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Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Hudson veteran speaks about her own sex assault in the military, wants victims to know they are not alone

HUDSON – Toward the end of her 20-year career, U.S. Army veteran Judy Atwood-Bell remembers how it became too painful for her to don her military uniform. Wearing the clothing brought back so many painful memories.

“It made me feel like I was being raped,” she said. ...

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HUDSON – Toward the end of her 20-year career, U.S. Army veteran Judy Atwood-Bell remembers how it became too painful for her to don her military uniform. Wearing the clothing brought back so many painful memories.

“It made me feel like I was being raped,” she said.

Atwood-Bell, 51, who now lives in Hudson, was sexually assaulted when she was 19 in the early 1980s. She said he was a Green Beret she met at a club. He invited her back to his barracks room at Fort Devens in Massachusetts. She said no to his advances, but that didn’t change what happened next.

“He was in Special Forces,” she said. “I feared for my life.”

Atwood-Bell’s story is similar to many women placed into such terrifying, life-altering scenarios while serving in the military. Sitting comfortably in her home, with the issue of military sexual assault playing out on a national scale with more allegations against military officials coming to light and pending legislation moving forward in Congress, Atwood-Bell refers to her experience as a “situation.”

“There are really some honorable things about the military, and one is how they teach you to work together as a team, to really be there for one another,” she said. “That really plays a role into this entire situation.”

Extensive problem

On Thursday, the third high-profile case in the last two weeks came out in the national media, when yet another sexual assault prevention officer was charged with sexual misconduct, bringing even more attention to a problematic culture that persists in the military.

According to reports from the U.S. Department of Defense, an estimated 19,000 cases of sexual assault occurred in the military in 2011, and only about 3,200 of those were investigated. In 2012, that number of investigations has increased 3,400 cases, while total estimates of sexual assaults have ballooned to 26,000. These numbers were attained through a small sampling however, analysts say, so the exact numbers are still not known.

And while women are the primary victims of sexual assault, it’s a reality for some men as well.

A defense department study titled Health-Related Behaviors Survey of Active Duty Military Personnel found that 21.7 percent of women had experienced “unwanted sexual contact ... since joining the military, by someone in the military.”

The comparable percentage for men experiencing unwanted sexual contact was 3.3 percent by a member of the military.

Several New Hampshire politicians on both sides of the aisle have advocated for change within the country’s armed forces, which comes just around the time a
highly-anticipated documentary on the subject, titled “The Invisible War,” premiered on PBS.

Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte is pushing her own piece of legislation, with Washington Sen. Patty Murray, to provide support to victims of sexual assault in the military, while Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen requested all sexual prevention officers in the military received an extensive screening and interview process before given the position.

Atwood-Bell said she has actually been pleased to see so many stories coming out, with more people coming forward to share their experiences. In her mind, sexual assault in the military has been an ongoing problem that extends at least back to the 1970s, and some politicians say it may go as far back as to President George Washington’s time.

“The more I have spoken out, the stronger I have gotten,” she explained. “I have healed faster than I ever imagined. With everything that is coming out, I have been getting more and more pissed off and it may sound strange, but I’m happy all this stuff is coming up here, here and here, because it’s proving our point, on a continuous basis. What we’re saying is it has to change.”

Choosing to serve

When Atwood-Bell was 16, living in an impoverished household in Corning, N.Y., she worried for her future. She didn’t realize in 1978 that scholarships were available to students in her financial predicament, so she went to a recruitment office instead. After passing an aptitude test with flying colors, she approached her mother with papers to sign off on her enlistment. Her mother didn’t stop her, and Atwood-Bell took off, one week after her 17th birthday.

“I was looking for substance,” she said.

Atwood-Bell said she remembers shortly after that, how superior drill sergeant at basic training in California made sexual advances at her. He said if she was missing her boyfriend from back home, maybe he could help.

“I was like, ‘Oh my God.’ I totally wasn’t expecting that,” she said. “Your sergeant is your mother. Your first sergeant is like your grandfather. The general is like God. That’s just how it feels … You’re very dependent on the chain of command.”

Though Atwood-Bell moved on from the training program, and began shaping her career next in Massachusetts, then overseas in Korea and then in Maryland. Wherever she was stationed, she received relentless sexual harassment “for about three solid years” from her colleagues. She remembered being interrupted in talks with her male counterparts with sexually suggestive jokes. She remembers being teased aggressively simply because she was a woman.

In the early 1980s, an equal opportunity program was sweeping through the departments, to afford women like Atwood-Bell some kind of relief, but she said that was of no help either. The guys didn’t take it seriously and it became the butt of other hurtful jokes.

And all the while,
Atwood-Bell never reported her rape at Fort Devens.

“I buried it. I continued in the military and I did not realize what was going on, as far as I didn’t understand what was going on in my head,” she said.

Years later, Atwood-Bell would find out she developed post-traumatic stress disorder from her rape as a teenager. She attempted suicide twice and said she had a series of failed romantic relationships. She left active duty after 10 years to join the Army Reserves and worked for the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, or “VA” as it’s called, in Connecticut. There she fell deeper into depression.

‘You are not alone’

Atwood-Bell says her time in the military, exactly 20 years and two days, was a time of survival.

“I was just surviving. I wanted to stay in the military. I was proud of being in the military,” she said. “But it’s kind of like a dichotomy, like, you’re proud of being in, but then this happens.”

Atwood-Bell went on to work several jobs in civilian life, including as a hospice worker. She met her husband, Charles Bell, who embraced her past and supported her through her therapy – 15 years in total.

Today Atwood-Bell faces a different challenge where her PTSD is not accepted by the military as a legitimate diagnosis. She is now unable to collect retirement disability from the VA, let alone a pension.

“When a service member leaves the military and is injured, the VA has promised to take care of its own soldiers...,” Atwood-Bell explained. “When you are raped and you have military sexual trauma, you’re supposed to have some type of evidence.”

She said she has reached out to New Hampshire Congresswoman Annie Kuster for help, who spoke of the large increase in reported sexual assault numbers earlier this month on the House of Representatives’ floor. She shared Atwood-Bell’s story.

“These numbers are staggering – but they’re more than just statistics,” Kuster said at that time. “Behind every number is the story of a member of our armed services who stepped forward to serve our country. ... Our military leadership, the chain of command, and the VA failed to protect Judy and thousands of victims like her who suffered sexual assault. We owe it to Judy – and every other survivor – to come together in a bipartisan manner to confront this epidemic head-on.”

Atwood-Bell now works as an advocate for others with the Military Rape Crisis Center and has partnered with Kuster to change the circumstances that plague her and other victims. Atwood-Bell says her written claims are “collecting dust on a desk somewhere,” where her filing has been pending for two years.

According to U.S. Medicine, the VA says since 1992 it has been developing programs to monitor sexual trauma screening and treatment. Officials there say they don’t feel the pending legislation is necessary to solve their problems. The department also reports approximately one in five women, and one in 100 men, admit to being sexually traumatized while serving in the military.

Maine Rep. Chellie Pingree has sponsored a bill known as the Ruth Moore Act, which would take the burden off of sexual assault victims to prove their case for compensation, insurance and other support.

Other legislators are advocating for the investigations reports of sexual assaults to be taken out of the hands of chief officers and instead given to military attorneys to review and prosecute. In “The Invisible War,” victims said they feel their cases are not fairly pursued because they’re reporting to authorities closely tied to the system. Atwood-Bell says from her own experiences, it’s a case of “sweeping it under the rug.”

With all of these matters up for discussion, Atwood-Bell says she is hopeful for what’s to come.

“We’re going to our congressmen. We’re going to our senators. We are getting our needs known,” she said. “They hear us. They listen to us and they advocate for us on the hill.”

And as a message to those in need, Atwood-Bell wants those out there to know there are advocates and organizations they can reach out to for help.

“You’re not alone,” she said. “You can get better. You don’t have to live like this, with the PTSD. You can get better and there are so many people that are out there. … We have made changes and we’re making more.”

Samantha Allen can be reached at 594-6426 or sallen@nashua
telegraph.com. Also follow Allen
on Twitter (@Telegraph_SamA).