At the training session, Rebekah Havrilla presents some sobering statistics.
She tells her audience that the Department of Defense estimates that more than 26,000 service members were sexually assaulted in 2012, and that only about 3,374 of those rapes were reported. In 2011, she says, a mere 8 percent of 3,192 reported sexual assaults went to trial. This last figure sends a message to perpetrators that they can rape and get away with it, she says.
“Trauma takes its toll on people in different ways,” explained Havrilla, who lives in New York City.
A mix of veterans, service providers and government officials attended the training session Thursday at Empire State College, which was sponsored by the Saratoga County Veterans Peer to Peer Mentoring Program.
Created in January using a $200,000 state grant, the program matches older veterans with returning veterans who are experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder or other challenges related to being home again. The idea is to provide extra support and guidance that can help ease the transition from combat to civilian life.
“Young men and women come home, and they have no support system,” said Amy Hughes, who coordinates the mentoring program. “They need to figure out how to go from handling multimillion-dollar pieces of equipment to going to Stewart’s to buy milk.”
Hughes said military sexual trauma is a big issue for female veterans, as well as male veterans, and that it’s “critical that we provide our mentors with as much training as we can.” She said she’s been surprised by the prevalence of military sexual trauma among veterans.
“This is clearly a critical issue, and one as veterans and providers that we need to be aware of,” Hughes said in her opening remarks at the training session. “I quickly realized that the impact of this issue is far greater than anything I could have imagined.”
The term military sexual trauma is used by the Department of Veterans Affairs to refer to sexual assault or repeated, threatening acts of sexual harassment and the problems that can result, which include trouble sleeping, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety disorders, and physical problems such as chronic pain and numbness.
Amy Clinton is the director of grants and public policy at the United Way of the Greater Capital Region, and a military veteran, having served in the Army between 1985 and 1991. She said she attended the training session for two reasons: out of personal interest, and because United Way serves veterans through its member organizations.
“I’d like to see how all of us, as community members, can assist veterans,” Clinton said. “There is a big need. We have a large veteran population.” She said she’s worked with female veterans in Albany who have “harrowing stories to tell.”
Linda Frank, who directs Empire State College’s Office of Veteran and Military Education, estimated that the school serves about 2,000 military members, veterans and spouses — a number that has surged since the Post-9/11 GI Bill went into effect in 2008.
Frank said the training session “raises awareness about some of the challenges our students face. It gives staff good insight. The majority of our veteran students don’t have any issues at all, but sometimes we do get phone calls or questions, and I think it will be helpful to know more about what they might be dealing with.”
The Saratoga County Veterans Peer to Peer Mentoring Program was one of four created in the state. Rensselaer County also received funding to create a peer mentoring program, as did Jefferson and Suffolk counties.
So far, the Saratoga County program has trained 16 mentors, and has seven more veterans awaiting training. Hughes said the goal is to have 30 trained mentors by next spring. Most of the mentors are Vietnam-era veterans, but some served in the Gulf War, she said.
Mentors will help returning veterans with a number of matters, such as job hunting, family life and education.
Older veterans can relate to younger veterans in a way that those without a military background cannot, said Penny Coleman, who coordinates Empire State College’s graduate certificate program in veteran services.
“People have a really hard time talking to someone who doesn’t know what they’re talking about,” Coleman said.
The sole female member of an all-male task force, Harvrilla was raped by a fellow service member while serving in Afghanistan. The biggest challenge to overcome, she said, was “the betrayal of the people I was with. The people closest to me are the ones that did the most harm. That was the hardest thing to get over.”
After Havrilla left the Army, she said she was homeless and unemployed for about two years, bouncing from state to state in search of a job and drinking too much. What turned her life around, she said, was finding employment.
A native of South Carolina, Havrilla attained the rank of sergeant and served as an explosive ordnance disposal technician between 2004 and 2008 in the Army, and in the Army Reserve between 2008 and 2010. In May, she completed a graduate certificate program in veterans services from Empire State College.
In recent years, Havrilla has emerged as a vocal advocate for female veterans.
She has worked for the Service Women’s Action Network, a national organization that lobbies for the rights of female veterans, and has spoken before the Senate Armed Services Committee’s subcommittee on personnel, sharing the details of her rape and treatment when she attempted to get help.
She testified that when she sought assistance from an Army chaplain, he told her “the rape was God’s will” and advised her to go to church.