Bobbie Joe McKinney was 18 years old when she enlisted in the navy. It was an exciting time for the Kirkland native, who hoped to find a sense of family in the military. So she didn’t question her recruiting officer when he told her they’d be rooming together the night before she shipped off for basic training. And she didn’t think twice when he suggested they get dinner together that night. And she didn’t know what to do a couple hours later when she came to as he was raping her. That was 38 years ago. “And my life,” she says, “has been a wreck ever since.”

McKinney is a survivor of what the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs calls military sexual trauma—anything from rape to sexual harassment experienced by women or men while in the service. As her case proves, it’s hardly a new phenomenon, but as of late MST has grabbed a lot of headlines, thanks in large part to 2012’s Oscar-nominated documentary The Invisible War. It’s an even more pressing issue now in Seattle, though. While 20 percent of vets nationwide report experiencing MST, that rate doubles among vets in Puget Sound. But no one seems to know why, least of all the Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs. “Is it that we’re doing a good job of asking the question in a sensitive way so people feel safe enough to answer honestly?” says Julia Sewell, the MST coordinator for Seattle’s VA. “Or is there actually a higher number of survivors in the area? I don’t know.”

At any rate, Seattle’s mounting a proportionate response. In May, Senator Patty Murray introduced the Combating Military Sexual Assault Act of 2013, an attempt to give victims more third-party support while reporting assaults; as it stands now, if they want to press charges, they must report the incident to their commanding officer—even if their commanding officer is the perpetrator. On September 11, the third-annual Seattle Stand Down, a one-day outreach event for homeless vets, will offer counseling services for MST victims. And later this year, King County plans to start doling out nearly $400,000 in funds from the 2011 Veterans and Human Services Levy earmarked for MST programs.

That kind of support could have helped McKinney if only it had come sooner. She’s been sober since 2007, but for years she fought her own invisible war with drugs and alcohol. Now, nearly 40 years after the trauma that started it all, she’s finally starting to heal. “It’s daunting,” she says. “But if I get stronger as time goes on, I’m going to start helping other gals.” 

Published: September 2013

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