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New Army Sex-Abuse Charges Highlight Counseling Needs

VA's Sexual Trauma program counseled 15,000 victims in past 3 years

In public, and behind the scenes, the Army continues to grapple with charges of sexual abuse.

The latest allegations of assault and harassment are leveled at the Army's top enlisted man, who was on a panel investigating the sexual harassment policies of the Army.

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As stunning as this and previously reported charges are, it doesn't come as a surprise to sexual-abuse counselors in the Department of Veterans Affairs. Out of the limelight for years, the quiet efforts of these counselors are beginning to gain recognition as the armed services take steps to resolve the problems garnering attention now.

"This is a defining moment, a wakeup call for the military," says Joan Furey, director of the Center for Women Veterans at VA headquarters in Washington, D.C., of the attention the military brass is giving to sexual abuse. "I think they are really trying to address [the problems] now."

It is a problem that VA counselors have been dealing with for years now but has largely been ignored by military officials.

Since the VA began offering counseling to female veterans under its Sexual Trauma program four years ago, its client load has grown exponentially at its 205 offices around the country.

An estimated 15,000 female veterans have sought counseling for sexual abuse or harassment at VA "vet centers" and hospitals in the past three years, according to the VA. Some counselors have been overwhelmed by caseloads as high as several hundred.

The Sexual Trauma program, which offers free counseling for all female veterans who request it, was started following congressional testimony in the wake of the Navy's 1991 Tailhook scandal. During the hearings, witnesses estimated that from 60,000 to 200,000 of the nation's 1.2 million female veterans may have been raped or attacked by American servicemen.

In recent months, the Army has been investigating mainly charges that drill sergeants at Aberdeen, Md., and other Army training facilities, had taken advantage of their authority and sexually abused or raped their teenage recruits.

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The Army took a series of unprecedented steps to address the problems that arose at Aberdeen, ranging from taking its investigation public, to establishing a national toll-free hot-line to record complaints. And here at Fort Jackson, the Army's largest basic training base, a 24-hour hotline was set up for criminal complaints, as well as an Internet Web-site to report crimes.

But the latest charge is likely to increase the pressure on the Army and widen the scope of its investigations.

In a formal complaint sent to the Army Friday, Sgt. Maj. Brenda L. Hoster alleges that her former boss, Sgt. Maj. Gene McKinney, sexually assaulted her in her hotel room while on a business trip in Hawaii last April, according to The New York Times. Sergeant Major Hoster, a 22-year Army veteran, decided to go public with the accusations after Sergeant Major McKinney was appointed to the commission reviewing the Army's sexual harassment policies. McKinney has denied the charges.

One of the results of the growing attention by the public and the military to this issue, is that more women are calling the VA for help.

Sexual trauma counselors have treated women who say they were raped or attacked up to five decades ago. In many cases, the victims never reported the crimes or were transferred or discharged for doing so, VA officials say. Only recently have most of the victims been willing to come forward.

Thousands of such women have fought unsuccessfully to get disability benefits; in many cases, there is no paper trail corroborating their stories. And up until very recently, a large portion of the allegations were dismissed or ignored by the defense establishment.

"A lot of them have anger about losing their careers, losing control of their lives, and it doesn't go away," says VA counselor Karyl Drake, at the Columbia (S.C) Vet Center.

Linda Landry, who treats women at the Atlanta Vet Center, has had a caseload as high as 80, though she now counsels 35. Among her cases are women who say they were attacked or raped by military chaplains, senior officers, and, in one case, by a noncommissioned officer whose job was to investigate sexual harassment complaints.

"I think the word is finally getting out [about the counseling services that are available]" says Ms. Landry.

Still, some VA officials remain disappointed that their work has largely been ignored by the mainstream media. And despite rapidly increasing caseloads, it seems unlikely the VA will get more resources to treat women. Linda Stalvey, a VA spokeswoman in Washington, D.C., says it's possible her agency could shift money from other areas, but in most cases it is able to meet the demand for services.

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