Trapped in trauma: Male victims confront sexual assault in military

After confiding in his family about the trauma he’d been dealing with for decades, Richard Bell Jr. walks arm in arm with his daughter, Retinna Bell, 34.
After confiding in his family about the trauma he’d been dealing with for decades, Richard Bell Jr. walks arm in arm with his daughter, Retinna Bell, 34.
Published Aug. 26, 2013

Richard Bell Jr. was hanging up his polo shirts in his metal locker, when his new roommate walked in.

The two men regarded each other warily.

A nurse had told Bell, 65, that his roommate was gay. This was not something he wanted to hear. Bell, a grandfather of four, was "homophobic." In 1969, while in the Air Force in Thailand, a gang of men sexually assaulted him. He had come here to heal. How would this help?

Nelson Rivera, a short, thin Puerto Rican with his own palette of fears, cringed at the sight of the tall, quiet black man with sunken eyes. Bell resembled one of Rivera's drill sergeants from 35 years before, the first man who had raped him.

Rivera broke the awkward silence. The mess hall was around the corner, he explained, next to the library. The homeless vets were in one wing, those with substance abuse and combat-related psychological problems down another. Rivera and Bell were among 16 veterans housed in a wing of the Bay Pines VA Healthcare System devoted to military sexual trauma. They didn't know it, but their treatment had already begun.

That night, Bell went to bed early. He wrapped himself up in his blankets "like a Mexican taco," Rivera would later say.

Bell couldn't sleep that night in early May. He was supposed to stay eight weeks. He wasn't sure he wanted to stay the night.

• • •

In May, the Pentagon released the results of an anonymous survey on sexual assault in the military. An estimated 26,000 active duty service members reported they had been sexually assaulted or harassed in 2012, up from 19,000 in 2010. The numbers lent credence to descriptions of military sexual assault as a "crisis" and an "epidemic."

As far back as the 1991 Tailhook scandal, in which drunken aviators assaulted dozens of female recruits at a Las Vegas convention, attention on sexual assault in the armed forces has focused predominantly on female service members. Less widely publicized is that more than half of the victims in the recent survey — 53 percent — were men.

This is not surprising to the mental health professionals at Bay Pines, where a decade ago a women-only program was expanded to include beds for men. It is the only residential program in the country where men with military sexual trauma are housed and treated together and not mixed with veterans suffering other psychological problems.

Carol O'Brien heads all programs dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder at Bay Pines. She has long recognized the need to treat male sexual trauma victims.

"It became clear to me," O'Brien said, "how very alone they felt in all of this."

• • •

Bell's journey to Bay Pines began in 2010, when, suffering from prostate cancer, he went to see a doctor at a VA outpatient clinic in Atlanta. The doctor asked him a question that has been routine at VA hospitals since 2000: had he been sexually assaulted while in the military?

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It was the first time anyone had asked Bell this question and the answer caught in his throat. "No," he said.

As a younger man, he drank the thoughts away. His anger came out at bars. He'd get in his car and drive down the road at 100 mph, running red lights.

He blamed himself for everything that went wrong, then graduated to doubting himself, even when everything went right. He married and had three kids. He quit drinking. He buried himself in his job at Kennedy Space Center. He worked on the space shuttles until the Challenger blew up and then he moved to Georgia to work for Lockheed Martin.

When his mother died, he didn't grieve. When his beloved grandmother died, he didn't grieve. When he retired in 2003, his symptoms worsened and he withdrew further. He spent more and more days in bed.

The Department of Defense Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military suggests that less than 15 percent of service members who are sexually assaulted actually report it. Fewer men report than women.

Some male victims report being threatened with death or a duty change if they file a complaint. Some sexual assaults have been part of a hazing ritual and recruits may think they are violating a "code of silence." Others don't think anything will be done, so they don't bother.

That day in the doctor's office, Bell realized he'd said nothing for more than 40 years.

"Yes," he corrected himself. He had been sexually assaulted. The doctor made a notation in his chart.

• • •

A few weeks later, Bell took a seat in front of a therapist at the VA in Atlanta.

She explained that not everyone who is raped gets PTSD. But those who do often let negative beliefs and thoughts take over their personalities. They blame themselves for what happened and avoid the memory completely. Everywhere they look, they see danger. They are easily angered. They withdraw.

Bell nodded. That was him.

"What types of things do you find yourself avoiding," she asked.

"Anything that involves people, I don't want to be involved with," he said dejectedly. "I'm just one big hunk of . . . just negative, and I can't figure out why."

The therapist told Bell she'd help him "process the memory." She wanted him to undergo prolonged exposure, one of the primary treatments embraced by the U.S. military for post-traumatic stress disorder and rape.

She told Bell he would have to record the memory of his sexual attack in vivid detail and listen to the recording over and over at home to desensitize himself to it. He might tell his wife, his family. But all that was in the future. Now she asked him to close his eyes, tell her what happened.

Bell had spent so long avoiding this memory, he wasn't sure how much he could remember. He joined the Air Force in 1967 right out of high school, went overseas to Thailand, and worked his way up to sergeant in charge of a crew of Thai nationals who did construction work around the base.

It was hot, I was just getting back from lunch, he began.

He remembered he was wearing his fatigues, carrying his cap. There was a lot of laughter. He was crying. His memory faltered.

He opened his eyes. His therapist was watching him.

"Take it from the top," she said. Start over.

• • •

The prolonged exposure sessions with Bell's therapist in Atlanta were excruciating and ultimately not completely successful. In the quiet of his home in Kennesaw, Ga., he skipped his homework. His unhappy wife, still unaware of the true cause of his problems, asked him to schedule an appointment with a marriage counselor.

During a private one-on-one session, the counselor recommended Bell go to Bay Pines. It took about four months to make it off the waiting list.

Those first few days at Bay Pines, Bell kept to himself. The military sexual trauma program is set up more like a mini-college than a psych ward. Sixteen patients — roughly half men, half women — attend classes with names like coping skills, PTSD education and music therapy.

Bell met daily with his therapist, who asked him to write about his attack and how it made him feel. Bell found it easier than listening to the recordings of his anguished voice retell the most horrible day of his life.

• • •

On a humid weekday in early June, Bell sat down with me in an air-conditioned office at Bay Pines, trying to put words to something he still hadn't told his wife of 31 years.

He swallowed and let his gaze settle on a white wall to the left.

"One day after lunch, I came into the office and the Thai supervisor was there and he said, 'Sgt. Bell, I need to see you in the warehouse.' "

Bell described himself following the man into the dark, damp building. As he spoke, he looked beaten down. He knew he was not supposed to feel shame. And yet he did.

"I walk in and these hands grab me and startle me," he said. "I heard laughter. I thought someone was playing a joke."

At least a dozen men surrounded him. He realized it was the work crew. They held his arms. Then some of them grabbed his legs. They lifted him.

Bell's voice, normally so resonant, was so low I could barely hear him. He couldn't look at me. He seemed in physical pain.

"Are you okay?" I asked.

He nodded quickly. I realized he was forcing himself to tell me, that this was part of his therapy.

"Someone was undoing my belt buckle," he continued.

"I don't like this. I need to get loose." Bell was screaming now. "I want to fight. It's starting to get creepy and scary and I'm fighting. I'm twisting and turning. They have my feet in the air."

They pulled his pants down, then his underwear.

Bell paused. I held my breath.

Just then, O'Brien, the PTSD director, knocked on the door, interrupting us. She wanted to know how much longer the interview would take.

After she left the room, Bell resumed the story, skipping to the moment when he stood fully clothed in the warehouse, crying. "I was embarrassed, I was afraid and I was angry."

He stopped reporting for work, got drunk. He lost his three stripes and was jailed. Eventually, he got out of the military and returned to the United States.

"For me, my whole life has been like I was a zombie," Bell said. "I've spent it just trapped and going through the motions.

"I was alive and I was breathing," he said, "but I almost had to kill all my emotions . . . to keep myself from getting angry."

• • •

One day in late June, Bell and a couple of other veterans headed to a French bakery during a break between classes.

"Right now, I'm midway through my treatment and I feel like ripping my heart out," said Shilo Schluterman, a 37-year-old airplane mechanic from Arkansas in the Air National Guard. Schluterman, a pixieish woman, had been repeatedly sexually harassed, assaulted and groped while in the Air National Guard. She also suffered from combat-related PTSD from tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"I can say that all the fear that I went into my prolonged exposure with has diminished," said Jeffrey Palmer, 48, a father of four from Pennsylvania. He'd been raped by an armory sergeant in Germany in 1982, right when he got in the Army. "I'm not as scared to listen to my story anymore."

In addition to facing what had happened to them over and over, there were daily exercises to confront their fears. Bell joined several other vets for Man of Steel to conquer his fear of dark theaters. He went on a treasure hunt at the mall to overcome his fear of people and public places.

"They put you in situations where normally you would be uncomfortable, but it turns out you learn a lot from it," Schluterman said.

Bell agreed. His pairing with Rivera, the gay man who was afraid of black men, seemed like an attempt to make him and Rivera face their most feared archetypes. It had worked. They'd become friends.

• • •

Toward the end of his treatment, Bell was sitting in the screened porch behind the dormitory with a skinny guy from Connecticut named Jeff Wood.

Like Bell, Wood had been very young when he was assaulted. He was a 21-year-old Army medic stationed in Michigan. One day a lieutenant colonel suggested he go train in orthotics.

Weeks later, the lieutenant colonel picked Wood up by plane and flew him to Chicago to sign up for the training. Wood says once in Chicago, the man drove him to his house and kept him there for an entire weekend, raping him over and over. Wood said he froze. The man held all the power. Afterward, the commander signed his orders for the orthotics school.

After Wood graduated first in his class in orthotics and chose to be stationed in Hawaii, Wood said the lieutenant colonel called and asked him to dinner. Wood didn't show up and the next morning, he said, his orders were changed to Fort Benning, Ga.

Like Bell, Wood snuffed out the memory, told no one. He was discharged from the Army, built an orthotics business in Connecticut, married, became a drunk and ultimately lost everything.

"I always felt like one of those suburban houses with a white picket fence and a manicured lawn," Wood told Bell. "On the outside, everything looked smooth."

Bell nodded.

What might have happened if they'd addressed their trauma sooner, Wood wondered. Bell thought about it. He might have become a college graduate with an advanced degree. But what if he hadn't met his wife?

"I might not have had my kids," Bell said.

"I might not have lost my marriage," Wood said.

• • •

Listening to these decades-old stories of pain and dysfunction, I began to wonder why more victims, especially those who had been assaulted more recently, weren't seeking treatment.

All eight of the patients who talked to me, with the exception of Schluterman, had been raped between 20 and 40 years ago.

O'Brien, the PTSD chief, explained that it's hard to get people to come in, particularly men. It takes, on average, five years to seek help if they do get help at all. Most refuse to talk about their trauma with anyone.

Also, many service members fear any sort of mental health evaluation, even for sexual assault, because many of those who have come forward have lost their security clearances, said Taryn Meeks, a former attorney with the Navy Judge Advocate General's Corps.

"We have some victims who have been labeled with 'a personality disorder,' " said Meeks, now executive director of Protect Our Defenders, a group dedicated to eliminating military sexual assault. "That's one of the reasons they are not seeking help now."

If they do implicate someone, the accused service member's commander decides if the case is prosecuted, Meeks said.

"In the military world, you have a system designed to almost destroy a victim who brings a complaint forward," said Paula Coughlin, the first female whistle-blower in the 1991 Tailhook scandal. She now operates a yoga studio in Jacksonville.

Coughlin, a former U.S. Navy lieutenant and helicopter pilot, described herself as "acute" and at times suicidal after the attack. The men formed a gauntlet through which dozens of women passed. The men tried to remove Coughlin's skirt and underwear and she was groped.

After speaking out, she came under attack by co-workers, superiors, even retired veterans she encountered in the grocery store. She heard every day that she had destroyed the Navy.

She said she went to a military counselor but learned the notes from her treatment were being passed to her commanders.

"Why would you seek mental health counseling," she asked, "from the same organization that destroyed you?"

• • •

As he readied to depart Bay Pines, Bell said the treatment he got there had helped him heal. He'd never been able to remember what happened after the Thai workers grabbed him. His therapist suggested the gap in his memory might be his way of dealing with it.

Once he got home, Bell planned to return to bowling, start going to church again, perhaps jog, appreciate his wife more. He wished he'd come in sooner to reclaim himself.

He urged other sexually assaulted vets to get help sooner. Most service members who seek help from the Department of Defense or the Department of Veterans Affairs will receive outpatient treatment like the kind Bell received in Atlanta.

Nationwide, the VA has reserved 51 beds at six locations for military sexual trauma victims. The majority of those spots go to women.

In most programs, the sexual trauma patients are mixed in with veterans suffering combat distress, who sometimes look down on them. At Bay Pines, they are segregated into different wings but have a PTSD education class together.

"We both suffer PTSD, but when they put us together, our focus is on military sexual trauma," Bell said, "and the combat folks, some of them can be disrespectful and say things that set you back."

• • •

A few days before Bell was to leave, his father, stepmother, stepsister and daughter showed up in the Bay Pines parking lot to visit him. Bell was excited but nervous. None of them knew why he was here. He thought he'd tell them on the beach but first they stopped at John's Pass for pizza.

Once settled around the table, his stepsister asked him how he'd found Bay Pines and suddenly the whole story spilled out there on the sidewalk while dozens of families with kids in strollers streamed by.

"The reason I'm here is," Bell said, looking at his father, "I don't know if I mentioned it to you or not, Daddy, but it's military sexual trauma."

His family, unused to him talking so much, listened attentively.

"You know, I know now I didn't do anything wrong, but how do you tell somebody some men raped you?" Bell said.

As he spoke, the wind picked up and the sky turned gray. An American flag whipped in the stormy breeze. It started raining.

"I knew something wasn't right," said his stepmother. "I just didn't know what it was." His father furrowed his brow, but said nothing.

"It makes sense," said Retinna, Bell's 34-year-old daughter. She got up and walked away for a moment, her eyes wet.

"It's been rough trying to keep a secret, you know?" Bell said.

The rain stopped. The pizza was gone. They got up to leave. Bell and his daughter walked arm in arm back to the car.

Times researcher Natalie Watson and photojournalist Melissa Lyttle contributed to this report. Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at