Penny Coleman

Why Are We Throwing Traumatized Vets in Jail for Calling 911?

On March 4, 2011, the Honorable J. Thomas Kirkman, addressed the defendant in Barnstable Massachusetts' Second District Court:  "Mr. Bangert, I see that you served your country honorably. It's time to do that again. I'm asking you to serve your country honorably again by (spending) nine months in the house of correction."  And the gavel came down.  

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Why Are We Locking Up Traumatized Veterans for Their Addictions Instead of Offering Them Treatment?

A new report by the Drug Policy Alliance exposes practices and policies that for decades have unjustly resulted in large numbers of psychically injured and addicted veterans landing in U.S. prisons and jails.

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Does Military Service Turn Young Men into Sexual Predators?

Every day, for four years as a West Point cadet, Tara Krause lived and worked alongside the men who had gang-raped her.

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Raped in the Military? You May Have to Pay for Your Own Forensic Exam Kit

Editor's note: a correction was made to this story since publication. The uncorrected version stated incorrectly that the military doesn't cover forensic exam kits for the 20 percent of rape victims treated on military bases.

Sarah Palin's decision not to pay for rape kits when she was mayor of Walsilla was an issue in the campaign for the White House. But allow me to introduce the large pink elephant that has been sitting quietly in the corner of the room:

At the Winter Soldier Investigation in March, Spec. Patricia McCann, who served in Iraq with the Illinois Army National Guard from 2003-4, read a memo issued to all MEDCOM commanders clarifying that "SAD kits"-- which are forensic rape kits--"are not included in TRICARE coverage." *

TRICARE, the United States Department of Defense Military Health System that covers active duty members, will only pay for rape kits if the victim is seen in a military or a VA facility.

But the Pentagon acknowledges that 80 percent of military rapes are never reported. And that 80 percent who go off-base to protect their anonymity (and/or their careers) are on their own. If a soldier is on leave, or is five-hours from the nearest VA, or if a soldier is simply delivered to the nearest hospital by the local ambulance driver, their rape kits are not covered under TRICARE. Neither are other forensic exams that might be used in domestic violence situations.

Front-line treatment shouldn't be conditional on where a rape occurs or where the nearest treatment is available. This is not only a parity issue, but a further obstacle to treatment and justice.

Women in the military are twice as likely to be raped as their civilian counterparts. In fact, "women serving in the U.S. military today are more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire in Iraq," Congresswoman Jane Harman, D-Calif., told the House Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs in May.

Harman said, "The scope of the problem was brought into acute focus for me during a visit to the West Los Angeles VA Health Center where I met female veterans and their doctors. My jaw dropped when the doctors told me that 41 percent of the female veterans seen there say they were victims of sexual assault while serving in the military, and 29 percent said they were raped during their military service."

In July, a House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee hearing subpoenaed Kaye Whitley, director of the Pentagon's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO), to explain what the department is doing to stop the escalating sexual violence in the military. Her boss, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, ordered her not to appear.

Whitley was finally made available to the committee on Sept. 10, but only after having been threatened with a contempt citation.

Whitley first informed the committee that the DoD was conducting a "crusade against sexual assault."

She then sought to reassure the committee with an accounting of all the heroic measures the Pentagon is planning to implement in the very near future.

But finally, she had to admit that in 2007 there were 2,688 sexual assaults in the military, including 1,259 reports of rape. Just 8 percent (181) of those cases were referred to courts martial, compared to a civilian prosecution rate of 40 percent. And almost half of those cases were dismissed without investigation. (And I say Whitley "had to admit" the number of cases because in 2004, Congress woke up to the fact that the DoD was blowing off the issue and required the military to make yearly reports on all matters relating to sexual assault in the Armed Forces. But those reports did not indicate either prioritizing or progress -- hence the hearings.)

Rep. John Tierney, D-Mass., asked the committee if anyone thought that "ordering its employees to ignore subpoenas to discuss the topic" sounded as if DoD was taking any of this seriously. "Let me be very clear. Preventing and responding to sexual assault perpetrated against our soldiers is simply much too important to be playing a game of cat and mouse." He later told Stars and Stripes that there are only seven people on Whitley's staff to devise and implement the military's sexual assault program for the entire military. That number speaks for itself.

This is not news. As far back as 1995, Reuters reported that "Ninety percent of women under 50 who have served in the U.S. military and who responded to a survey report being victims of sexual harassment, and nearly one-third of the respondents of all ages say they have been raped."

Furthermore, the Pentagon acknowledges that 80 percent of military rapes are not reported in the first place, suggesting that the actual number, if it were known, would be astronomical.

Cat-and-mouse games may sound like kid stuff, but refusing to pay for a rape kit is anything but. It implies that the victim is to blame. It does not encourage victims to come forward. And it makes it far more likely that soldiers will interpret the permissive climate as institutionally sanctioned misogyny.

In her Winter Soldier testimony, McCann noted, "The assistant secretary of defense is soliciting legislative changes to TRICARE benefits which will include these kits within covered TRICARE supplies."

I have been in touch with the office of the assistant secretary, S. Ward Casscells, M.D. It seems that he has indeed solicited such legislation, and it is due to go into effect in December as an amendment to the John Warner National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2007. The amendment contains some "background" that is worth sharing.

Currently, forensic examinations are not covered for beneficiaries in civilian health care facilities through TRICARE medical plans because TRICARE "may cost share only medically or psychologically necessary services or supplies. Forensic examinations are not conducted for medical treatment purposes, but for the preservation of evidence in any future criminal investigation and/or prosecution."

The decision to treat rape kits as purely evidentiary, ignoring the very real medical and psychological benefits to the victim, is reprehensibly primitive thinking. Making sure that those legislative changes happen as planned would be a long overdue step out of the primal ooze that has slimed our military in the eyes of our citizens and the world.

Speaking to Palin's decision not to pay for rape kits, the former governor of Alaska, Tony Knowles, was quoted in Palin's hometown paper, the Frontiersman, as saying, "We would never bill the victim of a burglary for fingerprinting and photographing the crime scene, or for the cost of gathering other evidence. Nor should we bill rape victims just because the crime scene happens to be their bodies."

When Barack Obama decides who he will appoint to head the Department of Veterans Affairs in his administration, he should consider appointing someone who also understands how important it is that women's bodies, souls, dignity and health be taken seriously. Tammy Duckworth, who is reported to be at the top of his list, certainly has had personal experience with a health care delivery system she has called "a little bit arcane."

Duckworth is now director of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs, but in 2004, she was a Blackhawk helicopter pilot in Iraq and lost both of her legs in a crash. She describes the care she received at Walter Reed Army Medical Center as "excellent," but adds, "the comfort package I received contained men's Jockey shorts, and the local VA hospital carried Viagra but not my birth control."

There are currently about 1.7 million female veterans in the United States, and the Department of Defense estimates that there are about 200,000 women, 15 percent of the military, on active duty. Thirty-nine percent of those women return from Iraq or Afghanistan with mental health issues, and, for more than a third who seek VA health care, the precipitating trauma was a sexual assault.

Every VA center now screens both men and women for sexual trauma. That is an improvement. Still, Duckworth says, "I don't think the VA mental health care system is ready for (female veterans)." It would be encouraging to see a VA director who has some understanding of how important that is to fix.

*The overwhelming indictment of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- and the heartbreaking devastation they have wrought on the souls of young American soldiers -- are now the subject of an invaluable book edited by Aaron Glantz and issued by Haymarket Books.

Activist Tells Congress About Suicide Epidemic Among Vets

On Dec. 12, at 10 in the morning, I was sitting in room 345 of the Cannon House Office Building, as Rep. Bob Filner called to order the Veterans Affairs Committee hearing on "Stopping Suicides: Mental Health Challenges Within the Department of Veterans Affairs."

The hearings were in response to increasingly ominous rumors of soldier and veteran suicides (which the DoD and the VA have continued to deny), culminating in the dramatic CBS News report about veteran suicides released in late November. Finally, an entity with some insider clout had produced some hard numbers that attest to an epidemic of monstrous proportions. Even so, the bad guys, like Dr. Ira Katz, who is head of mental health at the VA, quibble about whether or not this is "an epidemic" or a "major problem." "Why hasn't the VA done a national study seeking national data on how many veterans have committed suicide in this country?" Katz was asked by the CBS reporter. "That research is ongoing," Katz replied, looking a lot like Lucy promising not to snatch the football away again.

So, on Dec. 12, I and three other citizens found ourselves scheduled for the morning panel: Mike and Kim Bowman, whose son Tim, a veteran of the Iraq war, took his own life a year ago; Ilona Meagher, author of Moving a Nation to Care; and me -- all of us, by the way, suicide survivors. We were to be followed by a second panel consisting of Katz and fellow apologists, who were supposed to eviscerate the CBS report and skewer us with their conflicting numbers. Without, of course, appearing callous, slimy or cruel.

Mike Bowmen spoke first, his wife Kim sitting beside him. Kim didn't speak, but kept her hand on Mike's back. It was such a simple gesture, but one that spoke volumes: Mike is capable of doing the talking, because Kim makes it possible. They are absolutely there for each other. And for their son's memory. And for all the other parents who have already -- or will someday -- have to find ways to survive a death like Tim's.

The Bowmans are devastated. Their grief is huge and terrible, and together they have found ways to give public meaning to their personal tragedy. Aside from giving such an inspiring human face to statistics so awful anyone would want to become numb and turn away from them, Mike mined his own experience and his son's for those moments that had seemed most senselessly counterproductive if not just plain stupid. You can read the whole of his testimony on the Veterans Affairs Committee website, but two points, at least, I think are worth sharing. This first reminds me of those rebate offers that make things sound like such a deal, but are really so complicated and time-consuming to fill out that they know you'll never do it: The VA currently protests that it can't possibly be asked to take responsibility for veterans who have not registered with the system. They don't know where to find them. Well then, Mike asked, "Why isn't the VA sitting there when they get off the bus?" Why don't they have somebody … with a computer and a desk, registering them before they can go home? They're coming out of combat. You know that they're going to need help. Sign them up right there. That way, you know where they are, you know who they are, and they're in the VA system right away. Don't make it so that the soldier has to go to the VA. Make the VA go to the soldier." So simple. So obvious.

Mike's other point was a simple intervention into military culture, and one that would go a long way towards undermining the age-old stigma that is the main reason soldiers don't ask for the help they need: Instead of shunning or punishing a soldier who admits to a combat stress injury and asks for help, hold him or her up as a model. "Grab that soldier and thank him for saying, 'I'm not OK' and promote him," he said. "A soldier that admits a mental injury should be the first guy you want to have in your unit because he may be the only one that really has a grasp on reality."

When Mike and Kim Bowman finished, the entire hearing room came to its feet, and one after another, the committee members fell all over themselves thanking them for their courage and identifying with their pain. Even the Republicans, though they couldn't quite hide their compulsion to hold soldiers responsible for their own pain. One of my favorites, Rep. Cliff Stearns from Florida, "in all candidness," told Mike Bowman, "You coming here is good for us, but it's probably good for you to talk about it." And then did himself even one better when he suggested that perhaps Mike and Kim hadn't quite lived up to their responsibility as parents. "The building up of the self-esteem is the key," he said, "and the parents somehow have to convince him or her that everything is going to be all right, we're going to work through it. And in this case it didn't happen, and so, tragic and sad." Gag me, Cliff.

Steve Buyer, the ranking Republican on the committee, shared a story about losing a childhood friend to suicide. "And there were no signs. There were no risk factors, he said. "It was just one of these bizarre strikes of the mind to just -- I don't have the answers." Knock, knock, Steve. It does seem that spending time in a combat zone is, in and of itself, a risk factor that screams to be taken seriously. But Steve isn't in an entirely conciliatory frame of mind. "As we delve into this issue, we have to also be very sensitive," he said, "because I recognize there are anti-war advocates that also want to say that these individuals that then therefore commit suicide, who have worn the uniform, are somehow victims. And that's not right either."

As one of the anti-war advocates he is referring to, I would like to point out that he is conflating two entirely different positions: anti-war and anti-this-war. The two are not mutually exclusive (and I am a proud example of that), but they are different, and pretending they are not is simply disingenuous. As disingenuous as it would be for me to call him pro-war, if I could be persuaded to sink so low.

In fact, aside from anti-war activists, the other thing that seems to terrify this crew is socialized medicine. The VA, properly funded, could actually serve as an example of how universal health care might work. In practice, it has been bearded to look like just any old hospital, replete with exclusionary practices that are a caricature of the most extreme behavior of a private insurance company gone mad.

When after two hours, congressman Bob turned the mike over to me and then to Ilona, we did our best. We did not shame ourselves. In fact, we both had important things to say and (very much to our relief) we said them well. But the Bowmans were a hard act to follow.

The second panel, however, didn't seem to have noticed. Anything. All Katz and crew wanted to talk about were the fine new programs that the VA has inaugurated -- programs that, as Filner repeatedly interrupted to point out, obviously are not enough to stem this outbreak of despair. Filner didn't even try to disguise his frustration and impatience with these apologists who complained bitterly about how mean CBS was being about sharing their research and the creative new outreach plans they have come up with to bring psychically injured veterans into the system: The agency, according to Katz, is writing a letter that should go out this week or next to all veterans, raising these issues." Right, Dr. Katz. A letter.

After only two of the four panel members had given their testimony, Filner cut the hearing short: "Throw this away and talk to the Bowmans, talk to Ms. Coleman, talk to Ms. Meagher, and say, What are we going to do about these issues? You're not doing that. I mean, you had the advantage of listening to them. Respond to them ... I still don't know what you're doing for those people ... You have not done the job. We're going to have another hearing on this. We're going to have another hearing on this. And I want you to come back with a better report. This is not very useful."

That was, I admit, a sweet moment.

There are countless examples, one more painful than the next, of ways this administration has cut corners on soldiers' and veterans' healthcare. They have, with consummate cynicism, decked themselves in yellow ribbons, mandatory lapel pins and cheap jingoistic rhetoric while simultaneously sucking and siphoning off the VA's already inadequate resources. Mike Bowman's testimony alone is a devastating indictment of those policies. And yet Katz continues to insist, as he did repeatedly during these hearings, that the VA has adequate resources to manage a crisis the parameters of which they have yet to determine and the measures to be taken that might actually intervene in the mounting death toll not yet articulated.

I have hope that good things will come of these hearings, but if they did nothing else, they made a few things very clear. For one, the VA is a system in crisis. It has been deeply underfunded for way too long. It has a bureaucratic system that is adversarial to veterans. And though it employs many dedicated and humanitarian care providers, it is led by a bunch of flunkies who say whatever they think they can get away with to avoid taking responsibility for those Americans who honorably enlisted to defend their country.

The hearings also made it perfectly clear that people like me, a pro-peace activist, can find common cause with a military family like that of Mike and Kim Bowman. The Bowmans still support this war, at least in part because they need to believe that their beloved son died for a reason. I cannot support this war, but I too have a beloved son. I cannot begin to imagine the heat of the rage I would feel had my son died as a result of stupid bureaucratic neglect and mismanagement, not to mention skimping. I may not be in favor of this war, but I am fierce when it comes to taking care of those we sent to fight in our name. The architects of the war and those who implement their policies at the VA have to wake up in the morning and look at themselves in the mirror. With the deaths of so many of our children on their hands, I wonder how they manage.

120 War Vets Commit Suicide Each Week

Earlier this year, using the clout that only major broadcast networks seem capable of mustering, CBS News contacted the governments of all 50 states requesting their official records of death by suicide going back 12 years. They heard back from 45 of the 50. From the mountains of gathered information, they sifted out the suicides of those Americans who had served in the armed forces. What they discovered is that in 2005 alone -- and remember, this is just in 45 states -- there were at least 6,256 veteran suicides, 120 every week for a year and an average of 17 every day.

As the widow of a Vietnam vet who killed himself after coming home, and as the author of a book for which I interviewed dozens of other women who had also lost husbands (or sons or fathers) to PTSD and suicide in the aftermath of the war in Vietnam, I am deeply grateful to CBS for undertaking this long overdue investigation. I am also heartbroken that the numbers are so astonishingly high and tentatively optimistic that perhaps now that there are hard numbers to attest to the magnitude of the problem, it will finally be taken seriously. I say tentatively because this is an administration that melts hard numbers on their tongues like communion wafers.

Since these new wars began, and in spite of a continuous flood of alarming reports, the Department of Defense has managed to keep what has clearly become an epidemic of death beneath the radar of public awareness by systematically concealing statistics about soldier suicides. They have done everything from burying them on official casualty lists in a category they call "accidental noncombat deaths" to outright lying to the parents of dead soldiers. And the Department of Veterans Affairs has rubber-stamped their disinformation, continuing to insist that their studies indicate that soldiers are killing themselves, not because of their combat experiences, but because they have "personal problems."

Active-duty soldiers, however, are only part of the story. One of the well-known characteristics of post-traumatic stress injuries is that the onset of symptoms is often delayed, sometimes for decades. Veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam are still taking their own lives because new PTSD symptoms have been triggered, or old ones retriggered, by stories and images from these new wars. Their deaths, like the deaths of more recent veterans, are written up in hometown newspapers; they are locally mourned, but officially ignored. The VA doesn't track or count them. It never has. Both the VA and the Pentagon deny that the problem exists and sanctimoniously point to a lack of evidence they have refused to gather.

They have managed this smoke and mirrors trick for decades in large part because suicide makes people so uncomfortable. It has often been called "that most secret death" because no one wants to talk about it. Over time, in different parts of the world, attitudes have fluctuated between the belief that the act is a sin, a right, a crime, a romantic gesture, an act of consummate bravery or a symptom of mental illness. It has never, however, been an emotionally neutral issue. In the United States, the rationalism of our legal system has acknowledged for 300 years that the act is almost always symptomatic of a mental illness. For those same 300 years, organized religions have stubbornly maintained that it's a sin. In fact, the very worst sin. The one that is never forgiven because it's too late to say you're sorry.

The contradiction between religious doctrine and secular law has left suicide in some kind of nether space in which the fundamentals of our systems of justice and belief are disrupted. A terrible crime has been committed, a murder, and yet there can be no restitution, no punishment. As sin or as mental illness, the origins of suicide live in the mind, illusive, invisible, associated with the mysterious, the secretive and the undisciplined, a kind of omnipresent Orange Alert. Beware the abnormal. Beware the Other.

For years now, this administration has been blasting us with high-decibel, righteous posturing about suicide bombers, those subhuman dastards who do the unthinkable, using their own bodies as lethal weapons. "Those people, they aren't like us; they don't value life the way we do," runs the familiar xenophobic subtext: And sometimes the text isn't even sub-: "Many terrorists who kill innocent men, women, and children on the streets of Baghdad are followers of the same murderous ideology that took the lives of our citizens in New York, in Washington and Pennsylvania," proclaimed W, glibly conflating Sept. 11, the invasion of Iraq, Islam, fanatic fundamentalism and human bombs.

Bush has also expressed the opinion that suicide bombers are motivated by despair, neglect and poverty. The demographic statistics on suicide bombers suggest that this isn't the necessarily the case. Most of the Sept. 11 terrorists came from comfortable middle- to upper-middle-class families and were well-educated. Ironically, despair, neglect and poverty may be far more significant factors in the deaths of American soldiers and veterans who are taking their own lives.

Consider the 25 percent of enlistees and the 50 percent of reservists who have come back from the war with serious mental health issues. Despair seems an entirely appropriate response to the realization that the nightmares and flashbacks may never go away, that your ability to function in society and to manage relationships, work schedules or crowds will never be reliable. How not to despair if your prognosis is: Suck it up, soldier. This may never stop!

Neglect? The VA's current backlog is 800,000 cases. Aside from the appalling conditions in many VA hospitals, in 2004, the last year for which statistics are available, almost 6 million veterans and their families were without any healthcare at all. Most of them are working people -- too poor to afford private coverage, but not poor enough to qualify for Medicaid or means-tested VA care. Soldiers and veterans need help now, the help isn't there, and the conversations about what needs to be done are only just now beginning.

Poverty? The symptoms of post-traumatic stress injuries or traumatic brain injuries often make getting and keeping a job an insurmountable challenge. The New York Times reported last week that though veterans make up only 11 percent of the adult population, they make up 26 percent of the homeless. If that doesn't translate into despair, neglect and poverty, well, I'm not sure the distinction is one worth quibbling about.

There is a particularly terrible irony in the relationship between suicide bombers and the suicides of American soldiers and veterans. With the possible exception of some few sadists and psychopaths, Americans don't enlist in the military because they want to kill civilians. And they don't sign up with the expectation of killing themselves. How incredibly sad that so many end up dying of remorse for having performed acts that so disturb their sense of moral selfhood that they sentence themselves to death.

There is something so smugly superior in the way we talk about suicide bombers and the cultures that produce them. But here is an unsettling thought. In 2005, 6,256 American veterans took their own lives. That same year, there were about 130 documented deaths of suicide bombers in Iraq.* Do the math. That's a ratio of 50-to-1. So who is it that is most effectively creating a culture of suicide and martyrdom? If George Bush is right, that it is despair, neglect and poverty that drive people to such acts, then isn't it worth pointing out that we are doing a far better job?

*I say "about" because in the aftermath of a suicide bombing, it is often very difficult for observers to determine how many individual bodies have been blown to pieces.


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