve set up a text group and if someone’s having a bad day or is struggling with mental health, members can post and there’s an immediate support system ready to encourage and share tips for coping based on what they learned from each other during the program.

Hunter enjoyed the horticultural therapy component of her retreat, and said she feels a real connection when she uses her hands. She came home with lots of plants and spent time in her garden. The members of her group know this about her, so on days when she is struggling, they remember and tell her that it’s OK to feel this way and remind her to go outside and get her hands dirty. Some even offer to come over and garden together.

“So my experience there not only gave me the tools to recognize better ways of coping with situations that make me anxious or trigger my PTSD, but I also know that I have this community to support me. It’s really amazing,” Hunter said.

Her experience at Operation Tohidu has helped improve her relationships, as well. Recently married, she said that she has noticed a dramatic difference in the quality of her relationships.

“I learned how to communicate, and I learned how to identify emotions. And I couldn’t do that before. And so I feel like it makes me a healthier spouse and partner; it makes me a healthier mom because I can recognize it in my own kids, when they start to have big feelings. I can take some of the things that I’ve learned to help manage my own emotions and teach my kids,” Hunter said.

She said she would tell her kids to not live in fear, and if something happens to them, talk about it sooner.

“I’m a safe place for them. But there’s other safe places and other people that you can connect with, and support systems in place. Because no one should have to feel like they have to wait 16 years before they can open up about trauma. And the sooner that we address it, and the sooner that we talk about it, the sooner we can start to heal,” Hunter said.

Operation Tohidu is one of the few programs in the country that is focused on helping veterans heal from their service-related trauma and setting them on a path for reentry into the workforce and healthy relationship dynamics.

Melwood wants to make sure that support for the program keeps going, so it can continue to provide service to everyone who needs it. Currently, Operation Tohidu serves some 100 people a year; and Bottari wants to double that, which can be achieved by having a second two-person team that would allow for concurrent sessions.

There is currently a long waitlist for Operation Tohidu – a testament to the scale of the issue and the need for greater investment in services like it that provide safe spaces and resources for the nation’s heroes to rebuild.

“When a person is finally reaching out for help – to tell them that they have to wait for a year or more, to get services, that’s a huge issue. We really want to help people, and we have this data-driven, results-focused approach that we know works. Unfortunately with this waitlist, we are really constrained on being able to help everybody that needs the help,” Bottari said.

In addition to the Wounded Warrior Project, Melwood’s car donation program also helps make Operation Tohidu possible.

A working vehicle can be used to provide transportation resources or by staff for organizational responsibilities. And if your car is sold, proceeds from your vehicle donation provide resources to empower those who use Melwood’s services.

“Operation Tohidu is certainly one of the programs that benefits from funding through our vehicle donations – all donations and philanthropy that go to directly supporting Melwood and Melwood’s mission,” said Jewelyn Cosgrove, vice president of Government Relations for Melwood.Last April, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, with bipartisan support, released a bill addressing sexual assault in the military, which would create an independent prosecutor for sex crimes. This summer, a Senate panel incorporated Gillibrand’s Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act as part of the annual defense bill, also known as the National Defense Authorization Act, NPR reported. Gillibrand’s legislation has President Joe Biden’s stamp of approval and support of Republican and Democratic lawmakers.

“I don’t blame the people outside of the perpetrator for what happened to me. And I feel like the military gave me skills that I, otherwise, would have never learned, you know, being born and raised in poverty. So I’m grateful for my military service,” Hunter said.

But there’s an epidemic within the military system, where perpetrators aren’t being held accountable, and Hunter said more should be done within the military to hold people accountable for their actions.

Meanwhile, there are thousands of veterans who are currently dealing with military sexual trauma, and they need help now. You can show your support by helping Melwood continue to provide the programs and services for survivors of MST. There are several ways you can help. Here’s how you can give back to the people who gave up so much for your country.

To the veterans and active-duty members of the armed services, thank you for your service. If you would like to learn more about what services Melwood has for you, please visit Operation Tohidu’s website.

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