The military’s broken culture around sexual violence and suicide
By CybÈle C. Greenberg
Anne Vassas loved being a Marine.
She was always smiling. Younger members of her unit saw Vassas, 20, as something like a mother. Stationed in Iwakuni, Japan, she was reenlisting for a second tour.
So it came as a shock when Vassas took her own life in August 2019, a month before her 21st birthday.
Six months after her death, her father was surprised to discover among her belongings pages from a sexual assault report she filed in October 2018. A military investigation into Vassas’ death later found that she may have been sexually assaulted on three occasions while serving in uniform.
The death of Vassas, and other deaths like hers, raises questions regarding the military’s ability to care for its service members who experience sexual trauma. In many cases, untreated trauma can have deadly consequences.
There are numerous misconceptions about military suicide. Despite the stereotypes, there is no significant association between combat deployments and the rate of suicide, according to a study in JAMA Psychiatry.
Some experts say that it would be more accurate to blame the problem on the military’s culture of intensity and violence that extends well beyond the battlefield. That includes toxic relationships between service members and continued stigma surrounding those seeking help. It is perhaps no coincidence that the Army and the Marine Corps — the two branches founded on an infantry culture, in which the perception of strength trumps all else — experience the highest suicide rates.
A report by the Defense Department inspector general this month indicates that although the number of sexual assault complaints has doubled in the past decade, the services often cut corners when it comes to investigating and prosecuting them.
Sexual trauma is associated with an increased risk of suicide and is more likely than combat to lead to post-traumatic stress for both men and women. While combat troops get time to recover from their deployments, victims of sexual trauma are often sidelined or forcibly discharged, according to Don Christensen, a retired Air Force officer who is president of Protect Our Defenders, a nonprofit that works to end sexual violence in the military.
Many victims of sexual violence actually experience trauma twice: once, at the hands of the offender, and a second time, at the hands of the institution they serve.
In a July report, the Independent Review Commission on Sexual Assault in the Military found that many of those who reported sexual violence regretted doing so. The backlash often compounds the trauma of the actual assault.
Worse still, some service members attempt suicide after speaking up and seeking help. Studies show that the perception of betrayal by the military bureaucracy in the aftermath of sexual assault is associated with severe depression and self-inflicted violence. Women who served in the military are at 2.5 times the risk for suicide compared to their counterparts who did not.
According to the investigation into her death, Vassas tried reporting her sexual assaults several times. But the reporting process was perilous. During her initial training, she said that she had been forcibly kissed by another Marine. But when investigators reminded her that having a relationship with another trainee was prohibited, she withdrew her complaint.
While stationed in California, Vassas told two of her childhood friends that an officer had interrupted another Marine pushing her up against the wall of his room and taking her pants off without her consent, after both had been drinking. She was disciplined over this incident because she was not supposed to be in the barracks for men.
The inquiry into her death suggests that the officer who reprimanded Vassas ignored the assault and that a military investigator believed she may have been lying about the incident “to get out of trouble for being in the wrong barracks.”
But her medical record tells a different story. Her heightened depression and anxiety can be traced back to late 2018 and were likely “due to the stress induced by the sexual assault” in the barracks, according to a behavioral health assessment. It was also around this time that Vassas started voicing suicidal ideations to her friends, including one text message that read, “I can’t live with this pain.”
But in February 2019, she was given a clean bill of health and cleared to deploy to Japan. There, Vassas may have been sexually assaulted yet again, according to Marines in her unit.
Six months after her arrival in Iwakuni, Vassas was dead.
The contours of her story are all too similar to those of other servicewomen. In May an Army specialist, Kaylie Harris, 21, who reported she was raped by a man after she came out as gay, died by suicide. In 2018 an Army private, Nicole Burnham, 21, died by suicide after incidents in which male soldiers held her down against her will and photographed and assaulted her. Despite some fellow soldiers calling her a “whore,” “slut” and “deserving of rape” after she reported the attacks, the Army was slow to transfer her out of South Korea, according to an investigation by CBS News. In 2009 a 20-year-old Marine, Carri Leigh Goodwin, died from acute alcohol poisoning after, according to a lawsuit, she was raped twice and bullied by her commander for reporting the second rape.
Many factors have contributed to a recent increase in suicide rates for military personnel, and they’re not entirely well understood. The accessibility of guns certainly plays a role: The most common method of suicide across the military is death by firearm. The White House recently announced regulations that will increase the availability of secure gun storage and safety devices.
More research is also needed on the possible correlations between military suicide, the protracted length of recent wars and the rise in traumatic brain injuries from increased exposure to improvised explosive devices.
Despite years of effort and tens of millions of dollars invested in prevention research and programs, suicide continues to afflict military communities. Last year there was a statistically significant increase in the rate of suicide deaths by active-duty troops in all services — the highest rate since 2008, when the Pentagon began keeping detailed records, according to the Defense Department’s latest annual suicide report.
An independent Pentagon commission established this year prefaced its findings on sexual trauma with a letter to service members: “We heard you.”
But in at least some important ways, no one listened to Vassas, Harris, Burnham or countless other service members who experienced unbearable trauma while serving their country.
Many military units still do not take sexual trauma or mental health as seriously as they should and often treat suicide awareness training as a perfunctory exercise. Few active duty military leaders speak out about their own struggles coping with trauma. Those who do often face derailed careers — something that discourages junior troops from speaking up and seeking help themselves.
Ultimately, it is only genuine, supportive human connections with other service members, leaders and veterans — those who believe and understand them — that will save young American troops from feeling there is no way out.