The Department of Veterans Affairs announced it will open a facility this December to provide counseling exclusively to female veterans who have been the victims of sexual abuse or assault.
The treatment center, which will house 10 patients in Bernards Township, N.J., opens amid increased reports of rape and harassment by women serving in the military, and increased attention to the problem of military sexual trauma, or MST, by the VA.
According to the VA, there are currently 15 federally funded programs nationwide that treat both men and women for psychological ailments related to MST, which could include depression, withdrawal and thoughts of suicide.
The New Jersey facility, as first reported by the Star Ledger, will be the first and only residential program that treats women. Currently, six of the 15 national programs counsel women exclusively, but only on an outpatient basis.
"The VA wanted to make it known that it has specific facilities for women only, so if there are women who want to address this problem, and don't want to be near men, they have a place to go," said Susan McCutcheon, the VA's national director for military sexual trauma programs.
Since 2002, the VA has screened all discharged military personnel for MST, asking them if they have been the recipients of uninvited sexual attention, or the victims of assault. In total, more men than women — 63,467 men versus 62,448 women — have reported sexual trauma, but that figure represents just 1 percent of all men surveyed, compared to 29 percent of women, according to the VA.
By those figures, nearly one in three women in the military is at risk for sexual assault, twice as many as in the general population, according to Pentagon statistics.
"Sexual assault is the nation's most underreported violent crime. Some national studies indicate that one in six women, and one in 33 men will experience a rape or attempted rape in their lifetime," said Cynthia Smith, a Defense Department spokesperson.
While the VA says it has seen little change in the number of veterans reporting MST since 2002, the Pentagon has recorded a marked increase in the number of reported instances of harassment and assault by active duty personnel in the past two years.
According to the Defense Department's 2006 sexual assault report, the number of reported assaults skyrocketed 73 percent from 2004 — when 1,700 incidents were filed — to 2006, when 2,947 incidents were reported.
The military attributes the increase in incidents to an increase in reporting. According to the Pentagon report, "Programs to promote awareness, coupled with extensive training on policies and procedures, are creating a climate of confidence across the services, as evidenced by increased reporting."
According to Ira Katz, a VA psychiatrist, "Looking at MST often overlaps with treatments and therapies for [post-traumatic stress disorder]."
Katz said that the VA's program differs from state-run programs because the federal government employs "more experienced clinicians."
Groups that advocate for servicewomen who have been assaulted — as well as some of the veterans themselves — however, say the VA has been slow to taking MST seriously.
Valerie Cortazzo, a Navy vet who served from 1981 to 1987, said she was assaulted by three different individuals during her service, and was routinely extorted for sex by a superior for three years.
Though she left the Navy 20 years ago, Cortazzo, now 44, said she still has flashbacks of those attacks, and has found the VA's programs wanting in her hometown of Pittsburgh, Pa.
"Three months ago, I started having flashbacks and went to the VA. I asked them for group therapy, but they don't have anything for women that have gone through this. They say there isn't a need," she said.
Cortazzo added that when she would go to the VA for therapy, she was often treated by inexperienced psychology interns, and not trained psychiatrists. She said she thinks often about the master chief who extorted sex from her for years, and how it has "impacted the relationship with my husbands, and my self-esteem."
Twenty years later, Cortazzo still regrets not reporting the incidents.
"There is a lot of second guessing. Why didn't I report it? I felt weak because I didn't do anything about it. For a long time, I thought I was a bad person," she said.
Anita Sanchez, director of communications for the Miles Foundation, an organization that advocates for sexually assaulted female veterans, said the VA needs more experienced personnel and inpatient facilities like the one planned for New Jersey.
She said a number of states have implemented their own programs to treat women who have been traumatized, because, despite congressional directive, the VA and Defense Department have been slow to act.
"We exist because the federal government hasn't done enough," Sanchez said. "The Senate Armed Services has recognized there are not enough services available, and the VA has been authorized since the early 1990s to create sexual trauma counseling centers, but the Defense Department is only now calling for proposals."