he Army vet listens and lets fly. She has zero tolerance for tales of soldier rape. “In the military, they’ll tell you, ‘Lady, you can’t get compensation for having sex,’ ” said Susan Avila-Smith, the Puget Sound area’s outspoken advocate for sexually assaulted veterans.
Her client Donna Jean Patee nods from her wheelchair, her service dog asleep at her feet. “It happened to me,” said the former Navy petty officer, who filed a rape claim in 1993. Patee said she was on waterfront watch in San Diego in the 1960s when five sailors gang-raped her.
The claim was denied. “I’ve spent years being told it didn’t happen, that ‘none of my men would do anything like that,’ ” said the disabled 59-year-old, who is working with Avila-Smith on filing government claims for seizures and other disorders. “I thought I had no recourse.
“Then Susan happened.”
Susan happens. And all hell may break loose.
Day after day, the outraged, sometimes outrageous housewife from Sammamish battles to get military discharges, veteran benefits, Social Security disability pay, medical treatment, military back pay and counseling for female vets. At a time when military sexual trauma is in the national spotlight, she’s a mama bear on a tear, stirring it up, rattling brass, breaking rules as she decodes military-speak and spiels off statistics.
The statistics aren’t pretty.
In 2003 and 2004, 147 sexual assaults were reported in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait and other active-deployment areas, according to Pentagon figures. But the numbers represent only a small fraction of attacks. A study by the Department of Veterans Affairs shows that 75 percent of assaulted military women never tell their commanding officer.
The reasons are complicated.
Some assaulted female soldiers express concerns that they won’t be “one of the guys” if they tell — or that higher-ups might use reports as an excuse to cut back on women in the military, just as they are making gains in combat support roles. And most have heard horror stories of retaliation.
Avila-Smith, 47, cites case after case of clients who reported assaults and were vilified, blamed for the act, grilled on whether they were actually attacked. The former Army linguist said some clients have been threatened with multiple charges: filing a false report, “conduct unbecoming” and adultery, if they are married.
It makes her blood boil.
“If you want to be a sexual predator, the military is a great place for you,” the laser-focused, dark-eyed crusader said.
In interview after interview, her traumatized vets — World War II to Iraq — sing her praises. She finds them beds to sleep in and couches to surf on, buys them groceries, invites them home for the holidays. She gives them rides to VA appointments and stands in for them when they can’t bear to tell their stories again — can’t handle the smell, the sight, the gazes of so many men in one place.
She listens as they vent, blow, break down, describe struggles with drugs, alcohol, homelessness, continued abuse, their inability to hold jobs. A good number have attempted suicide. Their stories are difficult.
“It’s like you’re lying bleeding in this foxhole for 20 years, and everybody just goes by and ignores you. But Susan stops, says ‘Oh, you’re injured. Let’s get you out of there and get you some help,’ ” said a former Air Force squad leader and soft-spoken mother of three. Her life unraveled after she reported an assault by her supervising officer in Panama.
“I went for help, but they didn’t believe me,” said the fragile woman, who has been in intensive psychiatric care for almost two decades. She worries constantly about personal safety and delicately calls her assault “the blow.”
“The colonel said, ’It never happened — or else.’ ”
‘In-the-face kind of gal’
If Avila-Smith comforts the afflicted, she can also rub official nerves raw. That was the crusader from Sammamish interrupting a colonel’s speech on Operation Iraqi Freedom to ask: “So what is your policy on military sexual trauma?”
Rick Price, a program manager for the Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs, describes Avila-Smith as high-maintenance.
“She’s a little obnoxious, a very in-the-face kind of gal. In that way, she’s a pain ...,” he said. “But to get things done, sometimes you need people like her to make it happen.”
Eyebrows may go up in VA circles when her name is mentioned. Avila-Smith is neither a therapist nor a sanctioned counselor, some who are point out. She is herself a patient with her own horror tale of service-connected sexual abuse. She is on full disability for post-traumatic stress disorder, which can manifest in anxiety, sleeplessness, flashbacks, irritability, nightmares, depression.
Her future was determined in 1995, when, during a women’s trauma-support group at the Puget Sound VA, she realized how hard it was for some patients to fill out their own disability paperwork, reliving their tales again in writing. “It was too emotional to put this stuff down and hand it over to a stranger, for them to make a decision about your life,” Avila-Smith said.
So she began filling out forms for sisters in crisis.
And an advocate was born.
PTSD can sharpen nerves to a ragged edge — as is evident as Avila-Smith talks. She fidgets with her hands, grinds her teeth, works to silence “the chatter in my head.”
Studies indicate that women exposed to trauma are 2 1/2 times more like than men to develop PTSD. They typically experience more symptoms than men and endure a longer course of illness, often accompanied by physical problems.
If the trauma is sexual, the women’s PTSD rates are even higher.
Avila-Smith, who sits on the King County veterans advisory board, estimates that she has successfully filed more than 200 PTSD claims for her sexually assaulted vets, soldiers in a battle they never expected. “The government has a responsibility,” she said. “You protect the country. The country protects you. Done.”
Her insider know-how is invaluable, those who’ve watched her in action say. “She knows PTSD inside and out,” said Bridget Cantrell, a Bellingham-based psychologist contracted with the state Department of Veterans Affairs who has worked with Avila-Smith. “She knows the nuances of PTSD, how it affects someone’s life. Things that aren’t written down in books — Susan knows these things.”
Her manner is manna to women in crisis. “She just nods and understands; she knows. That was so therapeutic after facing so many people who just did not understand, or didn’t agree, or hated me,” said Audra, a former Fort Lewis sergeant, now living in Pennsylvania, who asked that her last name not be used.
The former tactical intelligence specialist filed an assault report from Kuwait in 2003 that detailed how she was knocked unconscious, tied up with her hands tied behind her back, gagged with her own underwear and raped. In a sworn statement, she described how her masked assailant whispered “Be quiet or else” and threatened to cut her genitalia.
When she reported it, commanders gave her a rape exam, got her treatment for her cuts and took her to another camp, where she was asked to take a lie-detector test. Although the Army denied that she received inadequate care, Audra said she was left alone, with no rape counseling, and, distraught, almost overdosed on anxiety medications.
Then Susan happened.
Avila-Smith helped Audra return home, find a trauma counselor, get medical treatment and prepare VA claims — Audra is now on full disability for PTSD and injuries to her head, back and elsewhere. The crusader also took Audra and her husband into her home, fed them and lent them her car and, always, her shoulder. “I’m totally in debt to her,” said Audra, who received an honorable discharge last spring.
It’s a story heard often in the suburban Sammamish house Avila-Smith shares with her second husband, who works for the Federal Railroad Administration. The town-and-country rambler, dolled up with a pretty palette of paint on the walls, is home base for Women Organizing Women, her non-profit patient-to-patient support group. She is founder, director and one-woman hot line. The phone rings constantly.
Yes, the advocate says, picking up the receiver to hear sobs, she can help.No, she doesn’t charge anything — only that each female vet help three others. “Sometimes you have to fight to be heard, and that’s not right,” she says into the receiver.
Only a few of Avila-Smith’s clients know her own tangled story. After living abroad for years, she joined the Army at age 34, looking for three squares, a cot and a “wardrobe that’s picked out for you. How hard could it be?”
She was soon married to a soldier husband who, she says, abused, stalked and threatened her in the early 1990s, on a military base on Oahu, Hawaii. Honolulu police records show a string of domestic violence calls to 911 and a no-contest plea to third-degree assault charges by her ex-husband. Avila-Smith said base command neither backed her charges nor enforced restraining orders — complaints she made in formal, sworn statements before her honorable discharge in 1995.
“The commander told me I was not worthy to be in the military.”
Those were fighting words for the nervy girl from California who boasts that she “bosses the colonels around now.” She’s a soldier on a mission, marching to her own orders.
Her goal is to get 300 veterans hooked up for military disability pay, which ranges from $108 to $2,229 monthly. So far, she figures she has helped file about 200 successful claims. She has 150 or more others in the works.
If she is successful, she figures, the claims could cost the Defense Department about $300 million. “It’s my way of dealing with my rage and indignation,” Avila-Smith said, flashing a fleet smile.
Her time frame is limited. She plans to retire when her husband does, within a year and a half. She is looking for someone to fill her shoes.
It’s not going to be easy.
The crusader’s shoes are big and heavy and kick hard.
And they aim where it hurts.
WHERE TO GET HELP
- National Sexual Assault Hotline: 800-656-4673
- The Puget Sound VA Health Care System: 800-329-8387
- VA Health Care Benefits: 877-222-8387
- Military Onesource hot line: 800-342-9647
- To contact Susan Avila-Smith at Women Organizing Women, e-mail smith715@Comcast.com
Monday, April 11, 2005 By M.L. LYKE
P-I reporter M.L. Lyke can be reached at 206-448-8344 or firstname.lastname@example.org © 1998-2005 Seattle Post-Intelligencer