Sexual abuse in military is old problem, study says Female vets surveyed at Baltimore hospital

November 15, 1996|By Lisa Respers | Lisa Respers,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers Tom Bowman and Scott Shane contributed to this article.

Reports by female veterans of rape and sexual abuse are "disturbingly common," a study of patients at a Baltimore veterans hospital has found -- evidence that the problems have plagued the military for decades.

Nearly 60 percent of the several hundred women surveyed at the Baltimore Veterans Affairs Medical Center said they suffered some sort of physical or sexual abuse while on active duty. About a third of those who said they were subjected to physical or sexual abuse said their attackers were fellow soldiers, sailors or fliers.

"The report proves that there's a long-standing and systemic problem, irrespective of service branch," said Rep. Patricia Schroeder, a Colorado Democrat.

Pentagon officials, who received a copy of the report yesterday, had yet to read it and declined to comment.

The Baltimore study -- published in the journal Military Medicine -- comes as Aberdeen Proving Ground and other Army training facilities have been rocked by female recruits' allegations of rape, harassment and sexual misconduct by military trainers.

The study covered a much smaller group than a 1995 Department of Defense survey that questioned 13,600 women about sexual harassment over the previous 12 months. Of that group, 4 percent reported actual or attempted rapes or assaults.

The Baltimore study also covered a much broader time period, with some of the incidents stretching back years.

Despite the high rate of abuse alleged by female veterans -- and the recent spate of news stories on sexual misconduct in the Army -- the Baltimore study said the percentage of women reporting abusive incidents while on active duty has decreased among those entering the military since 1981. That may reflect "the sensitization to sexual abuse and harassment," the study said.

Health professionals at the Baltimore center surveyed 429 female veterans of all services who had been treated there during the last six months of 1994.

"In the course of our research, we found a prevalent feeling among women that if you report it you are never going to get advancement and you're not going to get the good field assignments," said Andrea S. Van Horn, a nurse practitioner at the center and co-author of the study. "These women are scared."

According to the Baltimore study, the highest rates of abuse while on active duty were reported by women who entered the military from 1974 to 1981. Forty-four percent of that group reported physical abuse while on active duty, 47 percent reported sexual abuse and 25 percent reported being raped.

Survey authors said the rates of abuse are higher than for women generally. Previous research has shown that as many as 80 percent of women in male-dominated professions report abuse or harassment, the study said.

Georgia C. Sadler, a retired Navy captain who studies women in the military at the Women's Research and Education Institute in Washington, cautioned that the women who answered the survey were probably not representative of all female veterans.

"They surveyed women who've gone to the VA because they have a problem," she said. "Some may be there because of trauma resulting from being raped."

Moreover, she noted, only half of the 800 women surveyed responded, and those who had been assaulted were probably the most likely to respond.

At the same time, Sadler noted, the Department of Defense survey found that, depending on how the question was asked, 4 percent to 6 percent of women in the military said they had been the victim of an actual or attempted sexual assault in the previous 12 months. If a woman stays in the service for several years, she said, the cumulative percentage who were assaulted at some time might be higher.

Van Horn and her colleagues decided to survey female veterans from World War II to the present after noticing symptoms consistent with rape and abuse victims among patients treated at the center's women's health clinic.

Symptoms include flashbacks, inability to sleep and stress-related physical problems, she said.

By late yesterday afternoon, a victim's hot line set up by Aberdeen officials had received 3,646 calls, with 459 deemed by investigators to warrant further investigation. Of those calls, 96 related to Aberdeen and 363 related to other military sites.

"As long as there is the presence of the power and control the alleged perpetrator has over them, there is going to be that vulnerability and a chance for revictimization," said Carolyn Wells of the Sexual Assault/Spouse Abuse Resource Center in Bel Air.

Pub Date: 11/15/96

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