Next Governor Must Speed Healing and Justice for Sexual Assault Victims in the Alaska National Guard
By JAKE CHAPMAN
Alaska Dispatch News
Jake Chapman is an Army combat veteran who now works in mental health and maintains a professional interest in military traumas. He is currently a doctoral student in University of Alaska’s Clinical-Community Psychology Program.
OPINION: Neither healing nor justice will come to the Alaska National Guard if the sexual assault scandal is only an election issue.
With a contested governor’s election just behind us, it’s been almost impossible to drive to work without hearing the latest updates on the Alaska National Guard (ANG) sexual assault scandal. As both a combat veteran and a mental health professional, I am outraged that it ultimately took an election campaign's attack ads to bring these issues to the attention of those in power to change them, especially so many years after the whistle was blown. But everyone is finally paying attention, so how do we improve things?
Perhaps some information on the psychology of trauma would help. One common model suggests that most people suffer immediately after traumatic events but will naturally recover on their own over time. But some reach a "stuck point" in how they think about things, which blocks this natural healing process, so their suffering progresses into post-traumatic stress disorder. To illustrate, estimates indicate that between 80 percent and 89 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan combat veterans do not have PTSD even after experiencing combat traumas.
To give an example, imagine a female soldier who has the belief that being in the military means you can depend on your fellow soldiers to have your back. One major focus of basic training is developing exactly that culture. Suppose that this female soldier also believes that there is justice in the world.
Now let’s assume that she is one of the 37 percent of Alaska women, slightly higher than 1 in 3, who experience sexual assault. Or that she is among the 1 in 4 female service members who report military sexual trauma, an event unfortunately so common that mental health had to give a special term to it.
These statistics make it clear that sexual assault is a harsh reality that the ANG must be prepared to address.
But let’s imagine a poor response when she speaks out against her perpetrator. Assuming the perpetrator denies the accusation, the investigation and prosecution will take time. Meanwhile, individuals within the unit are likely to take sides, with some flocking to the defense of the accused perpetrator. This can easily become varying forms of attacks against the victim. It is easy to see how this sort of scandal represents a major and immediate crisis to soldier safety and unit cohesion, which in turn threatens mission readiness.
I cannot speak to the ANG, but within the active duty Army, this crisis is often resolved by reassigning the sexual assault survivor to a different unit, often on a completely different base. This is done for their own protection, especially if a perpetrator is in their chain of command or other position of power over them. So imagine having your entire life uprooted, on top of the other social repercussions you now face, all because you dared to ask for justice after you were raped. This response essentially resolves the immediate crisis by punishing the victim.
It obviously takes courage for the sexually assaulted soldier to step forward and seek that justice. So imagine that after she does, it gets neatly swept under the rug -- if after enduring all that in search of justice, our female soldier is the only one punished while her perpetrator continues to do well. What does it mean for her beliefs in justice and the honor of the service? The trauma becomes more than just the sexual assault that started everything. It also means waking up every day believing what happened to you is acceptable and is happening to all those other 1 out of 3 female soldiers. That can become a stuck point in the natural healing process.
Now compare this to a situation in which our female soldier is assaulted, and the perpetrator is removed while he awaits trial. Meanwhile, her unit comes together to provide her support. In this scenario, something bad still happened, and it would be abnormal for her not to suffer from it. But in the long term, she wakes up every day with some degree of closure as well as faith in our system of justice. This lower dosage of stress can even act as an inoculation, making her more resilient against future traumas.
I hope it is becoming clear how the way the command chooses to respond to traumatic events can have a profound impact on the recovery and mental health of survivors of sexual assault. How we structure these systemic responses might also have an impact on whether future survivors feel safe enough to seek justice, which in turn can influence whether or not would-be perpetrators will think they can get away with committing the assaults.
I fear that this issue will be forgotten now that the election has ended. So while we have public attention on this very important issue -- which is larger than just the ANG's currently publicized scandal -- let’s make policy changes to address it. I do not expect any easy fix for this complex problem but I also see opportunity to use the current public attention and outrage to create constructive change for those who serve. It is my hope that as the last votes are counted, whoever wins the governor’s race will understand his somber and urgent duty to do everything he can to help those serving under him in our National Guard.