“I was diagnosed with a personality disorder for failing to adjust adequately to being raped.” —Jenny McClendon
It happens to men, too. Brian Lewis says a senior noncommissioned officer in his chain of command raped him on a warship. He reported the attack to both his master chief and the ship’s executive officer, who discouraged him from asking for a formal investigation. After Lewis was essentially told to get over it, he started carrying a pocketknife. (“It’s a hard thing to be at sea and be afraid of somebody,” Lewis says. “There’s no place to run on a 1,000-foot ship.”) But when the captain found out, Lee was thrown off the ship. Then he, too, was diagnosed with a personality disorder and separated from the Navy. (Although uniformed women are sexually assaulted at a higher rate than men, the total number of male victims is actually higher because there are so many more men in uniform; of the 19,000 estimated assaults each year, more than 11,000 target men.)
Today, Norris volunteers full time for a Military Rape Crisis Center, where she hears stories like these constantly. “They all have a common theme: Military men and women who are attacked by sexual predators and who report it are met with disbelief and skepticism, blamed for the crime, and disposed of one way or another,” she says. And others just keep quiet because they’re “afraid of retaliation by the predators in the ranks.… It’s a problem in every branch of service.”
One person who takes the problem seriously is Russell Strand, a civilian who developed the Army’s sexual-assault investigations course at the Military Police School at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. His program, which the Pentagon is considering as a potential model for training special-victims units, makes clear that sexual predators are often able to exploit aspects of military life—and to manipulate the military criminal-justice system in ways that make potential victims even more isolated and vulnerable. “From their first talk with a military recruiter, service members are told they are joining a values-based family that adheres to a warrior ethos of never leaving your battle buddy behind, and that necessarily creates a high degree of trust,” Strand says. “It also encourages people to let their guard down and potentially sets them up for victimization. And when someone is victimized in that environment, it’s doubly devastating, because they are not only betrayed by someone they trusted but they are also often blamed for an incident that tears at the cohesion of the unit, and thus come to blame themselves.”
The criminal-justice system often compounds the injury to victims by failing to recognize the unique nature of the crimes. Strand says there is more bias against the sexual-assault victims than with any other crime, which is one reason these crimes are also the most underreported. Defense Department figures indicate that just 14 percent of victims report their assaults. (An estimated 46 percent of civilians report sexual assaults, according to the Justice Department.)
Too often, investigators also misread victims traumatized by their attacks. According to Strand, sexual-trauma victims react in ways that law-enforcement officers are trained to equate with lying: They often have elevated blood pressure, their skin is moist, and they make “inconsistent statements” because of a frontal-brain shutdown caused by the psychic trauma, leaving only the “primitive brain” to establish a memory of the attack. Strand’s research builds on the work of David Lisak, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts, who for 20 years has studied sexual predators who commit acquaintance rape; and of Dr. Jim Hopper, a clinical instructor in psychology at Harvard Medical School, who has explored the impact of child abuse on memory and emotion. Based on their research, Strand developed the “forensic experiential trauma interview” technique. “We have to stop treating victims of rape and sexual assault as witnesses to their own crime,” Strand says. “They didn’t witness the attack; they experienced it. And that’s very different.”
In any case, a sexual-assault victim’s response to the trauma should not be interpreted as a personality disorder. Medically speaking, a personality disorder is a long-standing pattern of maladaptive behavior, not something caused by a recent psychological condition such as sexual trauma. Figures compiled by Yale Law School’s Veterans Legal Services Clinic under a Freedom of Information Act request, and reported by CNN, also indicate that the armed services are disproportionately applying such diagnoses to women. Women make up 21 percent of the Air Force but account for 35 percent of the personality-disorder discharges; they’re 16 percent of the Army but 24 percent of such discharges; they’re 17 percent of the Navy but 26 percent of discharges for personality disorder; and they’re 7 percent of the Marines but 14 percent of such discharges. “There may be some symptoms sexual-assault survivors exhibit that overlap with personality disorder, but a good clinician will take into account recent stressors to distinguish between reaction to a recent trauma and a long-standing personality disorder,” says Margret Bell, acting director of the Military Sexual Trauma Support Team at the VA’s Office of Mental Health Services.