Robert Hunter was raped in the Navy when he was 19, a memory he repressed for 32 years. When the memory returned, he drank heavily and endured mental health problems.
After receiving help from the VA Connecticut Healthcare System, he decided to build “something good from something horrible” and bring attention to men who are sexually assaulted in the military. The Connecticut veteran co-founded a national advocacy group called Men Recovering from Military Sexual Trauma (Mr. MST) because, he said, “male victims aren’t taken seriously.”
Hunter’s organization has spent the last three years raising awareness and lobbying for health care for military victims of sexual assault, meeting with top government decision makers, participating in White House policy discussions, speaking at events for military sexual assault victims and joining women survivors in advocating for removing the prosecution of military sexual assault from the chain of command.
In the military, where men comprise 85 percent of the population, more men than women are sexually assaulted. The most recent Pentagon estimates show 10,600 men and 9,600 women were assaulted in 2014, representing 1 percent of active duty men and 4.9 percent of women.
Men rarely report military sexual assaults, tell anyone, or get care for associated problems, according to a study by the Rand Corporation, a research organization. Just 13 percent of men report a sexual assault compared to 40 percent of women, the Rand study showed.
Servicemen are more likely than women to: be repeat victims, be assaulted on duty and by multiple offenders in one incident, and endure physical injuries and threats of violence during sexual assaults, according to Rand. Alcohol is usually not involved in male assault, Rand found.
The Department of Defense (DOD) only started addressing the issue of male sexual assault in 2014, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress.
“Until recently, DOD leadership was not comfortable raising male victims as an area of focus,” the GAO reported.
This discomfort and the fact that men don’t report assaults are rooted in a military culture where male strength is revered, mental health professionals say.
Dr. Jerome Brodlie, head of psychology at Greenwich Hospital, said, “Guys are supposed to suck it up, sit in a fox hole, hold your ground.” Men feel they will be demeaned if they report sexual assault, he said.
At the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, veterans who apply for health care are asked if they are military sexual trauma (MST) victims.
In Connecticut in the last year, 1.4 percent of men and 29.9 percent of women replied affirmatively, said Dr. Jason DeViva, MST coordinator at the VA Connecticut Healthcare System.
He said some veterans eventually disclose their assaults years after their first VA visit.
But many victims don’t go to the VA because they see it as part of “the government that was running the military when they were assaulted,” he said.
DeViva said most perpetrators are men, causing male victims to question their sexual orientation and feel ashamed.
The VA has been providing free services for veterans who are victims of MST since 1992 for women and 1994 for men, regardless of their discharge status. Victims don’t need to show proof of their assault or meet eligibility requirements as they do for other VA services.
They are offered individualized medical care and group sessions. There are now two MST groups for men and two for women at the West Haven VA, DeViva said. Educational materials are gender specific, he said, including citing effects of trauma on one’s sense of masculinity.
But while VA health care is offered to sexual trauma victims, VA disability payments are typically denied them.
Hunter, the Connecticut veteran, is applying for such compensation for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder attributed to his rape. The Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School is handling his case. Edward Wittenstein, a volunteer lawyer with the clinic, said the VA has “a history of dual discrimination against male MST claimants.”
“The VA denies MST-based PTSD claims more often than other PTSD claims, and male MST claims more often than female MST claims,” Wittenstein said.
Hunter, 54, of Torrington, said the memory of his rape was triggered three years ago when he was meeting with a Connecticut congressman on behalf of the Veterans of Foreign War. Speaking about military sexual assault, he blurted out to his own shock, “It happened to me.” He felt like he had been gut punched, he said.
A week later, after a drinking binge, he sought help at the Newington VA. He still sees a psychiatrist there and a psychologist at the Rocky Hill Veterans Center, and has participated in group therapy for mental illness. He is now pursuing a master’s degree in social work at Smith College to become a psychotherapist and work with veterans. He takes a service dog with him to class.
Hunter, who recently spoke at a Congressional briefing, said in an interview that he believes support from Congress is key in getting male victims more help and giving them the confidence to seek help. “It takes steady pressure building an alliance of legislators, steady pressure keeping people who can do the real fighting informed,” he said.