“The Rape Was Not the Only Problem”

NANGARHAR PROVINCE, Afghanistan — U.S. Army Spc. Devon Boxa from San Angelo, Texas, a member of Company B, 7-158th Aviation Regiment, admires the Afghan landscape out the back door of her CH-47D Chinook helicopter as another Chinook follows.  The choppers were flying from Kabul to Jalalabad Dec. 17.  (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Ken Scar, 7th MPAD)

Rebekah Havrilla was more nervous that morning in Washington, D.C., than she had ever felt in her bomb squad at a U.S. Army forward operating base in eastern Afghanistan. In a combat zone, the Army sergeant could do something, defusing explosives and fighting bad guys and protecting her fellow soldiers. In Washington, she could only wait and worry: Would her first big TV interview blow up in her face, with the whole country watching?

On a Sunday in February 2011, Havrilla spoke on camera to an NBC News correspondent about months of sexual abuse and the rape that ended her promising Army career. She spent two hours detailing what she had endured as the only woman on an ordinance disposal team in a remote area of Afghanistan near the Pakistani border. She had faced months of daily sexual come-ons, groping and slurs from her bomb squad leader. On her final day in the combat zone, a sergeant had overpowered and raped her.

Like dozens of other women who have endured military sexual assault and then entrusted their stories to the media, Havrilla had to explain that her abuse didn’t end after she left active duty in 2008. As the camera rolled, she told how, months after being raped, she ran into her sergeant assailant.  She was standing in a checkout line at a store on the Missouri Army post where she was training as a reservist.  He smiled at her and told her that he’d just been transferred to the post and that she should give him a call. Mortified, Havrilla sought out an Army chaplain, one of the few people she could confide in without the information being shared with her chain of command. She recalls the chaplain flatly telling her that God had willed her rape because she didn’t go to church.  Six months later, several friends alerted her that they had found obscene photos of her on an Internet porn site that solicited naked pictures of military women.  During her assault, as the sergeant who raped her held her down, Havrilla had seen him hold up a camera and take pictures; some of those pictures ended up online.

Havrilla had initially filed a confidential report about the incident and tried to move on. When she saw the pictures on the Internet, she felt compelled to file a formal complaint. That set in motion an Army criminal investigation and more humiliation. She spent months telling and re-telling Army investigators what happened; in one awful four-and-a-half-hour bout of questioning, an investigator brought out downloaded copies of the photos and asked her to explain what was happening in each one. After months of silence an Army investigator told her that the case had been dismissed.

Havrilla wasn’t about to let the larger issue go. She got a degree in psychology, began connecting with other veterans and dove into advocacy work for women in the military. And she signed on as one of 17 plaintiffs in the first of a series of federal lawsuits against former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfield and then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates. The court action alleged that U.S. Department of Defense leadership ignored widespread sexual harassment and abuse. The suit contended that DOD leadership has tolerated an entrenched military culture that condones sexual assaults and harassment, promotes perpetrators and silences and punishes victims, forcing them out of the military.

Havrilla wanted to be involved in litigation targeting what had hurt worst — a culture that she felt continually denied and demeaned her and other women who had volunteered to risk their lives for their country.

“You can talk about the rape, but that’s not the problem,” she said recently. “The problem is that I had to live with an abusive team leader for months. It was about the culture and the betrayal. With my rape, it was the culture that made the act possible.”

Havrilla got a call in February 2011 asking if she might give an interview to NBC for a news story to be aired on the day the lawsuit was filed in a Virginia federal court.

Just before she went on camera, a public relations representative walked her through a mock interview and told her she’d do fine. She recalls only one piece of advice: “He asked if I would take my hoops off. He said we don’t want the audience to focus on your earrings.”

Havrilla would eventually learn that most military sexual assault survivors don’t get even that much preparation or any advice about what might happen after they talk to the media. She would also come to realize she had no clue what she was getting herself into.

*****

That recognition is all too familiar to other military sexual assault survivors who have gone public with their stories. Though stepping into the media spotlight feels as risky as anything they encountered in their military service, they feel compelled to speak out and fight to keep it from happening to other young soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines.  Yet their personal stories and the larger problem that they are trying to expose — what Defense Secretary Leon Panetta recently called a “silent epidemic”– are difficult to reduce to sound bytes and summary paragraphs, as are ongoing efforts to force reforms through the Pentagon, Congress and the courts.

Compounding the problem, say survivors and veterans’ advocates, trauma experts and some journalists, is that reporters and news producers often don’t appreciate that as they push people to share their stories, those who have suffered military sexual trauma may experience everything from anxiety to a full-blown reliving of the horror of what happened.

“I have a lot of horror stories about America’s premier shows,” said former Marine Capt. Anu Baghwati, co-founder and executive director of the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN), a veteran-founded advocacy and policy group. “When you’re in uniform, in the service, you have so little opportunity to express yourself. If something bad happens to you while you are serving, not only are you robbed of an individual voice, you have nowhere to put your feelings. So sometimes the floodgates open if a reporter offers you a microphone. And behind the scenes, we have to pick up the pieces.”

After her first interview, Havrilla had to wait three days for the news report to air. She stayed up for several nights straight playing mind-numbing computer games, unable to quiet the mental loop of all she had and hadn’t said. “I wasn’t expecting that amount of anxiety,” said Havrilla. “I didn’t want to be seen as a victim. And there’s an overwhelming sense of responsibility when you’re not the only one and you’re speaking on behalf of a group of survivors who’ve been marginalized and silenced and systematically put through hell.”

Rebekah Havrilla in Afghanistan (Photo courtesy of Rebekah Havrilla)

She couldn’t watch when the report aired on NBC’s Today Show. Only after her mother assured her that it wasn’t bad could she view it online. The piece began with a somber voice-over accompanying still photos of Havrilla in full battle rattle in the Afghan desert, smiling broadly beneath wrap-around shades.

In those first images, she looked fit, confident and delighted to be in one of the world’s toughest places, in one of the U.S. military’s toughest jobs. In subsequent footage, Havrilla sat in a dark leather conference chair, a serious woman in somber civilian dress warily describing how her combat tour became a horrific ordeal. Her voice carried the slight edge of someone trying hard not to show emotion. Every few seconds, her eyes scanned the room, as if scouting an escape.

For network news, the story occupied major real estate – four minutes of airtime, with Havrilla’s story taking up a quarter of the piece. In her final comment in the 22 seconds she spoke on camera, she told the reporter how she felt when she learned photos of her rape had been put online for strangers to ogle.  What she said also could sum up how she feels about speaking publicly about military sexual assault.  “You want to talk,” she said, her voice rising as she locked eyes with her interviewer, “about being completely and utterly exposed?”

*****

Journalists who have devoted much time to the issue say military sexual assault poses complex questions. In trying to find survivors’ stories that might grab an audience’s attention and illustrate the personal toll of an institutional problem, the line between bearing witness and exploiting misery can be thin. So how to do the journalist’s work of questioning, confirming, and carrying all sides of such stories to the public? How to do it without causing further harm? And in the end, what good do such stories really do?

“It was a much more complex set of issues than I had ever encountered,” said Miles Moffeit. The award-winning investigative reporter spent more than a year reporting on rape in the military for The Denver Post. “It’s hugely tough responding to disasters and other traumatic news events in the immediate aftermath. But in these cases the aftermath often spanned many years and had all these complicated layers, from shattered trust in authority and in men, to severe psychological injuries.”

Havrilla and others who are trying to force changes in military culture contend that media organizations need to consider such questions far more deliberately as they seek out trauma survivors’ stories. “I don’t think there’s a lot of maliciousness. I think it’s a lot of ignorance,” said Havrilla, who now works as SWAN’s case manager. “Even some of your more hurtful, pushy journalists aren’t necessarily malicious. They haven’t even thought about the long-term implications for the population they’re covering. They’re just gunning for a story. It’s go go go, push push push.”

Reporters who push and rush too often get such stories wrong, or don’t get them at all.  For example: A major women’s magazine wrote in March 2012 that former Marine Captain Sarah Plummer, of Denver, was never physically attacked in the military; Plummer had already gone public and even blogged about her rape, just before officer training, by a fellow ROTC student.  When a men’s magazine later proposed a feature story about her, Plummer declined because the reporter pushed too hard. She said his approach had made her feel like she’d be investigated again. For anyone who has endured the pressure of a military justice system in which women who file complaints are often threatened with prosecution, Plummer said, such an approach “is a big red light.” She was also leery because the reporter seemed bent on making the entire Marine Corps the bad guy in his piece. “And I don’t hate the Marine Corps,” she said.

Last May, a national newspaper misreported a story about David Mair, an Air Force rape survivor from upper Michigan.  The paper wrote that Mair’s wife hoped her family would never learn about his 1962 rape.  Mair says he actually told the paper that his wife believed he needed to be the one to tell her relatives.  “My wife read that, and she’s an understanding woman,” he said, “but it ruffled her feathers. It was painful for both of us.”

Terri Odom, a Navy veteran from a St. Louis suburb, said she felt badgered and used after agreeing to an interview last summer with a cable TV show on near-death experiences.  Odom said she was grilled for hours about her 1987 rape, in which she was nearly killed — only to be told by email that her interview wasn’t going to be aired. “I wasn’t what they wanted on camera. I was heavier. I wasn’t blond. I wasn’t blue eyed. I wasn’t young. I wasn’t fresh out of Iraq and Afghanistan,” Odom said. “I want people to know that I’m not a rating or a magazine article. I’m a human being. Something horrible happened to me, and I’m willing to tell my story to put something out there, to make a difference.”

In July, a national TV news network misreported basic facts about Jennifer Norris.  In a live interview, the network introduced Norris, a retired Air Force tech sergeant, as a survivor of four military rapes. In fact, Norris had been raped once and groped or otherwise assaulted by three other perpetrators, but she didn’t feel comfortable correcting the error on the air. “People need to understand the difference between rape, sexual assault and harassment. There are factual and legal differences,” said Norris, who lives in western Maine. “Would you want to be the girl who’s been raped four times, on national television? It’s bad enough being raped once.”

Joanna Wood, a Navy vet from West Texas, was mischaracterized by one newspaper story as a victim of stalking before the second of two rapes. The article also got it wrong in saying that she was beset by homelessness after the attacks.  Her mother was distressed when she read the article, worried that the story’s false claim made it look like her family had abandoned her.

Despite that experience, Wood granted an extensive interview to a national TV news network’s online reporter, only to hear at the last minute that editors had decided not to run her story.  “When I was talking to this reporter, I would get off the phone and I would cry and cry, but I was doing it because it was advocacy. It was for a reason,” she said. “That reporter did an excellent job. She wholeheartedly stepped in. She got down in the mud with me, for the sake of telling the story the right way. And then nothing happened with it. We shared this intimate thing for no reason. … I’m trying to use nicer terms, but it kind of felt like the media were screwing me.”  And like her perpetrators, Wood felt,  the media “weren’t going to be prosecuted, either.”

Rebecca Ruiz, the journalist who interviewed Wood, said she was blindsided by the decision to shelve the story and was horrified to have to tell Wood, particularly after having done last-minute fact-checking with her the previous evening and assuring her that the story was about to run. “I’ll never again talk to someone who’s been a trauma victim and not prepare them for the last-minute possibility that they could be taken out of the story,” Ruiz said.

Ruiz said the experience also was a hard lesson in how media outlets put survivors in a position of feeling like they’re having to prove their stories — a process that can feel uncomfortably reminiscent of what they endured in the military. At the eleventh hour, Ruiz had to ask Wood to produce records to support her account of being raped twice by Navy colleagues. Even though Wood provided documentation, her story was replaced with a summary of another survivor’s story as it had been reported by two independent filmmakers, “hooking” to the news cycle with their just-released documentary about military sexual trauma.

Wood recalls that Ruiz told her management had passed on her story because they ultimately decided the documentation she sent wasn’t enough, and no one from the Pentagon would say anything, even with Wood’s permission. “No shit, I didn’t have a lot of documentation. I didn’t go get raped and track my documentation for publication purposes.”

What gets overlooked or lost altogether in such a process, Wood and other survivors say, is how much the military justice system works against anyone who reports a rape or assault. Wood said she was flatly told at one point that she might be prosecuted for adultery; at other points, she was pressured until she finally signed papers stating that she didn’t want to prosecute her second assailant.

“The military is not like the civilian legal system. If someone is prosecuted and convicted in the military, [the institution] is standing to lose a member of their work force who they’ve spent thousands of dollars training. And when someone is prosecuted, their commander is going to draw some seriously negative attention to themselves,” she said. “I think it’s really important for journalists to understand that culture and what the military stands to lose if they do prosecute.”

Ruiz said her experience with Wood gave her an uncomfortably vivid appreciation of what the reporting process can put survivors through.  “The burden is on the victim,” Ruiz said. “You have to do the work as a journalist to make sure you are working with someone in good faith. If the institutions won’t confirm and the burden is on the victim, how many of these stories are not being told?”

*****

SWAN communications director Katy Otto said she and her colleagues in advocacy routinely field the media’s casting calls.  “I’ve had reporters tell me that ‘This woman is too old,’ or ‘We don’t want to hear about a man who’s been sexually assaulted,’ or ‘This woman was not in combat,’” she said. “A lot of them want someone who was deployed. They want someone who was assaulted in Iraq or Afghanistan. I’ve even had people ask if I could get them a survivor to go on television in 10 minutes.”

Once, Otto said, a reporter declined to use an interview with a lesbian soldier who had been raped “because she thought it would be too confusing.”

Recently, a freelance producer working for a prominent public radio station secretly recorded comments from a panel of military trauma survivors at a SWAN gathering in Washington, D.C., and then posted excerpts from the recording on the Internet. The panel included a prominent veteran who had never before gone public with the personal details of her trauma and did not want them aired.  Otto told the producer and other journalists that the session was not to be recorded or broadcast, yet hours after the event, Otto found the recording on the producer’s station’s website. Otto contacted an editor at the station and, after a flurry of emails, got the recording taken down.

Even when done carefully and sensitively, the reporting process for stories about military sexual trauma can be painful for all involved.  Moffeit, who spent more than a year pursuing a project on the issue while at The Denver Post, said he has never ventured into a bigger emotional minefield. “Especially for the journalist who immerses him or herself, it’s extremely stressful,” said Moffeit.  “You allow yourself to empathize with these women in a number of ways, but then you sometimes end up carrying their pain with you for a long time. I’m lucky I have friends who are therapists.”

*****

Sexual assault in the military is an enormous, entrenched problem. Since the late 1980s, the government has promised reforms and commissioned two dozen government task forces, commissions, studies and reports. Yet the scandals keep coming.  In 1991, at least 83 women were sexually assaulted by Naval aviators at a convention in Las Vegas in what came to be known as the Tailhook scandal.  In 1996, at Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland, 11 Army instructors were convicted or administratively punished for sexually assaulting more than 50 female trainees.  In 2003, a groundswell of complaints about sexual assaults at the Air Force Academy at Colorado Springs, Colo., prompted an independent government commission to call out “a leadership chasm” and “an environment in which sexual assault became part of academy life.”  And in this year’s ongoing Lackland Air Force Base investigation, charges have been brought against 22 basic-training instructors for violations involving nearly 50 women.

Though the military lacks extensive data on the incidence of sexual assaults, the Department of Defense estimates suggest those scandals are only the most public outbreaks of a pervasive problem. In 2011, the Pentagon’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO) recorded 3,192 sexual assaults across military branches in its congressionally-mandated annual report.  A 2010 Defense Department survey estimated 19,000 military-on-military sexual assaults occurred that year, a figure that would amount to more than 52 assaults every day. Yet SAPRO annual reports indicate that fewer than one in five assaults were reported to military authorities. From those reports which commanders concluded involved enough evidence to pursue, only a third went to court martial. And even after courts martial, one in three service members convicted of sex offenses were allowed to stay in the services.

Reporters who’ve delved deeply into the subject voice frustration at how quickly the public and the media seem to forget and how little the military has actually done to put teeth in proclaimed zero-tolerance policies. “What bothers me is the collective amnesia,” said Moffeit, who investigated the issue in 2003 after news broke about sexual assaults at the Air Force Academy. “The military is good at gaming the system. It’s usually ‘more training’. It’s ‘we’re going to appoint a task force.’ Baby steps are made and the same core problems are there.”

Sig Christenson, a longtime military reporter for the San Antonio Express-News, said pressures on journalists and the people they cover intensify when military sexual trauma is the focus of breaking news stories. He did some of the first reports about the Lackland scandal in June 2012 and has since covered the unfolding story.  “We get a lot of bosses who say, ‘We want to talk to more victims,’” Christenson said.  “We’ve had to educate our editors that it’s just not that easy.”  He and his reporting partner have tried to contact women trainees who’ve testified about being coerced into sex or abused by training instructors. So far, none has talked. “And perhaps they shouldn’t, either,” he said.

As with many of the earlier scandals, the women caught up in the Lackland cases are young, and those who have testified have faced intense cross-examination in a court system that is even more protective of defendants’ rights than the civilian justice system.  “Often, you’ll hear that they’re being victimized twice because they have to get up and testify,” Christenson said. “The defense will tear them up.”  If they hope to salvage military careers, the trainees can’t afford to speak publicly. “So when a reporter comes up to them, someone they don’t know and sure as hell don’t trust,” he said, “you don’t have a chance.”

Norris, an Air Force veteran who has spoken to Christenson about being raped by a recruiter when she was 24 and subsequently abused by training supervisors, said that point has often been difficult for reporters to grasp. More than a decade after her attacks, she said, it still stings when reporters ask her why she didn’t go immediately to superiors and report what had happened.  “People outside the military don’t understand the fears associated with being taught that you have to be a good follower,” she said. “Anyone who steps out of line, even to report something like that, you’ve stepped out of the group they’ve created. You want to blend in. You don’t want to stand out whatsoever.

“It is your family,” said Norris, who now works as Maine’s case manager for the Boston-based Military Rape Crisis Center. “If you rat anybody out, even if it’s about rape, you go down.  After I reported two predators, they lost their jobs, but I was a scumbag. And that compounds the PTSD you end up with after being attacked and being exposed to your predator on a daily basis, because you get completely rejected by an entire group of people. Your whole unit turns on you as the bad guy.”

*****

Moffeit said he and his reporting partner in Denver began investigating the issue in the wake of the Air Force Academy scandal and had to fight for the time required to develop survivors’ trust. Their editors “certainly weren’t in the room with these people,” he said, “and didn’t have any clue how difficult it was to navigate that emotional landscape.”

He considered himself lucky to speak early on with a rape crisis center counselor, a rape survivor who had worked with a number of the Air Force Academy cadets who had been sexually assaulted.  “She basically instructed me in how to take these things slowly,” he said. “Patience is just hugely important, and having the victim comfortable with their surroundings.”

He tried to start off his relationships with survivors by having face-to-face conversations. He also made a point of waiting to pull out a notebook. That was “just huge,” for each of the survivors he encountered, he recalled. “They just haven’t had anybody to listen to them.” He and his partner also encouraged survivors to bring friends along to meetings, and they made it clear early on that it was okay to take breaks and wave off questions that felt too difficult.

Speaking to more than 60 survivors, Moffeit said he and his reporting partner saw close-up how the trauma of rape was compounded by a sense of betrayal by a military system and culture.  The people he had spoken to had been taught that they were part of a band of brothers and sisters, so the assaults, coercion and cover-ups by colleagues and superiors felt akin to incest or clergy abuse.  “They saw the military culture as their lifeline, their safety net, a sense of safety and comfort. Once you go through something as traumatic as a rape,” Moffeit said, “the system goes against you. Your whole moral structure turns against you and that tends to exacerbate or intensify the emotional injury.”

Moffeit recalled spending five hours with one woman at a Chili’s restaurant. Her hands shook and she clenched dog tags in one hand the whole time they sat together. Each time she turned a page of the three-ring notebook of documents detailing her attack, the woman froze, overcome with another jolt of shame.

“Her story was horrible. I wanted to use it so badly,” Moffeit acknowledged. “After we met, she would just fade out, and I wouldn’t hear from her for weeks. I knew she was going into counseling.  I had to get on the phone and say you’re obviously not ready for this. I didn’t want to exacerbate her stress.”

With a Marine Corps vet and survivor who became a major subject of his series, Moffeit and his partner worked off and on for six months to understand her story and ensure she was comfortable with the way they wanted to tell it. The veteran, Sally Griffiths of Houston, said the process proved excruciating, even though her rape happened a decade before. She had been a young lance corporal, and an acquaintance had jumped her as they jogged. Though he confessed to raping her, he was ultimately promoted, and she was threatened with prosecution and had to fight for an honorable discharge.

“I was like, ‘I’m a Marine. I can handle this. It’s been 10 years.’ I didn’t expect all the emotions,” she said of her decision to go public. “The powerlessness. The hopelessness. The feeling of betrayal, the secondary trauma every MST survivor goes through, the trauma of them closing ranks.”

To make the process emotionally manageable, she sat for interviews in 10 sessions, in person and on the phone, each lasting anywhere from a half hour to several hours.“[They were] such raw feelings and experiences that she hadn’t shared with anyone,” Moffeit said. “Her voice would crack. There would be really long pauses. … She would just start crying. I would say I don’t want to have you continue. If you want to, take a break. Call me back if you want to.”

Their talks, Griffiths said, reopened terrible memories and spun her into intense bouts of depression and despair. “I don’t know what would’ve happened if Miles had been a jerk. I was going through a severe emotional time; he was able to help me through.”

The story that Moffeit and his partner published helped her feel heard, she said, and that provided a measure of healing. It was particularly helpful that Moffeit confronted her rapist in a way that she never could, she said, calling him and reading aloud the transcript of his long-ago confession and then letting her know how uncomfortable the man had sounded.

The Denver paper also agreed to identify her only by her maiden name, and Griffiths said that was essential to her decision to tell her story; she was an elementary school teacher at the time and couldn’t bear the thought of having to explain what had happened to students and school colleagues and acquaintances.

Moffeit said that sparked an unexpected newsroom skirmish. “Our editors were really pressuring us to use full names,” he said. “We were like no – if we do that, the victims have lost control. They have to have control over the process. And that’s a longstanding position of newspapers, that we don’t name rape victims without their consent.”

After the Denver series was published, a major TV network news show proposed flying Griffiths to New York to tell her story.  Griffiths said she agreed to go after an associate producer promised that the show would use only her maiden name. But when the show aired in February 2005, she was identified by her full, married name. “We were watching it, and I was in shock. That’s how I found out,” she said. “It felt like being betrayed again.”

*****

Havrilla and other survivors say they have had to learn to assess journalists the same way they had to assess fellow soldiers and sailors and airmen and Marines – always keeping their guard up.  Over time, as she granted interviews to outlets ranging from CNN to National Public Radio, MSNBC and The Huffington Post, Havrilla said she gradually learned how to avoid feeling helpless and retain a sense of control over her story. She refused to share it with anyone in the media who seemed too insensitive or too rushed or too focused on salacious details.

Even so, she often felt like she was facing the process exposed and alone. After her first interview, with NBC, she was ushered out with only a brief thank you. “It wasn’t even – do you need a friend to talk to?” Havrilla said. “I was on camera for hours, and they shook my hand and said thank you for telling us that. That was a very tough story. … Then they put me in a cab, told me I did a great job, and I go home by myself.”

As she did more interviews, she realized that was the norm. So she learned to pose questions to reporters early on:  To what end would her story or the story of other survivors be told? And what kind of emotions were they aiming to evoke?  If they wanted pity, she didn’t want any part.

“Sometimes I feel like a god-damned zoo exhibit, like an art exhibit,” she said. “So it gets to the point of, okay, what can I get out of this? Okay, if you’re an art exhibit, where do you want to have your art exhibit shown? And how do you want to be displayed?”

She works to achieve emotional distance. “I can suck you in and you’ll go away feeling everything,” she told me one night in mid-October as we talked in a Brooklyn restaurant. “You’ll feel all these feelings, and I don’t feel anything.”  Yet talking obviously takes her back and takes a toll. As we sat in a Manhattan diner the next morning, Havrilla shifted quickly from relaxed and even jokey to visibly tense. The more she spoke about the indifference and harassment she endured from fellow soldiers, the more her eyes scanned the room. When I mentioned to her that she appeared to be on full alert and was visually sweeping the restaurant for potential threats, she nodded in recognition. “When I do get into a lot of this stuff, I do get a lot of mental images. There are a lot of pictures,” she said quietly, “snippets and flashes of pictures or feelings. They don’t last.”

I asked if she needed a break, and she paused, but shook her head and continued, talking about her worst days in Afghanistan.

“The hardest thing for me to talk about is the concept of betrayal,” she said. “We didn’t have to be friends. They didn’t have to like me. But these were the people who were supposed to have my back. And they are the ones who caused the most harm.”

Even for a woman who once dismantled bombs for a living and now referees roller-derby games for fun, media interactions remain a challenge. There are still too many encounters, she says, like one she had with a producer for a prominent talk show that wanted to do an hour-long feature on women veterans. They talked extensively, until the producer abruptly announced he had decided not to use Havrilla’s story.  “[He] told me I wasn’t going to be on the show because my rape wasn’t bad enough,” she said.  “Too many times, it’s not about the issue. It’s about the ratings.”

She and other veterans’ advocates say such callousness isn’t uncommon. They contend that journalists need to give far more careful thought to unintended consequences of what they say as they interact with survivors and take equal care with what they publish, post or air.

Havrilla said she didn’t consider that stories about her would stay online indefinitely, a kind of permanent record available to anyone who Googled her name. She learned that the hard way, soon after moving to New York to join SWAN’s staff. About two weeks after she arrived, an acquaintance at a neighborhood bar quipped that she was acting the way she was because she’d been raped.  Stunned, Havrilla quickly figured out that the man had Googled her name and found stories about her military experiences.

“That’s something I had never thought about, that people could know more about me than I would ever be willing to tell them,” she said. “People forget that at the end of all this, we are still individuals who are going to be affected by these stories long term. The fact is, nobody tells these people what can happen.”

Above all, Havrilla and other survivors and advocates say, journalists must be more sensitive to how much their coverage can trivialize or elevate discussion of the issue. They want the media to recognize how their stories about military sexual trauma can exploit already traumatized individuals if done wrong and can shed light on the need for sweeping reform if done with compassion and care.

“People need to remember that at the heart of all of this are individuals who volunteered to serve and suffered for it and are still affected,” Havrilla said. “For those of us who get involved in telling our stories, it’s about regaining some element of control and saying, ‘This crappy stuff happened to me, but I’m going to do something to help keep this from happening to other people.’ ”

Cover Photo: Afghanistan Landscape (The U.S. Army/Creative Commons)

About the Author

Lee Hancock started her journalism career at the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., and the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss. She then spent 24 years at the Dallas Morning News, covering many of the biggest local and international news stories, including the Branch Davidian siege, the Oklahoma City bombing and the Haitian earthquake, among others. She also wrote several narrative series at the paper, including an award-winning series on prenatal hospice. Lee has won awards from The Associated Press Media Editors, the Texas Headliners, Texas Associated Press Managing Editors, Gannett and various legal and medical associations. She is currently in the MFA program in creative nonfiction at Bennington College.

We welcome your comments