By Alexa Spencer | Word In Black
Trigger warning: This story contains details about sexual assault.
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, you may access support by calling the 24/7 National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-4673 or chatting online at online.rainn.org.
(WIB) – Merci McKinley, 40, was early on in her Army career when she endured what she least expected: back-to-back sexual assaults by people in her battalion.
An ocean apart from her family in the United States, she leaned on military support in Germany, where she was stationed as a private first class and a specialist.
But after a humiliating reporting process, the then 24-year-old collapsed emotionally.
“I was treated like a disease,” McKinley recalls about the 2007 incident.
After completing a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANE) forensic exam, where nurses take photographs and collect DNA evidence, she was returned to her unit in hospital scrubs.
For the remainder of the day, she says, she was deprived of her basic needs, even forced to stand in battalion formation without her uniform.
“It was very embarrassing to have went through the process to have the forensic exam and to be returned back to my unit and not being allowed to bathe, not being allowed to rest, not being allowed to eat, and to still walk around in hospital scrubs for majority of the duty day,” McKinley says.
The alienating experience became “the most difficult time of her life.” Now a veteran, it fuels her work as a military sexual assault policy advocate.
“It takes a lot to survive,” says McKinley, whose goal is to ensure survivors can access the treatment and care she didn’t receive.
Military Sexual Assault Is Far Too Common
McKinley is far from alone in her experience.
There were 8,942 reports of sexual assault involving service members in the 2022 fiscal year, according to an annual review by the Department of Defense (DoD).
Of the reports, 5,941 were unrestricted — requiring the involvement of the commander and law enforcement — and 3,001 were restricted, where the victim maintains confidentiality, but forgoes an investigation and any potential prosecution.
Restricted reports can later become unrestricted. If the victims choose to do so, however, the DoD’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office says evidence will be lost, and the investigation will likely encounter “significant obstacles.”
The office also says both reporting types allow access to forensic exams, mental health care, and legal consultation and representation.
But that doesn’t mean victims are guaranteed proper treatment after an assault.
A 2018 survey found that most incidents went unreported. Of the recorded, 34% of women reported maltreatment after filing a report, and 23% reported professional reprisal.
Like McKinley, 51% of women said they faced ostracism.
“It took a lot of my faith to allow me to continue to serve the people who did not care enough to make sure that I was okay after that traumatic event,” she says.
All of this, coupled with the trauma of sexual assault itself, can have a lasting impact on a person’s mind.
The Lingering Effects of ‘Military Sexual Trauma’
Ellsworth “Tony” Williams is on a mission to prevent military-related sexual assault and suicide — two issues he learned are deeply intertwined.
In 2007, he retired from the Army and went on to found Veterans Counseling Veterans, a non-profit that matches veterans with counselors.
“My primary purpose then was preventing veteran suicide. And then, when I was doing some research, I learned that women veterans had twice the rate of suicide than non-women veterans. And the reason why was military sexual assault,” says Williams, who is consulted by McKinley.
Military sexual trauma (MST) — a federal term used to describe sexual assault or harassment that happens during military service — is a known risk factor for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and suicidal ideation among women veterans.
A 2018 study found that female veterans with MST-related PTSD were at least three times more likely to report suicidal ideation than female veterans with combat-related PTSD.
While current research doesn’t say much about Black female veteran survivors who commit suicide, Williams says he knows at least three or four who have died after assaults.
“Until somebody does that study, the Black veteran, especially the Black women, will suffer in silence,” he says.
Lack of access to mental health care is an ongoing challenge for Black vets, who are denied benefits more often than white veterans.
During his second annual military sexual trauma conference in June, Williams stressed the dangers of going without proper mental health care.
“When [survivors] get triggered, they don’t know why,” says Williams. “They think something is wrong with them, not realizing they’re still making decisions and seeing the world through their traumatized eyes.”
A Change in Prosecution Power
The DoD and other federal bodies are well aware of the assault epidemic.
Since 2016, the department has launched a series of initiatives; including a plan to prevent and respond to assault against men, and CATCH, a program that aims to identify serial perpetrators.
“Sexual assault and sexual harassment remain persistent and corrosive problems across the Total Force. It is for this reason the Secretary of Defense has made countering these harmful behaviors a top strategy goal,” Gilbert Cisneros, an advisor to the Secretary of Defense, said in a statement.
Last month, President Biden signed a historic executive order that shifted prosecution power from victims’ commanders to independent military attorneys.
Williams says the legislation is a step in the right direction but not the end all be all.
“Eliminating military sexual assault is a long and enduring process. This Executive Order is not the destination but part of the journey,” he says.
McKinley believes the policy change “rests on the shoulders of many survivors and advocates.”
“I believe that policy has always been a part of the war on sexual assault, sexual harassment, and domestic violence in the military,” McKinley says. “Placing the right personnel with the legal and ethical acumen free of unjust biases in these positions is what will help to win the battles necessary as the war is fought.”