Twenty-two veterans commit suicide everyday. Jeremiah Arbogast was almost one of them.
“Choosing death was my way of taking responsibility for my circumstances,” the former Marine Lance Corporal told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee’s subcommittee on personnel Wednesday. “I felt my death would spare my wife, daughter and myself the dishonor the rape brought upon us.”
From the wheelchair to which he has been confined ever since his self-inflicted gunshot wound left him paraplegic, the 32-year-old started the committee’s hearing on the relationship between military sexual assault, PTSD and suicide, with a heartbreaking testimony.
His eyes low, focused on the prepared statement in front of him, Arbogast recounted the details of his own sexual assault and its equally horrifying aftermath. He was drugged to the point of incapacitation and sexually assaulted by a fellow marine, a former staff sergeant, while on active duty. “I was humiliated at the thought of my helplessness,” he said.
Two months after the attack, incessant nightmares, anxiety, depression and confusion finally overpowered his fear and embarrassment and Arbogast confronted a base social worker who reported the attack to the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, which investigates crimes involving Naval or Marine Corps personnel. This would only further his humiliation, Arbogast came to find out. He said he was forced to make recorded phone calls to his rapist and even confront him at his house while wearing a wire in order to get a confession. He accomplished his mission, but his nightmare was far from over. Arbogast’s attacker was arrested and hit with several charges including sexual assault and sodomy, but after only a week in court, evidence shed light on his 23 years of service and he walked away with a bad conduct discharge and no jail time. Arbogast said his rapist was ordered to NCIS headquarters for fingerprinting only to reveal that he’d dulled the skin on his fingertips, and that he managed to refuse to register on the sex offender database by simply saying, “No, I don’t have to.”
“To this day I don’t know where my perpetrator is. Not knowing his location leaves me looking over my shoulder for the rest of my life,” Arbogast said. “I was not afforded the same rights as rape victims in the civilian world. Where are my choices?”
Wednesday’s hearing, led by Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, aimed to find an answer to Arbogast’s question. Just two days earlier, Gillibrand’s proposed Military Justice Improvement Act, which removes the authority to prosecute sexual assault away from the chain of command, was blocked in the Senate. Arbogast and fellow sexual assault survivor and former Army private first class Jessica Kenyon gathered alongside Defense Department Officials and mental health professionals on Capitol Hill to argue on behalf of keeping that bill alive.
“Reporting to the chain of command—it’s horrific,” said Arbogast. “You know, it could be a perpetrator in your chain of command. It could be your direct supervisor. In my case, it was my previous supervisor.”
The curtain has slowly been raising on the dark reality of the sexual assault epidemic permeating the military’s ranks since women were first allowed to enlist, and even more so since they’ve been included in combat roles. And while women are considered to be at much higher risk for sexual assault in the military than their male counterparts, recent studies reveal that the problem is hardly gender specific. The Pentagon saw reports of unwanted sexual encounters jump from 19,000 in 2010 to 26,000 in 2012, with men comprising 53 percent of victims. A report released in November by the Center for American Progress, a left-wing think tank, suggests that number may actually be much higher than the Pentagon’s estimate.
Arbogast and Kenyon braved the panel of elected officials not only to share the horrific details of the crimes committed against them by their fellow service members, but to reveal the lasting impact their attacks have had on their mental health and the lack of support they received from the institution to which they’d dedicated their lives.
“During the initial training period, none of us were given training regarding what to do in a real sexual assault situation,” said Kenyon. “The truth was, at that point I had to Google what to do when it happened to me.”
Kenyon said she suffers from “severe depression, bouts of insomnia, debilitating memories and thoughts, triggers of all sorts, anger, chattering in my head, and a constant anxiety to the point where I am forced to use all of my concentration to appear normal, which hinders my ability to read, write, have a conversation, or remember things in the short term.”
As Gillibrand noted, anxiety disorders such as PTSD, depression and substance abuse disorders are far more common among military members who’ve experienced sexual trauma than those who haven’t. Yet studies show that the veterans experiencing the symptoms of military sexual trauma are often denied disability benefits by the Department of Veterans Affairs, a discrimination and disregard for their experience that only compounds their PTSD.
“I want to make sure that people aren’t forced to choose between their mental health and the benefits they’ve earned from the U.S. Government,” Gillibrand said.
Still, not every Senator present was convinced that means taking the decision to prosecute sexual assault crimes outside the military chain of command. “What the military is all about, it is the commander’s problem, it is their responsibility, and we expect them to do their job,” said Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham.
Arbogast and Kenyon testified on behalf of countless others as proof that many commanders, sadly, are not doing their job.
“Sexual assault is not an occupational hazard,” Arbogast said. “I decided to join the U.S. Marines to serve my country as an honorable man. Instead I was thrown away like a piece of garbage.”