A Wounded Soldier
By Sara Krog and Sofie Mortensen
Megan Karr suffers from severe PTSD caused by her experience of sexual assault in the military. Today she is currently awaiting disability payments as compensation for the night in 2009 that changed her life. To acknowledge assault and rape in the armed forces, American military law has designated Military Sexual Trauma (MST) as a term for experiences of sexual assault and harassment in the United States Armed Forces.

Friday, November 22, 2019, 6.45 p.m., Louisville, Kentucky

Megan Karr, 36, walks back and forth in her bedroom. She is looking for her hat in a pile of clothes. It is not hanging on the wall with the rest of her hats, which are neatly sorted – a contrast to the rest of her apartment, where most of her belongings are all over the place.

She is still trying to get everything organized after moving in last August, she says.

"It sounds stupid, but this dumb hat can make me relax. Kind of in the same way as a kid relaxes with its favorite blanket. It is frustrating that I can't find it. I saw it yesterday," Karr says.

Tonight she gets easily irritated. Earlier today, her divorce was final. The court decided that Karr's two daughters, age 6 and 9, will live with her ex-wife.

The court has also told her that if she stays away from alcohol she can eventually gain shared custody.

Karr finally finds the hat.

It is a green military cap. She puts it on her head and sits down in front of her TV. Her service dog, Blaze, is resting beside her in the flashing light from the screen. He calms her down when she needs it and carries her medicine in a little dog bag.

This is how the military police veteran spends most of her time. In the brown armchair. If the anxiety kicks in, it is easier just to stay in the dark living room, and when Netflix is on she can let out most of the bad thoughts and focus on the program. Today she chose Mindhunter. She usually binge-watches because she can't cope with cliff-hangers if an episode has an open ending.

"Some days it is even hard to get out of bed. TV is really good for me if I need to shut down disturbing thoughts," she explains.

All of these are symptoms of the diagnoses Karr will carry with her for the rest of her life. Her medical records say she suffers from anxiety, depression, tinnitus and a lower back injury. Her injuries were picked up from working in the military, serving at Guantanamo Bay guarding some of the most dangerous terrorists in the world. It's a time in her life that she is restricted from discussing publicly.

"They were never afraid to let us know that they intended to kill us if they had the chance. Because of security circumstances, we were unarmed. I have been in multiple confrontations with some of them, and I am a small woman. I have had all kinds of bodily fluids thrown at me," she shares.
After the incident I changed, not necessarily for the better, but for the worse. I struggle a lot, and that struggle has been tough, especially for the people who knew me before.
Megan Karr
Most severe is her traumatic brain injury and the PTSD caused by an episode she describes as a rape committed by two former colleagues. The case was never prosecuted. The Department of Veteran Affairs has recognized that this serious trauma will never leave her. She suffers from military sexual trauma (MST), a term now used in American military legislation.
Karr joined the military in 2003 shortly after 9/11. Back then it was with a dream of one day becoming a military police officer. Today, she says she always felt like it was the right place for her. In 2009 she served in the Coast Guard
One night in 2009

Karr shares her memory: She left the military base in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, to go to a restaurant with two colleagues to drink a couple of beers. The very last thing she remembers is standing in the bathroom of the restaurant texting her now ex-wife.

"I love you," they let each other know.


The next morning

Karr woke up in her own room with a feeling of something being odd. Her car keys were gone but were later found inside the vehicle. She went to the hospital to get a rape kit done. It left no doubt, she was told at the hospital. She had had sex against her will, Karr says.

"I had sworn to take a bullet for these guys and they treated me like this. It felt like a huge betrayal," Karr explains.


Megan Karr, age 36
MEGAN:
I love you..
EX-WIFE:
I love you, too
Until that day, she had never slept with a man. She says her sexuality would later be the reason why she never got her justice.

Because of the military's "Don't ask, don't tell" rule, the institution could not discriminate against gay, lesbian and bisexual people, but neither could military people be openly gay, lesbian or bisexual. If Karr wanted her incident to go through trial, she was told that she would have to show the texts on her phone. She knew that would reveal her sexuality, and this could end up jeopardizing her future career in the military.

"I used to work with law enforcement. The fact that none of my rapists were prosecuted felt terrible. It was almost as being raped all over again," she says.

"After the incident I changed, not necessarily for the better, but for the worse. I struggle a lot, and that struggle has been tough, especially for the people who knew me before. I guess this is what affected my family situation."



Karr tells her two daughters goodnight on the phone.
Friday, November 22, 2019, 8.00 p.m., Louisville, Kentucky

Almost every night, Karr tells her two daughters goodnight on FaceTime. Through the phone screen, she tries to do what every other mom would do – ask them how their day has been, tell them to calm down if they start snapping at each other.

As she chats, there is no sign of anxiety in her voice.

Since she moved out of their family home in February, the time she gets to spend with them has been limited to a couple of hours a week. She takes them to the movie theatre. She follows them to sports.

After months of homelessness, Karr is finally starting to settle down in the apartment she was granted by a veterans organization. Recently, she applied for disability compensation for her injuries, but until that claim goes through, a veterans organization will pay her bills.

Today, she has a doctor's note stating that she is unable to work because of her diagnoses. Her issues also led to alcohol abuse, which later led to divorce.

"I didn't let people around me know that I had been drinking. I could drink the entire day without anybody knowing it, but the more anxiety I got, the more I started drinking," Karr shares.

"One day I woke up as the kind of person who was drinking all the time and getting fat because eating felt comfortable. It took way too much effort to take care of myself."
MST is not a diagnosis but a medical assessment used to describe a trauma caused by being sexually assaulted while serving in the military. Victims can gain disability compensations for PTSD and other mental issues related to MST, even if the incident was never reported. It is this kind of compensation that Karr is currently waiting for.

According to its own data, the U.S. Department of Defense suspects that more than 20,500 military personnel were sexually assaulted or raped in 2018. Of those, 13,000 were women and 7,500 were men. According to numbers from Protect our Defenders, an organization that advocates to fight sexual assault in the military, the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs registered more than 1.3 million outpatient visits related to MST in 2015.

Since incidents are rarely reported, PTSD claims related to MST require less evidence and are granted what the Department of Veteran Affairs calls "markers." This can be statements from family members, records from rape crisis centers or other medical certificates.

According to numbers from Protect our Defenders, 76.1 percent of all victims registered in 2018 did not report the crime.

Because of this, the chance of disability compensation from MST-related PTSD is essential to the healing process of the survivors, says Col Christensen, president of Protect our Defenders.

"When few cases go through trial, it can be explained by the difficulties with coming forward. This means that the possibility to gain compensation is essential to get justice. The trauma has many consequences. Veterans with MST have an increased risk of homelessness, bigger risk of suicide," says Christensen, a former prosecutor in the U.S. Navy.

MST is an acknowledgement of the fact that there is a significant difference between being assaulted in the civilian world and inside the military, Christensen says, because of the way the institution works. He adds that those in the military cannot just quit.

"If you are assaulted by your boss in the local grocery store you can leave. If you do that in the military you can end up as a criminal yourself," Christensen says.

In his opinion, the culture of devaluating women inside the institution needs to be fought with more attention toward gender equality from the military leadership. But he also emphasizes that men are victims of sexual assault as well.

Still, the institution must be better at setting the tone and making it clear that female soldiers are just as welcome in the armed forces as males. Women should never be seen as sexual objects but as equal soldiers in combat, Christensen says.

If you are assaulted by your boss in the local grocery store you can leave. If you do that in the military you can end up as a criminal yourself.
Col Christensen, president of Protect our Defenders
"As I see it, the highest commands have failed when it comes to creating a culture for equality. And if the majority of all rapists are never held accountable, it is never going to be any better."

In 1994, Congress repealed the "risk rule," barring women from all combat situations. This led to thousands of previously restricted positions being opened for women, but many direct combat positions remained closed until 2015. Nonetheless, this led to more women entering the military in the following years.

Today, 11 percent of 20 million American veterans are female.

Phyllis Abbot, founder of Lady Veterans Connect, a veteran shelter for 32 homeless women veterans in Lexington, Kentucky, explains that trauma related to MST is a big part of working with former female soldiers.

"Women veterans have female needs. Many of our residents suffer from PTSD and have the same symptoms as the men. The difference is that it comes from MST," she says.

Abbot estimates that 60 percent of her residents suffer from trauma related to sexual assault.
From Karr's time in the Coast Guard.
Saturday, November 23, 2019, 7.59 a.m., Louisville, Kentucky

Karr says that she settled with never reporting years ago. The chance of justice is not worth the consequences of reliving the trauma, she says.

Saturday morning, she comes walking down the stairs from her first-floor apartment, wearing her Army green hat. In a few minutes she is supposed to meet a group of veterans for an off-road Jeep tour, but she is late. As Karr unlocks her car, tears fall down her face.

"I easily get flustered," she says. Stress gives her anxiety.


8.23 a.m.

It is raining. Karr is outside the garage where the rest of the veterans group is having breakfast. The anxiety makes it hard for her to take part.

After a while, she goes back in. The president of the group greets everyone. This organization is one of the most important communities Karr has in her life right now. After the divorce, a lot of the contact with her ex-wife's family was naturally cut, and her own family lives out of state.

The other veterans understand her mood, she explains. That makes it easier to take part in activities like this.

"Veterans are veterans. When I walked in here one of the other guys walked up to me and asked if I was okay, and I said 'No. My heart is racing. I am late, because my alarm didn't go off.' But I didn't need to explain all this to him, because he knows my situation," Karr says.

Before the divorce, she showed up to events like this more often, but lately she has been less social.

When the Jeep later that day got stuck in a pool of mud, the adrenalin made Karr forget her anxiety. She laughed and thanked the other veterans for dragging her out.

That night she went to bed happy.

The antidepressive medicine is placed in the living room. Always close to Karr.
The awareness of military sexual assault started in 1991 with the Tailhook scandal, where more than 100 United States Navy and U.S. Marine Corps aviation officers were alleged to have sexually assaulted 83 women and seven men at a hotel in Las Vegas.

A lieutenant named Paula Coughlin reported it the next day, but when nobody in the chain of command took action she went to the press. After this, the public became aware that sexual assault was happening inside this disciplined institution.

In 2003, the Care for Victims of Sexual Assault Task Force was created by Department of Defense to fight the problem.
Nine years later, the documentary, "The Invisible War", based on a book by journalist Helen Benedict, was released. This was an investigative project where numerous female veterans shared stories of sexual assault and the neglect they faced when trying to prosecute. The Oscar-nominated movie was the final factor to cause attention, says Jerri Bell, an author and a former intelligence officer in the U.S. Navy.
The Invisible War
"This brought the conversation into the public eye in a whole new way. It got more visibility in Congress," Bell says.

In 2013, Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York introduced a bill known as The Military Justice Improvement Act. Its purpose was to move assault cases away from the commanding officers and into a separate justice system aligned with how cases are prosecuted in the civilian world. This was an attempt to send more cases to court.

"Still, this hasn't passed. The pushback is that it will undermine the commanding officer's authority," Bell says.

"Typically, more conservative legislators are still listening to this argument despite almost every survivor saying that these cases need to be handled differently. There is a lot more talk about women being equal than there is actual action. That is still a problem," Bell says.

Today, Megan Karr hopes that she can contribute to this battle by sharing her personal story.


1991
Talihook Scandal: More than 100 United State Navy and U.S. Marine Corps aviation officers were alleged to have sexually assaulted 83 women and seven men.
2003
Megan Karr joined the army.
2009
The incident that ended up changing Karr's life: "I had sworn to take a bullet for these guys and they treated me like this. It felt like a huge betrayal."
2012
The documentary "The Invisible War" was released. This was an investigative project where numerous female veterans shared stories of sexual assault.
2015
U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs registered more than 1.3 million outpatient visits related to MST in veteran clinics.
2019
Megan Karr split with her ex-wife, partly because of consequences of PTSD. She ended up living on the street. Today she has her own apartment.
Sunday, November 24, 2019, 8.29 a.m. Louisville, Kentucky

The sun has a hard time getting through the curtains in Karr's apartment in The Highlands, a neighborhood in Louisville, Kentucky. Her eyes are sensitive to light, so there is a purpose for the darkness. She walks around the kitchen, feeding her service dog, Blaze, and gets dressed in a flat cap, shirt and pants, leaving her joggers in the bedroom.

She needs to move on after a rough night, she explains. The sheets were messy when she woke up. Blaze was laying on her chest; he does this to stop her night terrors.

The anxiety returned when she placed her head on the pillow last night.

She found no peace.
Written by Sara Krog
Photos and video by Sofie Mortensen
Made on
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