Remarks by Secretary Denis R. McDonough - Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs
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Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Secretary Denis R. McDonough

Military Sexual Trauma Training Symposium
Washington, DC
April 27, 2021

Tom Murphy, thanks for that kind introduction and for giving me this opportunity to join you today.

Cheryl Rawls and Umar Awan, thanks to you and your great team for doing the hard work of bringing us together for this important symposium.

I want to tell you a story. This is the story of a young woman from Wisconsin, a Veteran.

Her name is Jenn. Jenn joined the Army when she was 17 years old—had to get her Mom’s permission and signature.

Think about that. Jenn’s mom signed those papers to turn her over to the Army and to this nation. She entrusted her daughter to this nation so that Jenn could defend us and our Constitution. Here’s what happened when Jenn got to basic training—in her own words:

“I had my basic training in Fort Jackson, South Carolina. Basic was intimidating and scary. I started having some physical problems and went to see the sick call doctor on the base. He sexually assaulted me during the physical evaluation. Luckily, he left marks on me, and I hit him and left marks on him. When I was able to escape, I ran back to the bay where we were stationed and hid in the bathroom. I was missing half my layers of clothing and my shoes.

“My battle buddy came looking for me, found me, and I told her what happened. She told the drill sergeant what had happened. . . . After the assault they asked me if I wanted to get out of the military. I said, ‘If I can get through what just happened, I can handle the rest of bootcamp.’ . . . I realized during that time that I was a stubborn individual. I knew there were people who thought I couldn’t do it, and I was going to prove them wrong.”

This is just one of her experiences. Jenn deployed to Kosovo for 16 months and served as the Equal Opportunity coordinator. She remembers that “every single female was sexually harassed in some way,” and many rapes, when reported, were not processed due to retaliation against servicemembers. In fact, she faced retribution for advocating on behalf of the victims.

Here’s how Jenn describes that painful reality.

“I came back from Kosovo in the Fall of 2007 and went back to college. I started processing the emotions that I wasn’t able to let myself feel when I was deployed. My grades dropped. I started sleeping 20 hours a day. I didn’t know that’s what was happening. I just knew that I was in trouble. I wanted to kill myself. I wanted to die.”

Her experience is not unique. There are thousands of Jenn’s out there whose stories are never told, who never reach out for help. In fact, the numbers are staggering. The fact is that one in three women and one in 50 men report experiencing MST when screened by a VA health care provider.

But let’s think about those numbers in a different way. Think about a Veteran who has lost a leg or an arm in combat. There’s an expectation that people will be wounded in combat. But that expectation isn’t one in three. Can you imagine going into combat and having one in three casualties—33 percent of the organization suffering from casualties or lifelong injuries?

But when it comes to military sexual trauma of Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines and Coastguardsmen, that’s what we’re talking about.

One in three women. One in 50 men.

Being assaulted by a fellow servicemember is worse. Here’s why. They’re not supposed to be attacked in an institution they volunteered to serve. Many of them, whether in combat zones or in garrison, were totally vulnerable, among people with whom they should have been totally safe.

They signed up to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic. They never imagined the enemy would be domestic, be a brother- or sister-in-arms. And they were willing to expose themselves to danger, willing to lay down their lives if necessary, to fulfill their obligation and duty.

What they didn’t sign up for was to be sexually assaulted or sexually harassed by the very people in whom they placed the greatest trust.

We typically think of the people wounded in combat  with great honor. We talk about their courage, about their resiliency, about their patriotism. They receive Purple Hearts—a medal worn with pride for the visible wounds we can see.

There are no ceremonies honoring this wounding, sexual assault. There is no honor associated with being sexually assaulted, and there are no accolades for being violated. Rather, it’s a wounding that brings shame, a sense of dishonor. All that leaves these victims with very different feelings—of being alone, of being betrayed, of being used and abused.

But there is tremendous valor and courage in their struggle. When you think about courage, it takes a hell of a lot of courage to come forward and let people know that you’ve been injured by sexual trauma, to talk about those invisible wounds that people can’t see.

There’s nothing more precious than our dignity as human beings. And sexual trauma violates people’s humanity and dignity. It can be a dehumanizing experience. It can undercut their pride. It can erode their self-esteem. It can destroy their confidence. It may very well cause them to question their value as human beings. It can rob them of their will to live.

I know you know the one in three. I know you know the one in 50. I know you know there is an MST Coordinator at every VA Medical Center to serve as a point person to ensure survivors get the right treatment and the right care, and at every VA Regional Office to offer those filing claims a trained specialist to guide them through the process of applying for benefits.

I know you know that VA has moved the needle forward in how we process claims and take care of our survivors. The data shows real, measurable improvements since we started processing MST claims almost 20 years ago.

And, I know you know that DoD shares our deep commitment to preventing sexual assault against our servicewomen and servicemen. Our collaborations focus on increasing diversity in leadership positions and improving how leaders advocate for victims, address the widespread problem, and hold accountable those who sexually  assault or harass others.

In fact, Kayla Williams, our Assistant Secretary for Public and Intergovernmental Affairs, is serving as a member of the DoD Independent Review Commission on Sexual Assault in the Military. It’s a diverse committee of experts focused on the next steps forward in preventing military sexual harassment and assault, increasing accountability, and improving victim care and support. And while DoD is focused on preventing sexual assault, we must do our part to improve services and support for survivors of sexual trauma.

From my perspective, placing the highest priority on addressing sexual assault is the right thing to do. Military Sexual Trauma is an unacceptable problem. And more meaningful change is needed to ensure that we honor our commitment to the Veterans we serve.

President Biden has said that our country’s most sacred obligation is to prepare and equip our troops whom we send in harm’s way and care for them and their families when they return home. There’s no more sacred obligation nor noble undertaking than to uphold our promises to our Veterans, and that includes our Veterans who’ve endured and suffered from military sexual trauma. I’m honored President Biden chose me to join you and so many others in that noble mission.

Let me tell you the rest of Jenn’s story.

She writes, “Luckily, I was living a short distance from a VA hospital and I started going there nightly to sit and feel safe. There was an on-call social worker there and she would talk to me. It didn’t really feel like therapy. She just let me talk. I’d come here and tell my story to her. Over and over. She saved my life.

“I got my undergraduate degree in Psychology and my Masters’ degree in May of 2013. My goal was to get a job working for the VA . . . I know how important it is to have someone else who has been there too. I also know how long it can take to heal.”

Here’s why Jenn’s story is so powerful. It reminds us that every interaction a survivor has with VA staff conveys something, and that something has the potential to help or harm. How VBA connects Veterans with benefits helps and being sensitive to how the process impacts Veterans helps.

We’ve got to understand what the pain-points might be and do what is necessary to be sensitive to those issues while working hard to complete necessary and beneficial outreach. And you know that outreach helps with the timely processing of claims, reducing the backlog, and reducing errors in the process.

Every aspect of the process is to improve the Veteran’s experience. Those are powerful beneficial things that VBA can do that can make a huge difference. That’s why it’s important we get it right and improve upon processes wherever necessary and keep those best practices.

And that’s why you’re here today, to improve upon those best practices so that our vital mission of helping our Veterans recover and move forward occurs.

You’re here to ensure that when MST survivors like Jenn come to VA they are met with compassion and are treated with dignity and respect. you’re here to learn “Trauma-Sensitive Interactions and Communication,” training that may help others like Jenn have better endings to their stories.

What greater gift can you give to someone?

You’re giving them hope. You’re making sure that their stories—and their outcomes—have a better ending. You’re helping them access benefits that open the door to care and resources that they desperately need, resources that they may not ever find on their own.

Just like the social worker did for Jenn, you’re helping men and women get back in touch with their humanity and helping them restore their dignity. You’re bearing a burden that many people would not want to bear. But you’re bearing it with your own dignity, your own grace, and your own humanity.

There’s no more noble profession than working at the Department of Veterans Affairs. There’s no more noble endeavor than helping our Veterans who have suffered MST reestablish their dignity, their pride, their self-esteem. There’s no more important work than what you’re being trained to perform.

Thanks for all you will do in the future serving our Veterans. My deep thanks to all of you.

May God bless our Veterans, their families, caregivers, and survivors. And may we always give them our very best.