TRAVERSE CITY — Crystal Jeffords never told anyone about her repeated sexual assaults when she was stationed in Iraq as an Army petroleum supply specialist.
But the aftermath was on full display — nearly 10 years of depression, mental breakdowns and suicide attempts, four months in residential treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, her ballooning weight gain and eventually, her inability to walk out the front door of her home.
“I was over 200 pounds and barely showered,” said Jeffords, 42. “I lived in West Virginia for seven years and did not know one of my neighbors.”
Jeffords began talking about the assaults three years ago when she was seeing a therapist. She moved to Traverse City about a year ago and felt the need to connect with other female veterans.
She started Silent No More, a closed Facebook group for female survivors of Military Sexual Trauma (MST) that now has 887 members, with more joining all the time.
She sits on the board of a newly-created nonprofit, A Veteran Helping Veteran, Inc., that has a private ‘females only’ page dedicated to women’s issues.
And she runs a monthly support group for female veterans, as well as women who are police officers, firefighters and emergency rescue workers.
She recently has spoken publicly about her journey and will this week enter a six-week residential program in Battle Creek, where she’ll finally get treatment for MST. She’ll blog about her progress, with the blog linked to the Silent No More group page.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs defines MST as any sexual assault or repeated threatening sexual harassment that took place while a person was in the U.S. Armed Forces.
About one in four women and one in 100 men who use Veterans Administration heath care report some form of MST, though the numbers for women and men reporting are about equal because there are so many more men in the military, statistics show.
“I think one in four women is pretty staggering,” said Mary Tegeler, the MST coordinator for the Saginaw Veterans Administration. “The numbers are horrendous.”
Tegeler works at the Traverse City VA Outpatient Clinic, one of nine clinics under the arm of the Saginaw VA. While MST itself is not a diagnosis, she said, it is a trauma that can lead to severe depression, relationship problems, eating disorders, addiction, stress-related health problems and more.
It can also lead to PTSD, with statistics showing that both women and men who’ve reported MST have a higher chance of developing PTSD, the disorder that stems from experiencing or witnessing a terrifying event. It can affect a person for many years.
Jeffords’ assaulter was a non-commissioned officer she met when she was stationed at Fort Gordon in Georgia as a part of the same signal unit.
“We were friends,” Jeffords said. “He’s been at my house. He ate at my dinner table. He’s talked to my kids, my husband ... That’s how close our friendship was supposed to be.”
The assaults started about six months after their unit was deployed to Iraq. He exposed himself to her and later pressed up against her when they were outside having a cigarette.
His actions confused her.
“I didn’t know how to react,” she said. “I didn’t know what to do.”
A few nights later he apologized to her, then asked her if she would help him pick up some supplies.
“For whatever reason I accepted his apology,” she said. “To this day I cannot tell you why.”
She went with him to a conex box, a shipping container used to transport and store supplies. The conex has one door and when she stepped through it he locked it. She turned around to face him and he slashed her with a box cutter.
Jeffords tried to fight him off, but he was more than twice her size. When she got home she dressed the neck wound herself, knowing that if she went to the Combat Support Hospital they would ask questions.
The assaults went on for seven months. At first she fought. He hit her and threw her around. He told her that he loved her, that she would learn to love him.
She finally gave up, stopped fighting.
Jeffords never reported him. He had been a part of her unit for much longer than she had and their first sergeant was his best friend.
“He was everybody’s friend, the funny guy, the one everyone would go to if they needed help.”
She says she carries a lot of guilt, that she feels like she cheated on her husband.
“There must be something I did to make this person do this to me,” Jeffords said. “I should have fought harder. I should’ve, should’ve, should’ve.”
Tegeler said that what the statistics don’t show are all those who don’t report and whose sexual trauma goes untreated. For some, the shame, stigma and fear is just too much, she said.
“We know they won’t tell because of the shame or they don’t know if they can handle their emotions,” Tegeler said.”That’s why we provide a safe place. When they’re ready we’re here.”
Tegeler said many people go into the military to serve their country or to have the opportunity for a better life.
“And then this happens to them,” she said.
Linda Leggteeple, chief warrant officer four, is the state sexual assault coordinator for the Michigan National Guard.
Soldiers now can disclose sexual assaults in two ways — restricted or unrestricted, Leggteeple said. Those who choose the restricted option will receive counseling, advocacy services, medical treatment and legal assistance.
But the information will go nowhere, meaning the assault will not be investigated and the perpetrator will not know they have been reported, according to the the Army Sexual Response Policy.
If a person chooses to disclose using the unrestricted option, it triggers an investigation by local law enforcement officials and if the evidence is there, will be fully prosecuted, Leggteeple said.
The victim can also request a Personal Protection Order, a Military Protection Order, or an immediate transfer out of their unit, Leggteeple said. In some cases the perpetrator is transferred, she said.
An opportunity gone wrong
Jeffords joined the military at the age of 28. She was married and had two young daughters and both she and her husband were laid off from their jobs.
“We were having trouble finding jobs and we needed health insurance,” Jeffords said.
After 18 months in Iraq, Jeffords returned home, and after training in San Antonio, began working as an x-ray technician at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C.
While in Iraq she had become used to Black Hawks flying low, mortars going off and constant gunfire while she went about her daily routine. She had also seen convoys blown up by roadside bombs. But everything was moving so fast it didn’t really register, she said.
When Jeffords began working at Walter Reed and she saw the aftermath of war — missing limbs, severe burns, comas, and even suicides — she lost her mind.
“I was messed up when I got back, but that stuff really, really broke me,” she said.
Jeffords was placed in a residential treatment center for PTSD, where she stayed for four months. While there, she never talked about the sexual assaults.
She was later in a warrior transition unit and when she was discharged was required to report the assaults in order to qualify for disability benefits. Nothing was done, she said.
“That was just kind of glazed over and no one asked about it, so I just assumed no one cared,” she said.
PTSD and sexual trauma are treatable, with the goal being remission of symptoms, Tegeler said.
Every VA in the country has been required to have an MST coordinator and trained support team since 2002, when federal policies were put into place, she said.
Every person who seeks medical treatment at a VA is screened for MST, Tegeler said, and those who experienced it do not need proof or evidence. Every veteran gets treatment free of charge, even those who were not honorably discharged, she said.
Leggteeple said all soldiers must go through training that attempts to prevent sexual assaults before they occur. The training is part of an Army-wide policy that has been in place for at least 10 years.
Soldiers are taught to respect, protect and take care of each other, as well as not to touch each other and to report any abuse they see, Leggteeple said.
“We’ve been working hard to do a lot of prevention,” Leggteeple said, adding that all branches of the military have similar programs. “It’s very important that we take care of our soldiers.”
Tegeler said there is a lot of information available on MST, as well as extensive media coverage of the issue.
“Word is out ... Hopefully it will give them courage so they can get the care they need,” Tegeler said.
Jeffords said she kept her sexual assaults buried for so long that holding support groups and talking to the media about her ordeal is pushing her way out of her comfort zone.
But she is finding her footing.
“It’s hard, but I have to make myself,” she said. “I have to follow through, not just for myself. I have a responsibility to the other women who’ve been through the same thing.”