In 2011, the Veterans Benefits Administration lowered the threshold of evidence for veterans to “prove” they were sexually assaulted, which helps them qualify for PTSD-related disability benefits. A 2018 report by the V.A. Inspector General found that the agency nevertheless denied 46 percent of all medical claims related to military sexual-trauma-induced PTSD and that nearly half of those denied claims were improperly processed.
For women at the Omega retreat, the military had won their trust and allegiance and then betrayed them over and over again, fueling feelings of doubt and shame and making them second-guess their self-worth. “When the organization lets you down in that profound way — I feel like that’s one of the reasons the trauma is so powerful, because it gets at the core of identity,” Thomas said.
When veterans do access V.A. treatment, they often improve, although some sexual-assault survivors find the recommended regimens difficult. One popular approach used by the V.A. to treat PTSD is prolonged-exposure therapy, which requires that veterans repeatedly revisit the trauma memory and recount it aloud in detail, which can be challenging for sexual-assault survivors. Another common treatment is cognitive-processing therapy, or C.P.T., which teaches veterans to identify and change inaccurate and distressing thoughts about each of their traumas. But Shuble, for one, found C.P.T. excruciating, because the therapy focused on one trauma at a time and she had experienced countless between her sexual traumas and her combat experiences. “It was awful,” she said. “It was not effective for me.”
The women at the Omega Institute were receiving a form of therapy developed by the psychologist Lori S. Katz, an energetic woman who has worked for the V.A. since 1991 and has run this retreat every year since 2015 (except during the pandemic) at the institute, which offers scholarships for room, board and tuition but not for travel costs. Her program, called Warrior Renew, is based in part on the idea that people process information both rationally and emotionally, and that permanent healing requires tapping into that emotional side through metaphors and imagery. Through this holistic approach, veterans learn to manage their trauma symptoms, resolve feelings of anger, self-blame and injustice, identify problematic patterns in their lives (such as harmful relationships) and cope with feelings of loss.
All trauma survivors, Katz explained to the women at the retreat, come back to the questions: Why did this happen to me? What did I do? “You look back at the event with hindsight, and you say: ‘I should never have gone in this car. I should never have agreed to do that. What’s wrong with me? I’m so stupid.’ And we blame ourselves. We inevitably come to that,” Katz said. The women in the room, some of whom were crying, all nodded along. Military commanders sometimes blame victims for their assaults, too, compounding the problem. “There’s a focus on ‘Well, what was she doing? What was she wearing?’ And that has nothing to do with what happened,” Katz said.
Perhaps most important, the Warrior Renew program occurs in a group setting, where the women can bond and build relationships that will help prevent them from feeling isolated enough to act on suicidal thoughts. “One of the things that can thwart that risk is connection,” Katz said to the women at the retreat. “You guys have a connection, and you have a new family and people who do understand it. That’s a really important part of the healing.” As one of the women at the retreat, who called herself Awesome, said to the group at one point, “We’re queens, and we’re here to fix each other’s crowns.”
Shuble had never shared her assaults with a group before, and when she finished, she could hardly speak. The room was buzzing with grief, with pride, with anger. All of the women in the room believed her — it was as if they were giving Shuble, for the first time, a steady foundation on which to rest her heavy and unsteady pain. With tears streaming down her face, Shuble turned to Katz and thanked her. “It’s been the first real healing that I’ve gotten,” she said.
‘A Poison in the System’: The Epidemic of Military Sexual Assault is written by Melinda Wenner Moyer for www.nytimes.com